TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — We should’ve known all along that Nick Saban wasn’t going to miss a day’s work. He has always appeared more machine than man during his time in the public eye — a creature of routine and process who’d barely done worse than sniffle during his six national championship runs. He had hip replacement surgery last year, and the day after he went under the knife, his wife found him standing in the driveway, eager to get back to the office.
No, Nicholas Lou Saban wasn’t going to miss a football game, and especially not one the magnitude of Saturday night’s. At home, against No. 3 Georgia and its coach, Kirby Smart, Saban would 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 return to action. He grabbed a state trooper right after that third test came in, and in less than 30 minutes he was at the team hotel for pregame meetings.
And later that night, after Saban led his team onto the field to a raucous applause, he did what he has always done, besting a former assistant for the 22nd consecutive time in his career. After a so-so start in which his defense struggled with a number of uncharacteristic mistakes, Alabama found its footing and wound up beating Georgia convincingly, 41-24, to remain the only undefeated team in the SEC.
It didn’t take long to know Saban was feeling like himself again as he tore into freshman linebacker Will Anderson after a touchdown in the first quarter and screamed bloody murder at a referee after a call for intentional grounding a few minutes later. When a defensive lineman jumped offside on fourth-and-1, triggering an automatic first down, Saban was absolutely beside himself, putting both hands out as if to ask why.
The perfectionist was back in all his glory.
At halftime, whatever adjustments Saban and his assistants made worked, because the defense went from looking lost to being in total control. After forcing back-to-back punts, freshman nickel back Malachi Moore picked off Stetson Bennett, and running back Najee Harris gladly exchanged the turnover for seven points and a double-digit lead. Then, moments later, safety Daniel Wright picked off Bennett again. And, again, the offense did the rest, as Mac Jones furthered his Heisman Trophy campaign with a fourth touchdown pass, truly putting the game to bed.
Safety DeMarcco Hellams said the defense wanted to make a statement in the second half. He said Saban stressed this was going to be a 15-round fight and to finish the game. And they did, surrendering zero points in the third and fourth quarters.
No, it wasn’t Saban pulling Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, but it was a heck of a halftime turnaround nonetheless. And if Saban wasn’t there, if he hadn’t cleared COVID-19 protocol with hours to spare and was watching on TV like the rest the country, who knows if Alabama figures things out?
No disrespect to Steve Sarkisian, who called a brilliant game as offensive coordinator, but he’s not Nick Saban. No one can fill those shoes.
Afterward, when Saban spoke to reporters, he didn’t dwell on a shaky first half or whatever imperfections there might have been. Instead, he said it was an “obvious great win” and that he was proud of his team’s fight.
Mostly, he was proud of how his players handled the distraction of his absence. When he wasn’t on the practice field Friday, when his straw hat was so noticeably missing, a source told ESPN it was bizarre and that it felt like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Saban appeared healthy during his Wednesday news conference and his radio show the following night, but for three days, the college football world obsessed over Saban’s condition and whether he could return.
Saban tried to prepare his players for either eventuality. He told them he hadn’t caught a pass or made a tackle in 40 years, so what good was he to them during a game anyway? From afar, he tried to keep them focused on the task at hand.
When Saban showed up at the team hotel before kickoff, the players weren’t prepared. Jones said the reaction “was pretty crazy” when Saban stepped into the quarterback room unannounced.
Senior linebacker Dylan Moses said Saban being there for walk-throughs brought an added energy to everyone. Seeing Saban walk through the door, he said, “Our confidence went through the roof.”
And that, maybe more than any in-game adjustment or halftime speech, is the real value of having Saban on the sideline: the confidence his presence brings. For 14 seasons now, he has been a fixture at Alabama. As it turns out, not even a positive COVID-19 test can stop him from showing up.