Nick Saban was 7 years old on March 7, 1959, but he still remembers that day vividly.
The Monongah native was tuned in on his brown transistor radio, listening intently as California’s Darrall Imhoff knocked down a jump shot with 17 ticks remaining on the clock at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., leading his Golden Bears to a 71-70 victory over Jerry West and West Virginia in the NCAA basketball championship.
“You don’t forget that stuff,” said Saban, now a four-time national championship-winning football coach at the University of Alabama, where he’s preparing to face WVU in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
That’s just one of many images of the Mountain State’s flagship institution, located just 25 miles from Saban’s hometown, that still fill the head of one of the game’s highest paid coaches.
He remembers watching that same Mountaineer basketball team live at the WVU Field House — now Stansbury Hall on Beechurst Avenue in Morgantown — sitting in the front row of the upper deck with his feet hanging over the rails and his eyes situated between the vertical slats, giving him a clear view of his heroes on the hardwood.
He also spent plenty of time watching the action on the gridiron with his father, Nick Sr., a legendary coach in northern West Virginia.
“That was the biggest thing going when I was a kid,” said Saban, who was an assistant coach for the Mountaineers in 1978 and 1979, before leaving for Ohio State when Don Nehlen arrived in Morgantown in 1980. “To go to Mountaineer Field and watch West Virginia play was like the highlight of my year. I still have great memories of home, great memories of the people and relationships I have at home and I’ve always kind of been a Mountaineer fan.
“But now I’m Alabama’s coach. I’m an Alabama fan. We have to focus on that.”
That, of course, will be the only thing on the mind of one of the most focused coaches in the game Saturday as WVU and Alabama meet for the first time in the schools’ football history.
Saban’s Alabama team, ranked No. 2 in the nation, has been installed has a heavy favorite, but the coach said the Mountaineers may be much better than their 4-8 record in 2013 would indicate.
“West Virginia has, I think, a really good team coming back,” said Saban, who is 74-15 in seven seasons leading the Crimson Tide. “(WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen) has done a really good job there, especially when it comes to how they’ve been able to play offense — up-tempo, fast, sort of Texas A&M style. They return seven or eight starters on both sides of the ball, and their special teams are special.
“When Clint Trickett played quarterback last year, he did a really good job for them,” Saban said of the Florida State transfer who has been named WVU’s starter for Saturday’s game. “They were able to run the team effectively against most teams they played against. So there are a lot of challenges.”
Saban said tackling in space, controlling the line of scrimmage and eliminating turnovers are keys to playing against a team like the Mountaineers.
As far as his own team, the big debate in Alabama this offseason has been concerning who will start at quarterback to replace AJ McCarron. Blake Sims is a fifth-year senior who knows the system well, but Florida State transfer Jacob Coker has a strong arm and plenty of talent.
Saban said he still hasn’t settled on a starter, although he admitted Sims is much more comfortable with the offense because of his experience in the system.
He said a decision will be made later this week about who will start, but that doesn’t mean the competition will be complete.
“Just because a pitcher starts a game, it doesn’t mean that he’s going to go nine innings,” said Saban.
Saturday’s game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. It will be televised on ABC.
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