As Barry Alvarez was building up Wisconsin football, there was always a certain chorus that felt as if the Western Pennsylvania-born coach would be the ideal replacement for Penn State coach Joe Paterno. There was always something Paterno-esque about Alvarez. Little did people realize he was creating his own niche in Madison and there wasn't really any need for him to move elsewhere. Nevertless, Alvarez had a wonderful 16-season run and retired from coaching at the end of the 2005 season.
Working on another story about Paterno's leg injuries and his coaching in the box, I decided to give Alvarez a call yesterday for several reasons. One, he, too, was forced upstairs when he had knee replacement surgery in 1999. Two, Paterno and he are friends and I thought he could provide some enlightnement on the 81-year-old coach's current bind. And three, the Lions are headed to Wisconsin this Saturday, site of where Paterno had his left leg mangled in a sideline collision. Alvarez was very forthcoming (here's the link). In fact, I couldn't include some of his zingers in the story. Here are a few;
On his decision to coach upstairs:
"It wasn't a hard choice because I had no choice. My knee was so bad I was given orders to go in the box. Quite frankly, we played better when I was up there." (Which was true at the time. The Badgers won all seven games. Paterno has coached from the box three times now and his squad has won each of those games.)
On some of the differences to coaching upstairs as opposed to down on the field:
"You’re coaching a little different because you’re talking to everyone, you’re not having your pleasant conversations with officials." (Alvarez actually said it was better to be down on the field for these instances so you can vent to the officials.)
On whether his assistants liked him up in the box:
"Probably the ones on the field wanted me up there and the ones in the box wanted me downstairs." (I'm pretty sure Paterno would say the same thing about his assistants.)
On Paterno injuring himself trying an onsides kick:
"I’m surprised he didn’t do it taking on an isolation block on a fullback."
Paterno has now outlasted Alvarez and a soon-to-be-retired Joe Tiller. I asked Alvarez is he thought Joe could outlast ... (dramatic pause) ... Northwestern's 33-year-old coach, Pat Fitzgerald:
(Big belly laugh) "How many guys has he gone through in his career? There’s just another layer of guys. I was coming out of high school when Joe was recruiting my area."
The obligatory question: How much longer can Paterno do it (and not that "it"):
'That talk’s been going on for a lot of years. I think it’s whenever he feels comfortable in his mind or he can’t coach the way he wants to coach or if the kids aren't responding to him like he thinks they should, then I think he would probably step back." (I didn't expect a different answer.)