Nick Saban's positive COVID-19 test shows college football's shaky reality

Dan Wetzel
·4 min read

Alabama coach Nick Saban announced that he tested positive for COVID-19. The 68-year-old coach is tested daily as part of Alabama’s protocol, so this was a routine test. He said he currently has no symptoms.

“I feel fine. I felt fine. I was surprised by this,” Saban said late Wednesday. “…So I am not really that concerned about my health, but you never know.”

You don’t ever know. Saban is likely going to be OK, but COVID-19 is a cruel and unpredictable virus and word that it got to college football’s most iconic coach, the winner of six national titles (five of them at Alabama), was a moment for pause in a sport that continues to be rattled by the pandemic.

Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne, 49, also tested positive and, like Saban, is asymptomatic as well. Both are working from home, including Saban watching Wednesday’s practice on video. He said he was able to call a student manager when he saw something correctable or wanted a play run again. There was, no doubt, plenty of that.

“I didn’t leave the country,” Saban said. “I'm right down the street and we have this technology.”

That’s the good news.

Still, as America — and sports — has returned to work and normal life, the possibility of older employees/coaches contracting the virus has always been a worry. The young and healthy are young and healthy. There are plenty of people around football teams that are neither.

Now here is college football’s most accomplished and famous coach getting it.

A masked Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks with defensive back Josh Jobe (28) during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Alabama won 63-48. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
A masked Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks with defensive back Josh Jobe (28) during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Alabama won 63-48. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Saban’s health should be what everyone focuses on. He said his biggest concern is hoping he didn’t spread it to anyone in his family.

In pure football terms, the timing is terrible. Second-ranked Alabama hosts No. 3 Georgia on Saturday in a game of critical importance in both the SEC and, by extension, the College Football Playoff chase.

Now the Crimson Tide will have to win what is likely their toughest regular season game without Saban on the sideline. (Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach at USC, is in charge on an interim basis.) Saban could also miss a game the following week at No. 18 Tennessee. No one knows right now.

This is life inside a pandemic. Nothing is going to go as planned. Nothing is going to run smoothly. This is what every sport, and every business or school or organization, has to sign up for if they are going to return. No one and nothing is completely immune.

The college football season has been chugging along, but not without postponements, cancellations, reversals and thinned rosters.

This is the week the chaos has really come to the SEC, which delayed its season until Sept. 26 in an attempt to get a better handle on things.

On Wednesday, the league postponed this weekend’s LSU-Florida game after more than 20 Gator players tested positive. It’s now expected to be played on Dec. 12. Florida’s game the following week against Missouri, which had its game against Vanderbilt postponed, is also now in doubt. If it can’t be played as scheduled, there doesn’t appear to be any open weeks to move it.

That means the SEC is likely to have a season where teams play an uneven number of games.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss, which played Alabama last week, is undergoing its own outbreak among its players, raising concerns about the Rebels’ game Saturday at Arkansas.

“We have a number of guys out,” coach Lane Kiffin said. “I’m not going to get into the numbers. We have not had that in-season. We had it during camp. This is the first time dealing with it in-season. It’s very difficult. We’re moving people around, and we’re beat up too … We are not in a great situation numbers-wise at all.”

And these are all at the kind of programs with huge budgets, secure facilities and extensive plans to protect players, coaches, staff and others.

“We’ve been diligent about mask wearing and social distancing from the start,” said Byrne, the Alabama AD who is also in quarantine.

“I personally thought I did a really good job of managing my personal space because you have to respect this disease and the spread of this disease,” Saban said.

No plan is bulletproof. Especially in and around college campuses that are designed for community interaction, not isolation.

This is what we are left with in college football. Unknowns. Concerns. Sidelined players. Home-quarantined coaches. And the Big Ten and Pac-12 haven’t even started yet.

Nick Saban will be at home for a while, likely missing the biggest game of the year. The most important thing is that he stays healthy, beats this like he beats most things and returns soon.

His team and his sport need him.

Maybe this year more than ever.

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