HOOVER, Ala. — College football loves copying Nick Saban.
Schools poach the Alabama institution’s assistants for head jobs almost annually. His peers steal his schemes and borrow his buzzwords, trying to pass them off as their own. Why stop now? If athletics directors and coaches are not getting busy replicating Saban’s playbook when it comes to lifting lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates, they’re doing it wrong.
The SEC’s longest-tenured coach was asked here at SEC media days to pinpoint the secret to longevity in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of his sport.
“I think that’s simple,” Saban answered. “You’ve got to win.”
That and that alone — not political bluster or any of the other nonsense that so often clouds the vaccination discussion — is a primary reason why close to 90 percent of Crimson Tide players had been vaccinated. They are securing what could be come a competitive advantage.
Earlier this week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey shared that only six of the league’s 14 teams have reached an 80 percent vaccination rate.
Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday that growing concerns about virus spread throughout the SEC footprint have caused the conference’s leaders to update plans.
Eight of the 15 states with the lowest percentage of fully-vaccinated residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are home to an SEC football program. That includes Missouri, which checked in Wednesday at a fully-vaccinated percentage of 40.4.
Initially the SEC said an 85 percent vaccination rate for a team would unlock looser testing and contact tracing protocols for that team, including the team’s unvaccinated players. Now the league is moving toward a plan that will require regular testing and contact tracing for all unvaccinated players, no matter the team’s vaccination rate. Sankey is leading that charge.
Last season the SEC baked in bye weeks and played a conference-only schedule to better navigate around outbreaks. This season that won’t be possible as non-conference games return. Sankey fought to have some semblance of a season last year. Now he’s fighting for the most normal one possible. The more unvaccinated players on a team, the higher the chance for virus-caused turbulence, whether it’s from the virus itself or the contact tracing that pulls players from the field and pulls teams toward the minimum number of available players required to play.
“Get healthy, be healthy, stay healthy is the message,” Sankey said Wednesday. “If you can’t show up, we have to do something with the game, and with our standings. And there are not a lot of options if you can’t just pop it into another date. If one team is healthy and one team is not, that’s where the forfeit concept is. Now, we have three or four weeks to make that decision, but that is what has been introduced.”
“Finish the drill,” Sankey added. “Access the vaccine. Otherwise, what we know from last year is, you may lose two to three weeks out of your season, because of COVID. I mean, that’s reality. Contact tracing was at the forefront of why we had to not play games (in 2020), not COVID-positive individuals. We can limit contact tracing through vaccine access. We’ve been communicating this for months.”
For the lagging teams, a group that includes the one coached by second-year Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz, Saban is offering in real time a clinic for how to increase buy-in.
He made it clear he respected and did not dismiss or demonize the members of his team who had or still have reservations about the vaccine. He brought in multiple doctors to speak with the team about the virus and vaccines, and how vaccinations, while not perfect, can help protect players from the virus and greatly minimize their complications from it if they do indeed get the virus. He stressed the competitive edge.
“First of all, you have a personal decision, which comes down to risk — risk of COVID, relative risk to the vaccine,” Saban said.
“On the other hand, you also have a competitive decision to make because you’re going to be a part of a team,” he added. “So, how does the personal choice and decision you make affect the team? … Players have to understand that you are putting your teammates in a circumstance and situation. We can control what you do in our building. We cannot control what you do on campus and when you go around town, who you’re around, who you’re associated with, and what you bring into our building … So every player has a personal decision to make to evaluate the risk of COVID relative to vaccine, and then they have a competitive decision to make on how it impacts their ability to play in games, because with the vaccine you probably have a better chance.”
It’s the kind of no-nonsense messaging that is encouraging to hear from the highest-paid public employee from the state that, as of Wednesday, was tied with Mississippi for last on the list of percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated (33.9 percent).
Meanwhile there was Mike Leach.
Mississippi State’s coach made it clear that advocating for vaccination is not in the job description of the position that pays him a base salary of $5 million annually.
Leach, who is usually full of laugh-getting quips and entertaining detours during answers, missed the mark as he stiff-armed questions about his team’s undisclosed vaccination rate. He suggested only doctors should discuss such topics. That was rich coming from Leach, who feels comfortable opining on everything from war history, to marriage advice.
The league’s other Bulldogs coach, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, has helped lead his team to one of the conference’s highest vaccination rates along with Saban’s Tide. UGA’s team is above 85 percent, Smart disclosed. Go figure, two of the best teams in the conference have become two of the fastest to near teamwide vaccination. Its not a coincidence.
Smart was Alabama’s defensive coordinator before Georgia came calling. He is just one of the many examples of college football’s attempts to replicate Saban. You don’t have to be a doctor to see more coaches should adopt the Alabama approach when it comes to minimizing COVID’s threat through vaccination.