SEC Media Days Football

Alabama coach Nick Saban begins his quest for yet another national title Saturday afternoon when the Crimson Tide faces Miami in Atlanta.

HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday that the Crimson Tide football team is close to a 90% vaccination rate and is “hopeful” that more players make that decision.

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey revealed Monday that six of the league’s 14 teams had surpassed 80% vaccination, a statistic he paired with a warning that teams might have to forfeit games if their schedules are disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks.

The SEC has no mandate for people to get vaccinated, but Sankey’s warning was yet another incentive for teams to improve their vaccination rates. The league has already placed a 75% threshold that, if met, no longer requires teams to test for COVID-19 regularly or wear masks inside their facilities.

LSU’s vaccination rate is more than 90%, multiple sources said Monday. Georgia coach Kirby Smart confirmed Tuesday the Bulldogs had a rate north of 85%.

There’s a clear disparity between the vaccination rates of the league’s teams and the overall vaccination rates of the states in which they play. Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana are each in the bottom seven in vaccination rates in the country, all beneath 39%. Alabama has the lowest rate in the country (33.7%) according to the Mayo Clinic.

Mississippi (33.8%) has the second-lowest vaccination rate. Mississippi State coach Mike Leach was less open to talking about vaccines than Saban. A reporter asked Leach if he was vaccinated and his reasoning.

“If I was or wasn’t vaccinated,” Leach said, “I wouldn’t share it with you.”

Saban said Alabama brought in three medical doctors to give lectures to players about the pros and cons of the vaccine, and he said the discussion boils down to two decisions: a personal one and a competitive one.

“We don’t really have a lot of knowledge about how this stuff is going to affect people in the future,” Saban said. “So that’s a personal decision that everybody has the right to make. On the other hand, you also have a competitive decision to make because you’re going to be a part of a team. So how does the personal choice and decision you make affect the team?”

Saban pointed out that North Carolina State’s baseball team had a chance to win the College World Series before the Wolfpack was disqualified in the semifinals after a coronavirus outbreak.

“Every player has a personal decision to make to evaluate the risk of COVID relative to vaccine,” Saban said. “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. Without it, you have a bigger chance that something could happen that may keep you from being on the field, which doesn’t enhance your personal development.”

A pirate looks at NIL, portal

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While Leach bailed out when asked about vaccinations, he did have interesting observations on the subject of name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal.

He sees college football heading more and more toward an NFL model with endorsement deals and what has ostensibly become a waiver wire. He thinks it's still important to encourage players to graduate.

Leach was bouncing an idea around with a friend and qualified the discussion by saying there may still be holes in it. His proposal was to pay players a sum upon graduation, but that they would forfeit the sum if they transfer.

"You only get it if you graduate," he said. "If you transfer, you don't get the $150,000.

"I don't care what the amount is. The amount could be whatever. I just don't want a bidding war, and I think that, if we end up with bidding wars, that will definitely hurt football."

The return of the helmet

Every time a school’s coach and players take the podium in the main interview room at SEC media days, that school’s helmet is displayed on the dais. For perhaps the first time ever, a coach brought his own helmet: first-year Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea.

Lea played fullback for the Commodores from 2002-04 after playing two years of college baseball at Birmingham-Southern and Belmont.

“A football player’s helmet is like, next to kids, one of the most important things that we keep with us,” said Lea, who was defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. “(It’s) a physical representation of what I invested here and it’s in my office now. It made the trip with me here.”

Lagniappe

Saban is now the second-oldest active coach in FBS behind North Carolina coach Mack Brown. Brown will be 70 Aug. 27, while Saban will be 70 on Oct. 31. … Former Vandy coach Derek Mason is now defensive coordinator at Auburn under new coach Bryan Harsin. … Media days wraps up Thursday with Missouri, Arkansas and Auburn. The media’s SEC predictions and preseason All-SEC team will be released Friday.

Scott Rabalais and Jim Kleinpeter contributed to this report.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com