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Nick Saban: Gazette Sportsman of the Year

AP Photo
Nick Saban celebrates with Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron after last year's win in the BCS championship game.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's no accident that championships seem to follow Nick Saban.

Whether it be as a "not quite big enough'' quarterback for Monongah in Marion County (1968), a safety at Kent State (1972) or at several stops now as a college coach -- including the highest levels -- Saban has created a legacy of winning.

So it's no surprise that in 13 days, Saban takes his Alabama team against Notre Dame for the BCS national championship, which could be his fourth since 2003.

For such efforts, Saban has been selected as the Gazette's West Virginia Sportsman of the Year, which rewards excellence in sports to a state high school graduate who exhibits sportsmanship and represents his school or state in a positive manner. The award is now in its 13th year (see list).

Saban is the first outright two-time winner of the award, as he was also selected in 2001 after leading LSU to an upset victory over Tennessee in the SEC title game.

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Few coaches, in fact, have carved out a more impressive resume than Saban, whose 17-year college record stands at 153-55-1 (73.4 percent), including a 60-7 mark in his last five years with the Crimson Tide.

His first college championship was a share of the Mid-American Conference title at Toledo in 1995 (to go along with his MAC title as a player 23 years earlier), followed by an SEC crown with LSU in 2001, then the three BCS national titles at LSU (2003) and Alabama (2009, 2011).

Saban also spent five seasons at Michigan State (1995-99), and although he was never part of a Big Ten championship, he led a team that had been on NCAA probation back into the Top 10.

Along the way, he's also dabbled with a few teams in the NFL, and his success is always sparking rumors of his return to the pro ranks.

Not bad for a guy who admits coaching wasn't even on his radar as he entered his teenage years in Marion County in the 1960s.

"I never really thought much about being a coach,'' Saban said to the Gazette in an email last week. "I actually grew up working at my dad's service station and liked cars. I was always mesmerized by the new GTO, Oldsmobile 442 or whatever it was.

"I kind of thought when I graduated from college, I'd go to General Motors school for being a car dealer kind of guy and maybe one day I'd own my own car dealership. That was kind of what my goals were. Don James was my college coach [at Kent State] and asked me to be a [graduate assistant] after I graduated, and that's what really got me started in coaching. And I've been doing it ever since.''

Saban might not have left West Virginia for his college education, except that his home state Mountaineers were going through a resurgence at that time under coach Jim Carlen, who went 10-1 in 1969, including a Peach Bowl win over South Carolina.

So even though Saban quarterbacked Class A powerhouse Monongah to a state title in 1968, he wound up heading to Kent State for college and was switched to defensive back.

"I grew up as a kid wanting to play at West Virginia,'' Saban said. "My dad would take me to games and I still remember going to old Mountaineer Field. That was kind of my lifelong dream to play there, but I probably wasn't quite big enough, wasn't quite fast enough, wasn't quite good enough.

"I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to play Division I football at Kent State and had some other options as well.''

Saban cites James, who would later coach Washington to a national title in 1991, as an early influence in his coaching, but he also credits his upbringing in Marion County for a lot of the values that serve as his foundation.

"As a person, my parents influenced me the most with the principles, values and moral integrity that they sort of rolled into our family. My high school coaches taught me many lessons that I probably still fall back on today.

"I have had a lot of great people influence me through coaching, whether it be Don James - who was my first coach and got me started in the profession and had a tremendous impact - George Perles, Bill Belichick. In my younger years, those were the people who influenced me the most. Through the years, I've had some really great mentors that have taught me a lot. Actually, everything I know or do, I've learned from someone else in this profession. I have had so many personal and professional people that have affected me that it would be hard to bring the list down to one or two.''

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Saban's heralded coaching career includes one stop in his native state - 1978-79 at WVU on the staff of Frank Cignetti -- though it almost came a few years earlier following a benevolent move by Bobby Bowden.

When his father died in 1973 at age 46 of a heart attack, Saban was serving as a first-year GA at Kent State. Saban offered to return home to run the family businesses, which included that service station and a Dairy Queen, but his mother wouldn't have it, so he remained at Kent State.

Shortly thereafter, Saban realized things weren't going well for his mother.

"After my father passed away, my mother was having a lot of problems,'' Saban recalled when he was awarded the inaugural Bobby Bowden national collegiate coach of the year award in 2010. "Coach Bowden called and said if I needed to come home, he'd create a graduate assistant position for me. I never, ever forgot that, and I don't think anybody in my family ever forgot it.''

Bowden, WVU's head coach from 1970-75, knew Saban's father.

