By Mannix Porterfield
Almost from the first moment he lined up to take a snap on the grassy turf for the old Monongah High School, untested sophomore Nick Saban displayed his mettle as a leader.
Decades before he gained national prominence by capturing two national crowns in three years as Alabama’s head coach, young Saban took over for a struggling high school team and never lost a game in his maiden season.
“He was a team leader,” recalls state Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, one of two speedy tailbacks Saban fed the ball to on a running club.
“Just think about it. Most kids that were sophomores can’t find their way around the locker room. This kid was coming in and taking over a team. Somebody had to be in charge on the field. And for a sophomore to take over in the second game of the season for a team that had a lot of potential, to come into that huddle and demand the respect, it was just amazing. He was a real field general.”
Monongah got off to a rocky start in that 1966 season, crushed 27-7 at the hands of East Fairmont, a Class AAA outfit.
In the wake of that disaster, coach Earl Keener knew he had to make a quick change. Otherwise, a long, disappointing season lay ahead.
Saban’s father, Nick Saban Sr., had instilled in him the leadership qualities through the Pop Warner Football system he developed in Marion County.
“Nick was pretty well schooled, even though he was a sophomore,” Prezioso said.
“Nick had good football sense. He understood the plays and play calling. That’s how he got to be the quarterback.”
From that first game forward, the Saban-led Monongah team was in high cotton. Roll, Lions, roll! All the way to an 8-1-1 record. Back then, only two squads made it to the championship tilt, and Monongah finished in third, even though it captured the Mason-Dixon championship.
Football took center stage in that era, especially in the hard-scrabble coal towns of West Virginia. Prezioso says it was a matter of life imitating art in “Friday Night Lights.” Whenever his team hit the field in the old East-West Stadium, not a light was on in any home.
“The stands were just packed in this little community of 1,200,” the senator said.
What else was there to do, in a less complicated era devoid of shopping centers, cell phones, iPods, cable television and other expensive electronic devices to occupy one’s time?
“We didn’t have any money,” he said.
“We’d scrounge around and look for pop bottles. You got 2 cents apiece for each bottle. After you got five bottles, you had enough to buy a Coke.”
At times, the youngsters hung around baseball fields, hoping someone would crack a bat slightly so it could be salvaged, doctored with a few nails and some heavy-duty tape, usable for makeup games that helped pass the time.
“Nick didn’t have a real strong arm,” Prezioso said of his signal-caller.
“As a sophomore, he wasn’t fully developed. A couple of years in high school make a lot of difference. We threw a lot of halfback option passes. I’d throw them. I think I was 7 for 7 that year. I could zip it.”
Prezioso also was called on as the kicker after touchdowns, but his only attempt at a field goal came up woefully short.
“Because of our speed, we’d have to throw the option just to get our backs out,” he said.
“One of the things we liked to do was run the quick hitters up the middle, the quickies. We had a very simple system. We had a pretty good numbering system. Then, we’d come back with a crossfire, or the option.”
Saban’s prowess on the field didn’t excite his ego in the classroom, Prezioso said.
“He was just a real good kid, a friendly kid, who got along with everybody,” he said.
“On the field he was a nice guy and in school he was a nice guy. He was easy to get along with. We had a very tight group. Most of the players we had were just down home kids. It was a rural school and there were several communities around Monongah — Carolina, Worthington. We had 60 boys to come out for football in any one year. Now, North Marion, a Triple-A school, only had 13 out two years ago.”
There was no weight room to maximize muscles, leaving the Monongah team to running laps and going through basic calisthenics.
“Each of us had a mission,” Prezioso said.
“We knew what we needed to do. We did have a young line and it was a learning curve there. For 45 minutes, we’d run around that field until you were blue in the face. Then, you’d line up for calisthenics, and then you’d line up and prepare for the game.”
Simple things meant huge success, if one executed properly, he recalled.
“One time we ran this play called a crossfire,” Prezioso said.
“The quarterback turns to the left, the halfback turns to the left, and then the quarterback turns back and the halfback would come back. He’d hand the ball on the other side — a misdirection play. You think, ‘Well, that’s very simple.’ As a young kid, trying to learn then, when I first tried to do that, I turned a complete circle. That was it. They embarrassed me to the end.”
Once Prezioso and his fellow seniors moved on, Saban had his own group of contemporaries, and one of them was Kerry Marbury, who would go on to star at West Virginia University.
That Saban was so readily accepted by the older, more experienced players is nothing short of remarkable, considering the distinction made by upperclassmen, Prezioso said.
“It was a pecking order,” he said.
“We call it bullying, now. But that’s the way it was back then. Blood on the mountain. Freshmen always got busted.”
Prezioso had stayed in touch with his former teammate over the years, and became a fan of the Crimson Tide, always pulling for the titans along the Black Warrior River, unless, of course, Alabama ever engages WVU or Marshall.
The Tide and the Mountaineers recently announced they will battle in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in 2014.
That Saban enjoyed success as a coach came as no surprise to the senator, either.
“He was always focused,” Prezioso said.
“We’d start each week, at the beginning, the coach would come in and have the opposing teams up on the board, offense and defense. He’d go through each of the players and tell us what their strengths and weaknesses were. We’d create a game plan. We had two huge tackles. It was very difficult to run against Rivesville.”
Monongah ultimately was swallowed up in the consolidation process in 1978, joining Fairview, Farmington, Mannington and Barrackville in North Marion.
“There were great lessons learned in life,” Prezioso says of his high school athletics.
Even today, they are applied by the Senate finance chairman in his walk as a West Virginia legislator.
“When I get into session, I call it ‘game day,’” he said.
“I want my shoes to be shined. I want to look good. When I go down on that floor, it’s ‘game day.’ It’s the same feeling I got when I lined up on Friday night at East-West Stadium.”
— E-mail: mannix@