Alabama coach’s family has deep roots in W.Va. community
By ASHLEY B. CRAIG
daily mail staff
IDAMAY — In the town of Idamay, Nick Saban Sr. is something of a legend. When he’s spoken of, it’s with fondness and hint of sadness.
Memories of winning Pop Warner football seasons, ice cream after games and rides on an old school bus to practice are common among those who grew up in the communities in the mountains near Fairmont.
But another lingering memory is his sudden death in 1973 and the canceled football season in his honor.
Nick Saban Sr. was a secondary, or for some a primary, father figure to many of the boys who grew up under his watchful eye on the football field in Marion County.
Outside the county, and on the national stage, football fans are more than familiar with Nick Sr.’s son and namesake, the head coach at the University of Alabama.
To the rest of the country he’s Nick Saban, a man who has led two football teams — Alabama and Louisiana State University — to NCAA National Championship victories. That Saban was hailed by Forbes magazine in 2007 as the “Most Powerful Coach in Sports.”
To the people of Idamay, Carolina and Monongah, he’s still “Brother,” Coach Nick’s boy.
This weekend, Brother and the Crimson Tide are expected by a number of those in Idamay and surrounding communities to roll over the West Virginia University Mountaineers in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta. The Tide is favored by oddsmakers with a 25-point spread in some sportsbooks.
Bill Criado, 87, has known the 62-year-old Nick Saban Jr. since he was a child.
“People here love him,” Criado said of Brother while sitting in his living room with a Daily Mail reporter. “He was a good kid. He used to hang around his dad’s filling station. Never heard a cross word out of him and he stayed out of trouble.”
Criado was Nick Sr.’s closest friend. The two shared a birthday, June 11, 1927, lockered together in high school and even tried to join the Navy together when they turned 18. The Navy took Nick Sr. and turned down Criado because of an issue with his teeth. Criado was later drafted into the Army toward the end of World War II.
After the war the two picked up where they left off, going to nearby towns for dances and later raising families. Criado began working as a postman, a job he would retire from 55 years later as Postmaster, while Nick Sr. ran a Gulf filling station and a restaurant, that doubled as an ice cream shop, just up the road from Idamay at the intersection of W.Va. 218 and U.S. 19. Nick Sr. raised his family in a brick split-level behind the filling station.
Criado was Nick Sr.’s right hand man when they formed the Black Diamond Youth Football Team in 1962. Nick Sr. met a man involved with Pop Warner football in Philadelphia that year and became interested in the prospect.
Nick Sr. and Criado approached the Pop Warner league in Fairmont to find out if they could form a team and join them, but the Fairmont league already had four teams. Adding a fifth would mean adding a bye-week, he said, and the league wasn’t interested in that.
One of the teams in the Fairmont league dissolved that year and their black and orange uniforms went to the Black Diamonds in Idamay.
It’s important to note that the team wasn’t the Idamay Black Diamonds, but simply the Black Diamonds, named as such for the coal mined from the hills in Farmington, Carolina, Worthington, Idamay and Hutchinson by the fathers of the boys on the team.
Nick Sr. never intended to coach the team. He’d asked three students from Fairmont State University to coach the boys, but the coaches never showed up and each day there were more boys with birth certificates in hand ready to play, Criado said. Nick Sr. played football and understood the game, so while the organizers waited those first few days for coaches who would never come, Nick Sr. taught the boys the basics of the game
“For 12 years we spent six weeks, every day here on the field,” Criado said.
The Black Diamonds didn’t do so hot their first year, but in the years after the team went on a 39-game winning streak.
The Black Diamonds played a Pennsylvania team a few times. One of the players was a skinny little guy named Joe Montana from Monongahela, Pa., who would go on to be an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback. Criado is quick to point out the Black Diamonds took victory in those games.
The team once nearly went an entire season without letting another team score, but eventually an opponent put points on the board.
“You would have thought they’d lost the game, they were so upset,” Criado remembered the boys’ reactions. “Nick was glad someone had finally scored. It was too much pressure on the kids to keep that going.”
Coach Nick’s old school bus
Nick Sr. was good to his players. He took care of them, Criado said. He bought baseball uniforms when they were needed and paid for other things for the boys when he needed to.
The elder Saban bought a used school bus and drove around to the tiny coal communities and up the hollows to pick up players who didn’t have a way to practice or games. Afterward, he’d often take the boys for a meal or ice cream at the restaurant his wife, Mary, ran and then the children would get back on the bus to go home.
One of those boys was linebacker Tom Sherry, who now runs Sherry’s Exxon in Farmington.
“Everybody around here grew up playing for Nick Saban,” said Sherry, 54. “He would come around on an old school bus to pick us up.”
