The hallmark traits of college football coaches—their wild sense of self-importance, their only hazy familiarity with the university community beyond the athletic department, their eagerness to weigh in on things they don’t really know or care much about, their tendency to yell and spit a lot—are unpleasant on their own, but they can feel especially shocking in pandemic times. Head coach Nick Saban, as five negative tests confirmed after an initial false positive, doesn’t have the coronavirus, but that didn’t make his rage-induced moment of masklessness in Alabama’s 41-24 win over Georgia Saturday night any less alarming or cringeworthy. This official certainly seemed a little freaked out by it:
Saban’s appearance at the game came after an uncertain three days for the Crimson Tide. After a positive test on Wednesday that looked like it would keep Saban from coaching in Saturday’s game, Alabama reportedly looked into the legality of a remote coaching option. (Under NCAA rules, only communication between the sideline and press box is allowed, permitting Hugh Freeze’s coaching from a hospital bed in a press box last year, but prohibiting Saban from calling plays from home via video chat.) But Saturday morning, Saban was cleared to return to the sidelines thanks to fairly new SEC protocols meant to account for false positives. Under the new rules, an asymptomatic player or coach who tests positive can return if they receive three consecutive negative rapid PCR tests each 24 hours apart.
The bar is so dismally low that before yesterday, Saban could actually be counted among college football’s more vigilant mask-wearers. Some of his fellow SEC coaches found themselves on the receiving end of mask rule violation fines, the first batch of which were levied this week to head coaches at Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Lane Kiffin’s mask last week was comically skimpy. Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt had been coaching in this garment that can only be described as the opposite of a mask.
“My premise is, our head football coaches are leaders, the most visible people in their programs,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN on Friday, explaining the fines. “They set the tone. They have that responsibility in this environment.”
That justification tracks with the oft-invoked idea that college football is a tool for imparting leadership lessons and uplifting the community, but the coaches, for whatever reason, don’t seem at all interested in that responsibility. “I tried to remember the best I could, then I found myself talking all the time because I’m calling plays as well, so I was in a constant state of talking,” said Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, who, yes, is always in a constant state of talking, after a Week 4 win over LSU. “So between me taking it down to talk, me lifting it up and it falling down on its own and me remembering to put it back up, there were a number of challenges there.”
In describing the pretty simple task of not removing a mask as something much more fraught and involved than that, coaches grant themselves leniency I can’t imagine they extend to players for mistakes on the field. In the ESPN interview, Sankey said his office has now issued its third round of memos to athletic directors about complying with the mask protocols. It’s a sad image, really, of someone sending stern but not too stern emails straight into the void, to people who are probably not reading them, much less heeding their words.
The possibility of an SEC season was, not too long ago, dangled before people as inducement to wear masks. “I know I want to see college football,” said Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, issuing the state’s first mask mandate in early August. “The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be, and I promise I hate it more than anyone watching today, is critical.”
SEC coaches themselves have been roped into public service campaigns about the importance of mask-wearing, though they now come across like the ads that ask viewers to believe our favorite athletes are enthusiastically driving Kia Sorentos:
Back in July, the linking of mask-wearing to resumption of a football season seemed a clever public health campaign. But the illusion has faded; every time Pruitt dons the nun’s habit and every time Leach tries “to remember the best I could” to keep a mask on, it becomes more obvious that this season was going to happen regardless of anyone’s adherence to public health guidelines. College football’s sneaky advantage is that no one is in charge, and no one can be held accountable. The coaches are simply calling the SEC’s bluff. Without there being a real circumstance in which SEC football would stop, the season rumbles on, a runaway train no one is driving, and that no one wants to drive either, because that would be too difficult and not much fun.