TUSCALOOSA, Alabama. – We always had to know that Nick Saban was not going to miss a single working day. During his time in the public eye, he always seemed more machine-like than a human being, a creature of routine and process that barely did worse than sniffing during his six national championships. Last year, he underwent hip replacement surgery, and the day after he went under the knife, his wife found him standing on the porch, trying to return to the office.
No, Nicolas Lou Saban wasn’t going to miss a football game, and especially not that Saturday night. At home, against Georgia and her coach Kirby Smart, Saban would find a way to get to Bryant Denny Stadium. On Wednesday, he passed a positive test for COVID-19, and three days later he had three negative tests needed to return to action. He grabbed a regular soldier right after the third test came, and in less than 30 minutes he had been to the command hotel in previous meetings.
And later that night, after Saban led his team to the field to loud applause, he did what he always did, winning the former assistant for the 22nd time in a row in his career. After a so-called start in which his defense struggled with a series of uncharacteristic mistakes, Alabama found its support and convincingly beat Georgia, 41-24, remaining the only undefeated team in the SEC.
It didn’t take long for Saban to feel like himself again when he ran into rookie leader Will Anderson in the first quarter and shouted a bloody murder at the referee after calling for a deliberate grounding a few minutes later. When the defensive commander jumped offside on the fourth and 1st, triggering an automatic first strike, Saban was completely out of his mind, stretching out both hands, as if asking why.
The crazy perfectionist is back in all his glory.
During the break, whatever adjustments Saban and his assistants made worked, as the defense shifted from what seemed lost to complete control. After forcing his back to back, Malachi Moore, a freshman with a nickel selection, selected Stetson Bennett, and Naji Harris gladly exchanged a turnover of seven points and a double-digit advantage. Then, a few minutes later, Daniel Wright’s security took Bennet back. And again, the crime did the rest, as McJones continued his Heisman Trophy campaign with the fourth towntown, truly concluding the game.
Security DeMarco Hellams said the defense wanted to make a statement in the second half. According to him, Saban stressed that it will be a 15-round fight and the end of the game. And they did so by passing zero points in the third and fourth quarters.
No, not Saban pulled Jalen Herts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, but still it was a hell of a turn. And if Saban wasn’t there, if he hadn’t cleared the COVID protocol with spare hours and watched on TV, like all of us in the country, who knows if Alabama will solve everything?
No disrespect to Steve Sargsyan, who called the brilliant game as the attack coordinator, but he is not Nick Saban. No one can fill these shoes.
Later, when Saban spoke to reporters, he did not dwell on the shaky first half or on any imperfections that might be. Instead, he said it was “an obvious big win” and that he was proud of his team’s fight.
For the most part, he was proud of how his players coped with the distraction that he was far away. When he was not on the training ground on Friday, when his straw hat was so noticeably lacking, a source told ESPN that it was bizarre and that it was similar to an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Saban looked healthy during his press conference on Wednesday and his radio show the next night, but who really knew? For three days, the world of college football was obsessed with Saban’s condition and whether he could return.
Saban tried to prepare his players for any accident. He told them that he hadn’t fished or tackled for 40 years, so what did he do with them during the game? From afar, he tried to focus them on solving the problem.
When Saban showed up at the team hotel before the match, the players were not ready. Jones said the reaction “was pretty crazy” when Saban entered the defense hall without warning.
Senior defender of the liner Dylan Moses said that Saban, who is there to pass, gave everyone extra energy. Seeing Saban walk through the door, he said, “Our confidence went through the roof.”
And that, perhaps more than any setting in the game or performance during the break, is the real value of having Saban on the side: the confidence that his presence brings. He has been a part of Alabama for 14 seasons. As it turns out, even a positive test for COVID-19 can not stop it from appearing.