He recalled the quotes and sayings that had been scrawled on the windows inside the bus. Sherry’s favorite had been “He who hesitates is lost.”
Sherry was a few years behind Brother in school but knew him growing up. His service station, on U.S. 250 in Farmington, has pictures of race cars on the walls and other memorabilia, including a Mannington High School license plate proclaiming them Class A state football champions in 1976 and 1977. Like Nick Sr., Sherry lives in a house behind his business. He pulled an autographed photo of Brother out of an envelope to show a Daily Mail reporter.
“I’m happy for him,” Sherry said of the Alabama coach. “He worked for everything he’s got, just like his dad.”
He said Brother had to work for everything and that Nick Sr. didn’t give him any special treatment on the field. He worked him harder, Sherry said.
At one point the team needed a quarterback. Another boy on the team would have been a good choice, Criado said, but a stuttering problem prevented him from calling the cadence properly. Nick Sr. looked to Brother.
“Brother was not an exceptionally good football player,” Criado said while watching pee-wee football players practice at Nick Saban Memorial Field. A young boy, about 4 or 5 years old, missed a block and was taken to task by the coach. Criado’s great grandson was among those practicing.
“He was little -- small,” Criado remembered. “He was quarterback at Monongah High. They put him at defensive end at Kent (State University). He couldn’t throw over the line.”
Brother’s skills were elsewhere. He understood the game well and called his own plays at Monongah High School, Criado said. A 1968 graduate, he, along with Black Diamond teammates and longtime friends Kerry Marbury and Tom Hulderman, led Monongah High to a Class A state football championship their senior year.
While he’d hoped for a scholarship to WVU in Morgantown, the program denied him. He went instead to Kent State in Ohio where he would play football and baseball. He was at the university when his father died.
Criado said Nick Sr. and Mary had been driving back to the filling station one day in September 1973 when he asked her to let him out of the car because he wanted to jog the rest of the way back. He had a heart attack along the way.
Criado drove Mary Saban to Fairmont General Hospital and received word of his friend’s death while she was on the phone with her son at college. The nurse asked him if he wanted her to tell Mary, but he said he would do it.
The Black Diamonds had a game that weekend but the team wanted to cancel it, Criado remembered. Mary Saban told them to play, he said, but the next day the Fairmont Pop Warner league canceled the rest of the season.
The man-made field where Nick Sr. ran practices and held games was later renamed Nick Saban Memorial Field.
“It was an honorary thing for him,” Criado said. “He had a good heart. He was good to the kids.”
Coach Nick’s legacy
Nick Saban Jr. started coaching at Kent State. His wife, Terry, was finishing up her degree and Head Coach Don James asked him to be a graduate assistant to help him on the field. He agreed.
“I think everywhere he went he learned something,” Criado said. “He put it all together. I heard them say on television that he’s the best coach in the country. That might be true.”
He would go on to be assistant coach at Kent State, Syracuse University, West Virginia University, the U.S. Naval Academy, Ohio State University and Michigan State University. He was a defensive backs coach for the NFL’s Houston Oilers before he took his first head coaching job at the University of Toledo.
He was only at Toledo for a year before he went back to the NFL to be the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator. Brother Saban went back to Michigan State as head coach in 1995 but left the university in 1999 and headed for Baton Rouge to lead Louisiana State University’s football team.
The Tigers won a National Championship under Saban in 2003 but he left the university and was named the head coach of the NFL Miami Dolphins in 2005. He spent two years in Miami before taking the job with Alabama, where his Crimson Tide football team won National Championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
“He’s a lot like his father,” Criado said of Nick’s coaching style.
Criado found a notebook with Nick Sr.’s old plays and gave it to a friend of Brother’s to give to him. He laughed.
“I guarantee he would use those old plays,” Criado said. “I don’t think he’d hesitate a minute.”
Like many in those parts, Criado cheers for Brother’s Crimson Tide football team and any other team he was involved with.
Sherry said he’d be watching the game and that even though he was a walk-on linebacker at West Virginia, he’s expecting Alabama to win.
“I don’t look for it to be too much of a game” Sherry said. “You get better by playing better teams.”
Criado keeps up with West Virginia University football but doesn’t expect Saturday’s game to be a close one.
“I believe they play good against good teams and mediocre against mediocre teams,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to play to run them off of the ball field.”
That said, Criado doesn’t expect Brother to take it easy on the team that turned him down all those years ago.
“Even thought he’s from here, he’s going to look at it from a professional standpoint,” Criado said. “West Virginia isn’t going to come into it. It’s just a team he needs to beat.”
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.