Nick Saban, the football coach at the University of Alabama and one of the most powerful figures in college sports, said Wednesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, deepening the pandemic’s turmoil throughout the Southeastern Conference.
Saban, whose second-ranked team is scheduled to play No. 3 Georgia on Saturday, said in a statement that he was asymptomatic and isolating at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, also tested positive, the university said.
“Both immediately left the facility and went to their homes to self-isolate after receiving that information,” Dr. Jimmy Robinson, Alabama’s team doctor, and Jeff Allen, the football team’s head athletic trainer, said in a statement. “At this point in time, the positive tests are limited to those two individuals. All individuals who are considered high risk contacts have been notified and will follow quarantine guidelines.”
The announcement from Alabama, which had spent months saying vanishingly little about the spread of the pathogen within its athletic department, was a fresh shock to a league grappling with its most perilous week of virus-related crises. On Wednesday, the conference postponed Saturday’s game between Florida and Louisiana State after at least 21 Florida players and two assistant coaches tested positive for the virus.
Earlier in the week, a contest between Missouri and Vanderbilt was postponed because of an outbreak at Vanderbilt.
But word that Saban, who is 68 and has been an active public proponent of wearing masks and social distancing, may have far greater reverberations on the sport and perceptions of playing it during the pandemic, in part because of the renown he has cultivated during his 14 seasons at Alabama.
During his tenure at the university — whose fans spent the years before he arrived in 2007 longing for the dominant teams they had known under Bear Bryant, who died in 1983 — Saban has won five national championships.
Now, ahead of a game that will go far to determine whether Alabama reaches another College Football Playoff, Saban will be working from home. Steve Sarkisian, the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator, will take on a greater role in preparations for the game against Georgia.
And Alabama also seemed to be harboring a sliver of hope on Wednesday that another test might show Saban’s initial result to be inaccurate.
Saban told his team of his test result during a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon, the university said, hours after he addressed reporters during a regular teleconference and discussed plans for the Georgia game, assessing the Bulldogs’ defense and reflecting on his own evolution as a coach.
On Wednesday evening, Saban’s daughter, Kristen Saban Setas, wrote on Twitter that her father, widely known in college football for endlessly obsessing over the smallest of details, was “literally coaching practice from a Zoom call.”
The pandemic has disrupted college football repeatedly as the sport plowed ahead this fall. So far, 29 games in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s premier tier, have been postponed or rescheduled for reasons related to the virus. A handful of head coaches, including Kevin Sumlin of Arizona and Mike Norvell of Florida State, have tested positive, as have hundreds of players and staff members nationwide.