Nick Saban felt stunned when he found out he tested positive for the novel coronavirus Wednesday, which says a lot about how seriously he’s taken COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
Saban has done public service announcements about wearing masks in Alabama, among the reddest of the red states, a place where the virus has been invited to get comfortable, sit down with a sweet tea and stay a while. Saban even talked in the days before the Crimson Tide’s opener about his quest for the perfect mask — one that would keep players safe but wouldn’t muffle his instruction.
Discipline is required to protect yourself and your loved ones from this virus, and it should come as no surprise that Saban has been a leader, particularly compared with some of his coaching peers in the Southeastern Conference.
Apparently, Saban had a right to be shocked by his stroke of bad luck. Saturday morning, Alabama announced he had tested negative for three straight days since his positive test. He was cleared by SEC protocols to coach in Saturday night’s prime-time title bout against Georgia.
Saban, 68, who had to self-isolate at home and missed three days of practice (he watched on Zoom), probably could have done without the inconvenience and the worry that it caused his family, even though he remained asymptomatic. But, from a public health perspective, his false positive came with a silver lining:
The most revered person in a state with a 15% positivity rate got one more chance to reinforce a message that could help save lives and open up hospital beds.
“I personally think I did a really good job of trying to manage my personal space,” Saban said Wednesday during a videoconference. “That’s what I’ve informed my players to try and do, because you have to respect this disease and the spread of this disease. … I wear a mask on the sidelines. I wear a mask all the time — in the hotel, on the bus, at the plane — all the time.”
Almost all the time. Saban was caught during Saturday's broadcast screaming at a referee with his mask hanging below his chin, just three days removed from that positive test.
Saban’s journey from quarantine back to the Bryant-Denny Stadium sideline stole the spotlight from the struggles the SEC had with the virus this week.
Things got started last weekend when Florida coach Dan Mullen, sore that his Gators lost at Texas A&M in what seemed like a half-packed Kyle Field, said he wished Florida would follow Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recommendations for sporting events and pack “the Swamp.”
The state has a 12.5% positivity rate, but sure, it’s a sound plan to put 88,000 people together so the Gators can beat Louisiana State.
On Wednesday, Florida announced it had 21 players test positive. Its game with LSU was postponed.
On Saturday, Mullen announced he also tested positive and the result was confirmed.
Mullen will go through quarantine and hope he can coach the Gators in their next game against Missouri on Oct. 31.
On Monday, Missouri-Vanderbilt, scheduled for Saturday, became the first SEC game to be postponed because of COVID-19. The Commodores simply ran out of bodies.
“Due to a lack of available scholarship student-athletes, the October 17 football game at Missouri will be postponed to a later date,” a school release said.
When I interviewed SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in May about how the Power Five conferences were evaluating having a fall football season during a pandemic, he said the advantage college football had was time, and that would allow them to gather a lot more information than the professional leagues that were figuring out how to finish their suspended seasons in the summer.
What he could not say publicly — but what is clear now — is that no data point was going to stop the SEC from playing this season.
The league’s attempt has been exactly what one would expect.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said most of the Tigers have had the virus and recovered.
SEC coaches have been blasé about wearing masks. Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, a frequent fighter in America’s culture wars, made the excuse that he often pulls the mask down to talk to someone and then forgets to pull it back up.
For weeks, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt has been wearing a face covering — albeit not one that actually covers his nose and mouth. Pruitt’s head scarf enveloped the top of his head and ears and wrapped around his neck below the chin like a nun's. According to Sports Illustrated, the SEC fined Tennessee, Texas A&M and Mississippi $100,000 each this week for violation of protocols.
In response, Pruitt coached the Volunteers’ 34-7 throttling by rival Kentucky on Saturday in a normal face mask. Maybe wearing the mask properly affected his communication with his team?
These high-profile coaches set a tone, not just for their players and staff members, but for their entire regions, which share a common opponent in COVID-19. Saban realizes his larger societal impact. It would be refreshing if more of his brethren would embrace theirs too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.