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.
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.''
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.