Alabama coach Nick Saban, per SEC protocol, has been cleared to return to the sideline for Saturday night’s showdown against No. 3 Georgia following his third consecutive negative test for COVID-19, the school announced.
Sources told ESPN that Saban was informed he had been cleared to return a little before 12:30 p.m. ET, and he immediately left his home with a state trooper to go straight to the team hotel and was able to join meetings prior to 1 p.m. ET.
Alabama team physician Dr. Jimmy Robinson said in a statement that Saban had negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at 7 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday following an initial positive test Wednesday. The school added two additional PCR tests, from Thursday and Friday, were taken “out of an abundance of caution” and also were found to be negative at a separate lab.
“Due to the fact that Coach Saban has remained completely symptom-free and had five negative PCR tests, split between two separate labs, the initial test from Wednesday is considered a false positive under the SEC protocols,” Robinson said. “… In accordance with the SEC Return to Activity and Medical Guidance Task Force Protocol and with the approval of The University of Alabama System Health and Safety Task Force, Coach Saban is medically cleared to safely return to activity effective immediately.”
Saturday morning’s test was flown to an SEC-approved lab in Mobile, Alabama, for a quick turnaround.
Robinson said in his statement that university officials had been in constant communication with the conference office throughout the process to ensure compliance with all applicable protocols.
Alabama announced Wednesday that Saban, who turns 69 later this month, tested positive for COVID-19. He immediately left the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility and began self-isolating at home.
But SEC guidelines state that if an individual has three successive negative PCR tests through an SEC-appointed lab, each 24 hours apart, and remains asymptomatic, the initial test would be considered a false positive and the individual may be released from isolation and medically cleared to return to athletics activities.
On Friday, Alabama said Saban’s initial positive test result came from an outside lab that the university has used to supplement the SEC-mandated testing.
A source close to Saban told ESPN that he felt from the beginning that the initial test was a false positive because he never had any symptoms or experienced a fever.
“He didn’t even have a sniffle,” the source said.
Saban wasn’t at the football complex for the second half of the week, but he conducted team and staff meetings via Zoom and watched the practices on a live feed from home — with a high-angled camera view — and communicated with coaches by cell phone if he wanted some part of practice redone.
One staffer told ESPN that Saban might not have been there physically, but that he was definitely there in spirit and didn’t miss anything from home.
“You didn’t see him out there, but it’s almost like he never left,” the staffer said.
Saban appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday morning from his home and acknowledged he felt a “little bit detached” this week, but that he stayed involved virtually with the team and staff in everything they’ve done in both practices and meetings.
“Even though I’m not there, the presence has been the same,” Saban said.
Sources told ESPN that Alabama has had no positive tests among its players in this latest round of testing and expects to be full strength for the Bulldogs’ visit to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Saban told GameDay that Alabama conducted 240 tests in the past two days and all were negative. Saban said he tested negative Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before the positive test on Wednesday.
“I have to trust in the doctors and medical people that make these protocols safe for all of us,” Saban said. “Our players have done a good job of practicing social distancing, and this experience has made me have a lot of respect for what we should do. … And we’re going to continue to do that in the future.”