No panic at Alabama after football coach Nick Saban’s positive coronavirus test

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October 15, 2020

  • Chris Low

    Shut downESPN Senior Writer

    • College football reporter
    • With ESPN.com since 2007
    • Graduated from the University of Tennessee
  • Mark Schlabach

    Shut downESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduated from the University of Georgia

Before his interview with Alabama’s soccer coach Nick Saban began on Wednesday, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi noted that the two chairs he and Saban would sit in were about two to three meters apart and two cameras close by in front of each subject stood.

To create even more distance, Rinaldi suggested sitting in the background and asking questions with both cameras pointed at Saban.

Saban didn’t take off his mask until he spoke, while Rinaldi kept his mask on all the time – the interview lasted about 20 minutes. They then went to Saban’s office to continue the conversation ahead of the big clash against Georgia on Saturday. Rinaldi took a few steps back to stay a socially safe distance.

“I know I am uncomfortable walking behind you like this,” Rinaldi told him.

Saban walked into his office for a moment while Rinaldi spoke to Linda Leoni, the coach’s longtime assistant, about an upcoming College GameDay story. When Saban finished, he invited Rinaldi to a nearby conference room. Saban sat at the head of the table while Rinaldi sat on his side with a chair in between. Assistant Athletics Director Jeff Purinton sat two chairs away from Rinaldi. All three men kept their masks on.

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According to Rinaldi, Saban discussed that he was unable to interact with many people outside of the Alabama football building. After a few minutes, Jeff Allen, assistant sports director for sports medicine, opened the door and told Saban he needed to speak to him immediately. Saban returned and said to Rinaldi: “Sorry, I have to go.”

Within an hour, Purinton told Rinaldi that Saban had tested positive for the coronavirus and immediately started self-isolating at home. The school later announced that athletic director Greg Byrne had also tested positive.

“It became so much more real for everyone,” said one employee.

The news was the culmination of a tough week for the SEC, with positive testing increasing and two games being postponed. But those within the Alabama program insist that there was no panic, doom, and darkness or self-pity as they received the news just three days before the biggest regular season game to date. Instead, the sports department activated response plans drawn up weeks prior to the start of the season in Alabama on September 26th.

First, Saban told his staff and team about his positive test. In fact, he was playing the role of comedian when he videoconferenced the news. “You know, if I’m not with you, it must be bad,” joked Saban.

The results of the upcoming tests will determine if Alabama’s manager Nick Saban is on the sidelines for Saturday night’s clash with Georgia. Kent Gidley / Collegiate Images / Getty Images

The players burst out laughing.

“The kids were shocked for about five minutes, but then [Saban] went into exercise prep and they snapped back, “said one person within the program.” That really relaxed everyone’s tension and brightened the mood. But it is. He knows the right buttons to press, and then it was as usual. “

Even when Saban did his best to reassure the players, there was still the natural shock of not seeing him wearing his famous straw hat on Alabama’s practice field on Wednesday – a scene a person called “like you’re almost in the Twilight.” Zone would be “described. “” But there was a sense of relief when Saban, who turns 69 later this month, said he felt fine and had no symptoms.

“It was more, ‘OK, he’s good, not sick. Let’s keep the kids as normal as possible,'” said one person.

After leaving the soccer complex immediately after learning his diagnosis, Saban was able to see a live feed of the entire training from home. A high-angle camera gave him a bird’s eye view of what was happening and he communicated with the employees via cell phone. When he saw something he didn’t like, he shouted, “Let’s do it again.”

On a video call after training with reporters, Saban said he liked the intensity and focus of the players in practice, then quipped, “I can tell you we had much worse drills than I was there so maybe it was that good that I wasn’t there. “

Saban added that he was surprised by the diagnosis because he had taken all precautions to avoid contracting the virus.

Sources say Saban is tested almost daily, while Alabama’s players, coaches and staff receive PCR tests on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Alabama previously tested players daily after an initial surge when students returned to campus, but has recently followed SEC protocols of three tests per week.

Following the positive results on Wednesday, all members of the football program were retested on Thursday under SEC guidelines, including Saban. The tests were sent to a laboratory in Mobile, Alabama, and the results were expected on Friday morning.

If Saban had three consecutive negative tests Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it would consider Wednesday’s test a false positive and offer a chance for the coach to be the coach for Saturday night’s nationally televised game against Georgia # 3 at Bryant-Denny Stadium could return to the sidelines. If Saban’s second test is positive, he would have to self-isolate for 10 days according to CDC guidelines. On his weekly radio show, which he conducted from home on Thursday night, Saban said he would love to be part of the game but the COVID-19 protocol says he cannot travel to the stadium while in quarantine.

Thanks to video calls, it was normal on Thursday morning when Saban held his staff meeting and combed through every detail of the practice.

“He doesn’t miss anything from here either,” said one employee. “He will do it as normally as possible and it will be the normal protocol for the rest of the week, from the run to the food to what we do the night before the game. It’s his program and even though he’s not is here, nothing changes. “

While offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is now overseeing operations and likely to take command if Saban can’t train against Georgia, Saban said he still plans to stick to his usual routine.

“I can do absolutely anything I can here,” Saban told reporters on Wednesday. “I’ll have exactly the same routine. The first thing I do on Thursday morning is watch the defensive training with the defense. Then we play two-point games. Then I watch what we did against each other with the offensive. Then I watch you Offensive training and I watch special teams. Then I usually write a little for two-point games for the team. I do all of these things just like I always do. “

A staff member said he thought Saban’s diagnosis was almost a rallying point for the players.

“In another way, this could be more motivating for them,” he said. “What you see when you are in this program that not everyone outside sees is how good [Saban] refers to the player and they respond to him. “

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