TUSCALOOSA, Ala – We should all know that Nick Saban will not miss work one day. He always appears more mechanical than man in his time in the public eye – a creature of work and process that has done little worse than sniffing his six national championships. He had hip replacement surgery last year, and the day after he landed under the knife, his wife found him standing in the hallway, eager to return to the office.
No, Nicholas Lou Saban will not miss a football game, and especially not one Saturday night strength. At home, against No. 3 Georgia and its coach, Kirby Smart, Saban will find a way to get to Bryant-Denny Stadium. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, and three days later he had the three negative tests he needed to get back into action. He recruited a state troop right after that third attempt, and in less than 30 minutes he was in the team hotel for meetings that were not yet known.
And later that night, after Saban led his team to the field with a brutal applause, he did what he always did, reaching a former assistant for the 22nd consecutive time in his career. After a very early start in which his defense struggled with a number of unbeaten mistakes, Alabama found its footing and beat the losing to Georgia, 41-24, to keep the only team undefeated in the SEC.
It didn’t take long to find out that Saban was feeling himself again as he tore freshman linebacker Will Anderson after a touchdown in the first quarter and shouted bloody assassination at a referee after a call for intentional grounding for a few minutes. When a defensive lineman jumps on the fourth and-1st, triggering an automatic down, Saban is completely beside him, placing both hands as if asking why.
The mad perfectist returns to all his glory.
At halftime, any adjustment made by Saban and his assistants worked, because the defense was lost from loss to full control. After forcing back-to-back punts, freshman nickel Malachi Moore took on Stetson Bennett, and running back Najee Harris happily exchanged a seven-point turnover and a double-digit lead. Then, shortly after, safety Daniel Wright took Bennett again. And, again, guilt was left, as Mac Jones continued his campaign to the Heisman Trophy with a fourth touchdown pass, which actually put him to bed.
Safety DeMarcco Hellams said the defense wanted to make a statement in the second half. He said Saban emphasized that it would be a 15-round match and to end the game. And they did, giving up zero points in the third and fourth quarters.
No, it was not Saban who took Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, but it was a heck of a halftime turnaround nonetheless. And without Saban, if he hadn’t cleared the COVID protocol for hours to stay and watch TV like the rest of us in the country, who knows if Alabama knows things?
There is no disrespect to Steve Sarkisian, who calls a brilliant game as offensive coordinator, but he is not Nick Saban. No one can fill that shoe.
Then, when Saban spoke to reporters, he did not think of a shaky first half or whatever shortcomings there might be. Instead, he said it was an “obviously great win” and he was proud of his team’s fight.
Mostly, he was proud of how his players handled the excitement of his departure. When he was not in the training field on Friday, when he noticed that his straw hat was missing, a source said it was strange and looked like a stage of The Twilight Zone.
Saban appeared healthy during his conference on Wednesday and his radio show the next day, but who really knows? For three days, the world of college football was obsessed with Saban’s condition and if he could return.
Saban tried to prepare his players for whatever might happen. He told them he hadn’t gotten a pass or made a tackle in 40 years, so what good was it to them during a game? From a distance, he tried to keep them focused on the task at hand.
When Saban showed up at the team hotel before the kickoff, the players were not ready. Jones said the reaction was “somewhat crazy” when Saban entered the quarterback room unannounced.
Senior linebacker Dylan Moses said Saban who was there for the walk-throughs brought extra energy to everyone. When he saw Saban walking through the door, he said, “Our confidence went through the roof.”
And that, perhaps more than any in-game fix or halftime speech, is the true value of having Saban on the sideline: the confidence that his presence brings. For 14 seasons now, he has been a fixture in Alabama. As a result, even a positive COVID-19 test may prevent him from appearing.