RACHEL — This is a story about a successful football coach named Nick Saban.
No, the other one.
You’re thinking of Nick Saban Jr., the surgically precise head coach of Alabama, whose teams are always rolling toward college football’s national championship.
Which his big sister, Dianna “Dene” Saban Thompson, actually joked about Nov. 29.
“Yeah,” she said, “he could have been a little more precise last week against Auburn.”
She was referring to his current team’s performance in this year’s edition of the Iron Bowl — the vaunted, in-state rivalry game of the two schools that saw the Tide roll up short, 26-14, in the road contest.
Thompson — she’s the one who started calling him, “Brother,” a moniker that stuck here in the mountains — just might be the only one who could get away with such a sibling jibe and gridiron sacrilege.
But, hey, she said with a laugh: That’s what families are about.
And that’s what this story is really about. Well, that, and the other coach Saban you weren’t thinking about.
That would be Nick Saban Sr., the surgically precise head coach of the former Idamay Black Diamonds, a Pop Warner football dynasty on the north end of Marion County that regularly won championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The run ended with the sudden death of the elder Saban in 1973. He was felled by a heart attack, at age 46.
Right up to that point, he had done all the heavy lifting for the team that often took the field against opponents who were bigger and stronger.
He bought shoulder pads and cleats with his own money.
And he transported his players in an old school bus (also out of his wallet) that he painted in the team colors of orange and black and adorned with a lexicon of inspirational sayings.
The idea was to give every kid from Monongah to Carolina, and Farmington to No. 9, a chance to play football if he wanted to.
A couple of weeks ago, Saban Jr. did some heavy lifting for his dad’s football legacy in the region.
He and his wife, Terry (“Miss Terry,” as she’s known to legions across the SEC), donated the final balance of the bill for a major weight room renovation at a high school in the heart of Saban Sr. football country.
North Marion High, in the community of Rachel, just past Farmington and right before Mannington, opened in 1979, after most of the county’s Single A campuses closed to consolidation.
Alumni raised $20,000 several months ago for the renovation, and Brother and Miss Terry took care of the rest with an $11,000 check.
“How do you thank them for something like that?” North Marion head football coach Daran Hays asked.
Easy: You christen, or re-christen, the place in honor of Nick Saban Sr., which is just what the school did on the sunny November afternoon.
Along with Thompson and Hays, North Marion teachers and its student-athletes came out for the ceremony, which featured brief remarks on video by Saban Jr., who said his dad was a good coach because he was a teacher at heart.
He was definitely a teacher of football, said Vic Seccuro, the current baseball coach of North Marion who played for Saban Sr. when he was a kid.
The first coach Saban taught the fundamentals of football, Seccuro said. Blocking and tackling. A varied offensive attack, too, from the razzle-dazzle Statue of Liberty to the in-your-facemask draw play.
It worked. On the north end of Marion, you had Saban Sr.’s Black Diamonds. Ronnie Humphrey’s IUE Local 627 Rockets owned the east end.
Both teams often went at it with the intensity of a pint-sized Iron Bowl. Both played in and won Pop Warner’s equivalent of the national championship.
Seccuro remembers playing in one bowl in Western Pennsylvania, in particular. The quarterback for the other guys was a pipe-cleaner of a kid who was flinging the ball all over the field for completion after completion.
His name was Joe Montana. “And we beat ’em,” Seccuro said, with pride.
What Securo really remembers are the character lessons of the coach and teacher who never stopped being both.
In his freshman year of high school, while playing in a basketball game, he got tossed for fighting.
The other kid started it, but Seccuro retaliated — and drew striped-shirt wrath.
Unbeknownst to him, Saban Sr. was in the stands. And he was waiting for him after the game.
“He said, ‘Vic, what were you thinking? You know we don’t do that kind of stuff.’ He was my coach even when he wasn’t.”
Dene Saban Thompson has another memory.
When her father-in-law died, her husband was wracked by grief and had to get away from the funeral home for a while.
She was having trouble with it, too.
And when she stood up, ready to bolt from her tears, she saw her dad walking up the aisle. He sat with his daughter for the rest of the evening. That was less than a month before the heart attack, she said.
“Little stuff like that, I remember,” she said. “He knew I needed him. He was just always there for me. He was there for everybody.”