Nick Saban, the Alabama coach who tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday, has been “medically cleared” to direct the second-ranked Crimson Tide during Saturday night’s game against No. 3 Georgia, the university said.
Under the Southeastern Conference’s health protocols, Saban was allowed to exit isolation far earlier than first anticipated because he was asymptomatic and tested negative for the virus through a conference-sanctioned laboratory three times in the days following his initial positive result. The streak of negative tests led Alabama officials to conclude that Saban had received a false positive result on Wednesday.
The presence of Saban, who has won five national championships at Alabama, on the home sideline at Bryant-Denny Stadium will galvanize Crimson Tide fans, dishearten the Georgia faithful and almost certainly fuel new debate over college football’s response to the pandemic.
At least 32 Football Bowl Subdivision games, including two in the SEC, have been postponed or canceled since late August for virus-related reasons, and hundreds of players, coaches and staff members have tested positive over the last several months.
But the college football world was still stunned when Saban, 68, announced Wednesday that he had tested positive for the virus and entered isolation at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He and university officials repeatedly asserted that he was not experiencing any symptoms, and Saban maintained an active schedule, coaching practice remotely and making his usual Thursday night appearance on a radio show.
On Friday afternoon, Alabama said that Saban had tested negative on Thursday during his first follow-up screening. The announcement raised hopes in Tuscaloosa — and worries in Athens, Ga., the home of the Bulldogs — that Saban would be able to work on Saturday.
Under a new SEC procedure, a person who tests positive may, within 24 hours of that result, take a second polymerase chain reaction test, which experts consider the gold standard for detecting the virus. If that test shows a negative result, the person can take two more P.C.R. tests, each separated by 24 hours.
If those tests also return negative results and the person remains asymptomatic, the player, coach or staff member “may be released from isolation and medically cleared to return to athletics activities only,” according to the SEC’s guidelines.
The league’s presidents and chancellors approved the policy on Oct. 8, and the conference included it in an update to its medical protocols on Monday, two days before Saban tested positive for the virus.
“I have to trust in the doctors and the medical people who makes these protocols safe for all of us,” Saban, who spent months publicly urging fans to follow public health recommendations, said on ESPN on Saturday while he waited for the result of the morning’s test.
He added, “Our players have done a good job of practicing social distancing, and I think this experience has certainly made me have a lot of respect for what we should do, all of us, relative to social distancing, wearing a mask, washing our hands, staying apart, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Saturday’s game is among the most anticipated matchups of the season, and it could do much to shape the trajectory of the race to reach the College Football Playoff. Had Saban not tested negative three times over the last few days, he would not have been able to coach during the game, either at the stadium or from home.
Saban is 5-1 against Georgia since his arrival at Alabama in 2007. Kirby Smart, who worked for Saban for nine seasons at Alabama, is Georgia’s coach.