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First-year Alabama football coach Nick Saban grew up in West Virginia and was a freshman at Kent State when four students were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970. Alabama athletics director Mal Moore looks on.
Daily file photo by Jonathan Palmer
First-year Alabama football coach Nick Saban grew up in West Virginia and was a freshman at Kent State when four students were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen in 1970. Alabama athletics director Mal Moore looks on.

The shaping of Saban
Mining disaster, school shooting, father's death touched Alabama football coach

By Josh Cooper
jcooper@decaturdaily.com 340-2460

The early part of first-year Alabama coach Nick Saban's life sounds like a Bruce Springsteen song.

A windy road in the middle of nowhere. A simple, common-folk lifestyle. Tales of hurt and pain followed by redemption and escape.

Saban, born in 1951, grew up behind a service station at the intersection of Route 19 and Helling's Run in Fairmont, W.Va.

Run by his family, the station bore his name, "Saban's Service Station," and it was at the crossroads of about four or five coal mining camps around Fairmont. If you wanted to get out of the coal mining camp, you had to go through the intersection.

It was a small town, and everybody knew everybody. If Saban stole somebody's apples, his grandmother would find out before he got home.

"There were great values in the people. People had great compassion for others and cared about others," Saban said recently during an in-depth interview about three events that helped shape his life — a 1968 mining accident in his hometown, the 1970 killing of four Kent State students and the 1973 death of his father.

Fairmont

Fairmont was a coal-mining town. It was a hard state of being. Down in the depths of the mines, the life expectancy was low.

Saban remembers the song "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. It was what Dewey Tarley played on the jukebox when he walked into Meff's, a Fairmont hangout.

Tarley was a coal miner, and he was in the Farmington mine the day it exploded Nov. 20, 1968. The blast was felt 12 miles away in Fairmont. Seventy-eight people died, including Tarley.

Only 59 of the bodies were ever recovered. The explosion helped create the 1969 Coal Act, which provided for better safety measures in the nation's mines.

And at Meff's, "Folsom Prison Blues" was no longer played on the jukebox.

"All of sudden the guy isn't around anymore," Saban said. "It was ... I don't know how. Maybe (growing up in Fairmont) it hardens you a little bit because it is so difficult on some people."

Saban eventually moved on, going to Kent State to play football. He was a defensive back. And while he wasn't the biggest player on the team, he was one of the most football-savvy.

His coach at Kent State, Don James, mentioned how Saban didn't care only about what the cornerbacks did. Instead, he wanted to know the schemes of the entire defense.

Kent State

According to James, Saban was tough and hard-nosed. And he wasn't prepared for the events of May 4, 1970.

At major universities across the country, students were protesting the nation's military involvement in Vietnam.

And when President Nixon announced a U.S. invasion of Cambodia on April 30, the protests reached a boiling point — especially at Kent State.

The Ohio National Guard was summoned to the school.

On May 4, Saban, a freshman, had class at 11 a.m. He got out at 11:50 a.m. and then faced a choice — should he go to the scheduled rally at the Commons or go to lunch?

A self-described "sheltered guy who grew up in West Virginia," Saban said he did not have the knowledge of "what should or shouldn't be relative to the war in Vietnam."

He was a growing football player, so he went to lunch.

While he was eating, 67 shots rang out in 13 seconds from the Guardsmen. Four students were killed, another nine injured, one paralyzed.

One of the dead, Allison Krause, was a classmate of Saban. He didn't know her well, but he knew of her.

He saw blood. He saw ambulances. He had never seen anyone shot before. He had never seen blood relative to what he saw that day.

"You see it on TV all the time," Saban said. "But when you see it for real, it has another impact."

Nick Saban Sr.

In the fall of 1973, Saban was still at Kent State. He attended graduate school, working toward his master's degree in sports administration. He also served as a graduate assistant to James with the football team.

Saban didn't want to be a coach growing up, but it was something that James talked him into doing. Also, Saban's wife, Terry, had another year of school left.

But Saban gradually discovered that he loved coaching.

After the team's first game of the 1973 season, Saban called his father. He told his dad that he finally found what he wanted to do the rest of his life.

It was the last conversation the two had. Nick Saban Sr. died of a heart attack a week later while he was on a jog.

Nick Jr. once again was faced with a choice.

Bobby Bowden was the coach at West Virginia and offered Saban a position on his staff. Morgantown is about 20 miles northeast of Fairmont.

He conferred with his mother, Mary, who told him to stay at Kent State. Saban said no to Bowden and the rest is history.

"If I went back there, I'd still be pumping gas," he says.

Looking back

When Saban turns on the radio and hears the song "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, written about the events at Kent State, he says he listens. It's not a good memory, but he cannot push it out of his mind.

Like the rest of his experiences as a young man, it helped shaped him to become the kind of person he is today.

Did the life in West Virginia give him his rough exterior? Maybe. Did his experiences at Kent State affect him in such a way that he craves the college atmosphere? Possibly.

If his father had not passed away when he did, would Saban be as driven a person as he is right now?

"I'd have no issue at all to go back and be what I once was because I don't see it as a bad thing," Saban said. "I don't think it is beneath me or anything else. It was an experience that helps develop and mold you into what you are. There is nothing bad about it."

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