"Bobby Bowden was doing my family a huge favor when my dad died,'' Saban said. "He offered me the opportunity to be a GA there so I could be closer to home and my mother, which I really appreciated.''

Saban did not take Bowden up on his offer, however. But after Cignetti took over at WVU and came calling in 1978, looking for a secondary coach, Saban accepted and arrived in Morgantown.

For him and his wife, the former Terry Constable from Fairmont, it was a happy homecoming.

"The two years I spent as a secondary coach with Frank Cignetti were probably as good a years as I've spent in coaching,'' Saban said, "because it was the only time I was really around my home.

"To be around my family, my wife's family, our family, to be there for the holidays, that is something you really miss when you are all over the country. Those two years at West Virginia, having so many good relationships in the state and being a part of what you grew up loving, was kind of a neat experience.''

Cignetti, however, was fired following the 1979 season and Saban elected to take a position coaching defensive backs at Ohio State instead of joining Don Nehlen's first staff at WVU.

That continued a coaching odyssey that included stops at Navy, Michigan State, the Houston Oilers, Toledo, the Cleveland Browns, Michigan State again, LSU, the Miami Dolphins and then Alabama, never staying more than five years in any one place - except for Tuscaloosa, where he's now in his sixth season.

Since his mother moved out of state in the late 1990s, Saban said he and his wife don't get back to West Virginia too often.

"We go back on occasion,'' he said. "Terry still has quite a bit of family there. I have some family there - my sister, some aunts. Terry has some sisters there. We went back a lot more when our parents were there. My mom lives in Myrtle Beach now.

"We always look forward to going back -- there's no place like home. We absolutely love where we grew up. I've said many times I actually wish that I could have done all of the things that I did in this profession [and] it would have been great to just be able to live right where I grew up and have all of those experiences and do all those things.''

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There is a touch of curiosity in the fact that Notre Dame is standing in the way of Saban's fourth national title.

Saban, and much of his family, grew up Catholics and the Fighting Irish football team tends to have a universal appeal in Catholic communities around the country.

"Being a Catholic kid growing up, I always watched Notre Dame,'' Saban said, "and everybody in my family was interested in what Notre Dame did. I don't think it's my faith necessarily, but I think having faith is something that helps us all sort of keep our moral compass in the right direction. I think it reinforces a lot of things about being good, serving other people, trying to do the right things.

"So regardless of what your faith is, I think that would be of significance to who you are, and I think that is of significance to who I am and who I try to be, and why we do some of the things that we do in terms of influencing our players to do the right things -- to serve other people, to be compassionate and to be all they can be. I think those are things that we try to emphasize with our players we try to set an example for in terms of how we go about what we do.''

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What lies beyond this season for Saban is anyone's guess right now.

There has been some speculation that he could be headed back to the NFL, even though his departure from the Dolphins in 2007 after just two seasons as head coach was a bit messy.

Know, however, that Saban did produce a modicum of success in his earlier stops around pro football.

In 2005, he improved the Dolphins from 4-12 the year before to 9-7, the second-highest victory turnaround for the Dolphins franchise in a non-strike season and the third-biggest turnaround for any NFL team that year.

As the defensive coordinator with the Browns (1990-94), he inherited a team that had allowed the most points in the NFL the year before he came (462) and by 1994 turned it into the league's No. 1 scoring defense (204 points), the sixth-fewest points surrendered in NFL history at the time.

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Saban and his wife are revered in the Tuscaloosa area for more than just his work on the sidelines at football games.

When Saban was coaching at Michigan State, he and Terry started the Nick's Kids Fund for disadvantaged children, work that has continued since their move to Alabama. More than $2.5 million has been distributed to more than 150 charities through the fund since they arrived in Tuscaloosa.

The Sabans also built 14 homes with Project Team Up and Habitat for Humanity following the April 27, 2011, tornado that struck Tuscaloosa.

In addition, during their time at LSU, they worked as fundraisers for a student-athlete academic center there, and supported several charitable and civic projects in Louisiana. The largest of those efforts was with the Children's Miracle Network, for which they raised more than $100,000 per year.

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.

Past winners:

Charleston Gazette Sportsman of the Year

2012 - Nick Saban

2011 - Chris Wallace

2010 - Bob Huggins

2009 - Renee Montgomery

2008 - Alexis Hornbuckle

2007 - Randy Moss

2006 - Nick Swisher

2005 - Mike D'Antoni

2004 - Girls basketball

2003 - Rich Rodriguez

2002 - Rod Thorn

2001 - Nick Saban

2000 - Brett Nelson


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