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Saban recalls days as Mountaineers fan

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Alabama coach Nick Saban grew up in West Virginia as a Mountaineer fan and played sports in Marion County.

‘Bama coach rooted for West, WVU

By Dave Hickman

Staff writer

MORGANTOWN — Nick Saban has mostly fond memories of growing up in West Virginia and talked about them in general during his weekly press conference Monday.

Then again, call it a subconscious glitch perhaps, but when the Alabama coach got down to specifics, it wasn’t a great moment in Mountaineer sports he recalled. It was a heartbreaking one.

“I remember listening to my little brown transistor radio when Darrall Imhoff hit a jump shot to end the game in [1959] to win 71-70 in the national championship game,’’ Saban said, referring to WVU’s loss to Imhoff and California that year in the NCAA basketball tournament finals. “You don’t forget stuff like that.’’

Saban, of course, will attempt to provide West Virginia with another bad moment this week. Now the ultra-successful coach at Alabama, his No. 2 Crimson Tide and West Virginia open the season Saturday at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Alabama is a nearly four-touchdown favorite.

Saban was born in Fairmont and grew up in Monongah. He played high school football and other sports at Monongah High roughly a decade before it and a handful of other small schools in Marion County were swallowed up in expansion and became North Marion. He didn’t go to college at West Virginia — he went to Kent State — but did serve a couple of seasons as a secondary coach at WVU under Frank Cignetti.

Those two years under Cignetti were Saban’s last in West Virginia before beginning a coaching odyssey that now numbers 13 college and NFL stops and four national championships, three of them in the past five years at Alabama.

But he’s never forgotten being a West Virginia fan.

“Oh yeah. That was the biggest thing going when I was a kid,’’ Saban said. “Going to Mountaineer Field to watch West Virginia play, that was like the highlight of my year.

“I still have great memories of home. I still have great memories of the people and the relationships that I have at home. I’ve always kind of been a Mountaineer fan.’’

Born in 1951, Saban was just old enough in the late 1950s to appreciate what was happening at West Virginia, particularly through the Hot Rod Hundley-Jerry West-Rod Thorn era in basketball.

“I remember as a kid sitting in old Mountaineer Fieldhouse,’’ Saban said. “I used to sit in the upper deck with my feet hanging over the deck, looking between the rails watching Jerry West play. I probably was only 7, 8, 9 years old or something, but I remember that.’’

As fond as those memories are, however, they were a long time ago. Saban last lived in West Virginia 35 years ago. During that long coaching career that averaged a new job roughly every three years, he’s now in his eighth season at Alabama, by far his longest stay anywhere.

“Now I’m Alabama’s coach. I’m an Alabama fan,’’ Saban said. “We don’t have to be concerned about any of that [West Virginia nostalgia]. We want to do what’s best for our team and the relationships we have here. But we also respect their traditions and the relationships we’ve developed through the years in West Virginia.’’

BRIEFLY: Saban still has a week of practice remaining before the opener against West Virginia and he’s apparently going to use all or at least part of it before he picks a starting quarterback.

Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and veteran backup Blake Sims both have played well, Saban said, and there’s no real reason that he wouldn’t play both. He just hasn’t decided.

“Whatever pitcher starts the game isn’t necessarily going to pitch nine innings,’’ Saban said.

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