CECIL HURT: Nick Saban COVID-19 news overshadows nation’s biggest game
The biggest college football news in Tuscaloosa — and in fact the entire nation — was the upcoming biggest football game in the nation between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, but that changed instantaneously Wednesday afternoon with the announcement that Nick Saban, as well as Alabama Director of Athletics Greg Byrne, had tested positive for coronavirus.
The immediate concern is for the health of both men, especially Saban, who is 17 days from his 69th birthday. There is also the question of his level of contact with Alabama players over the past week, and whether any of those players have also tested positive.
The immediate medical release from UA on Wednesday said “at this time” the positive tests were limited to those two individuals. That’s fairly remarkable considering that COVID-19 spikes and outbreaks have caused the rescheduling of two SEC games this weekend.
Saban, who was feeling well enough to handle his usual Wednesday Zoom call press briefing, said that there was no indication that the virus had spread to the team. He did note that travel created special challenges. Alabama was in Oxford, Mississippi, last Saturday and just hours before the announcement that Saban had tested positive, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin had indicated that the Rebels were dealing with a coronavirus “outbreak.”
Saban also said he was surprised that he was positive on both the routine daily testing and the retest after his first positive. He sounded upbeat on the call, even telling a couple of jokes.
This isn’t unique to Alabama, or to college football. The NFL has also been wrestling with COVID-19 issues recently. So has every other college league that has started its season, and there is no guarantee that those yet to start won’t confront it as well.
It’s not the time for politics or finger-pointing. Viruses are real and this is what they do: always have and always will. That’s a fact. Opinion need not enter into the equation. Saban has been trying since the spring to stand at the forefront of coronavirus awareness and prevention and has been strict in following protocols. He won’t be coaching in disguise.
"I personally think I did a really good job of trying to manage my personal space,” he said. “You have to respect this disease and the spread of this disease."
Will there be a football effect? That seems certain, whether Saban coaches from isolation in the stadium or stays at home and lets offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian run the show, assuming that there is a show after the next round of team testing.
A quarantined Saban may not be able to have contact with the team, and people will speculate intensely on how that affects the game. Every variation of every theme will be explored. ESPN's "College GameDay" show was already scheduled to be in town, but they may bring along everyone from the medical staff of Bristol General Hospital to a designated drone watcher in case Saban’s ever-expanding use of technology extends to the skies.
The outcome matters, in football terms. Championships may ride on it. But the outcome that really matters is that Saban and Byrne recover fully and quickly, the same thing that matters for all citizens who have contracted the virus: President or firefighter, nurse or grandparent. No one should be partisan on that and on caring about one another: not political rivals, not athletic rivals, not any member of the human family.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt