Nick Saban, the college football coach who revived Alabama into a national power, returned to work on Saturday — just in time for one of the most important games of the season — after doctors said that he had not been infected with the coronavirus after all.
Saban’s status for the second-ranked Crimson Tide’s game Saturday night against No. 3 Georgia had been in doubt since Wednesday, when he announced that he had tested positive for the virus. But on Saturday morning, after a succession of tests showed Saban not to have the virus, Alabama said its medical team had concluded that the coach had received a false positive result on Wednesday.
“Coach Saban is medically cleared to safely return to activity effective immediately,” Dr. Jimmy Robinson, a team doctor, said in a statement, adding that Saban “remained completely symptom-free.”
Hours after Saban was cleared, Florida’s coach, Dan Mullen, said that he had tested positive for the virus. At least 21 Florida players also tested positive in recent days, and two of the team’s games were postponed. The tenth-ranked Gators are next scheduled to play on Oct. 31, against Missouri.
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 three times in the days following his initial positive result.
In addition to those official tests, which a conference-sanctioned laboratory processed, Robinson also said that Saban had undergone two more screenings that were reviewed by another lab and returned as negative.
The swift reinstatement of Saban, who has won five national championships at Alabama, was a relief for Crimson Tide fans, a disheartening twist for the Georgia faithful and a catalyst for new debate over college football’s response to the pandemic.
At least 33 Football Bowl Subdivision games, including three 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. The result came from what is considered the most reliable type of test for the virus, a polymerase chain reaction test, known as a P.C.R., an Alabama spokesman said.
Saban, who was often seen on television wearing a mask during games, and university officials repeatedly asserted that he was not experiencing any symptoms, and he 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 on Bryant-Denny Stadium’s home sideline on Saturday night.
Less than 24 hours later, Robinson said Saban had recorded more negative tests.
Under a new SEC procedure, a person who tests positive may, within 24 hours of that result, take a new P.C.R. test. 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 league’s guidelines. A third-party company chosen by the SEC is supposed to process the tests.
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 make 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.”
The uncertainty surrounding Saban only fueled anticipation for Saturday’s game, long penciled in as a matchup poised to shape the race to reach the College Football Playoff. Had the conference’s approved laboratory not returned three negative results for Saban over the last few days, he would not have been able to coach during the game, either at the stadium or from home.