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Barry Alvarez played football at Nebraska for Bob Devaney, coordinated defenses at Notre Dame for Lou Holtz and built Wisconsin football from a doormat into a bruising brand. Alvarez has lived the quintessential football life, one that’s earned him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame and given him the distinction of having one of the game’s most respected voices.
As Alvarez built the foundation of Wisconsin football and shepherded it into its current smash-mouth iteration, he also became one of the game’s consummate tough guys. So it was striking when reached on the phone Friday evening that Alvarez summed up his feelings on the fate of the 2020 college football season this way to Yahoo Sports: “I’m afraid.”
He continued: “There’s so many questions that are unanswered. I see things change every day. We have so much invested. I have a grandson playing. I’m invested in every student-athlete on our campus. I want them to be safe.”
Alvarez elaborated on his feelings in a lengthy interview that underscored all of the challenges that college football faces to play in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The expectation around the sport is that decisions will be made on the fate of the season within the next two weeks, if not sooner. A flurry of cancellations, health issues and defections this week cast a specter over the sport’s future.
All the uncertainty hovering over the season leaves Alvarez torn, as his exasperated tone said as much as his words. “I owe everything I have to college football,” Alvarez said. “I’m the most positive person in the world. My wife said to me today, ‘All of a sudden you are a glass half empty.’ I don’t like to be like that.”
Alvarez, 73, spoke most poignantly as the grandfather of Badgers redshirt junior tight end Jake Ferguson. I asked Alvarez what happens when his daughter, Dawn, calls him and asks about how safe the season will be for her son. “I get that call,” Alvarez said. “I’m not quite sure [what to say]. I say, ‘I can’t tell you that right now.’ ”
Alvarez was complimentary of the job that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has done, appreciative of his perspective as the father of a college football player. (Warren’s son, Powers, is a tight end at Mississippi State.)
He said whatever decision the Big Ten arrives at will come with the direction of medical doctors and the presidents and chancellors more than the athletic directors and coaches.
“To me, you have to go back to your specialists,” Alvarez said. “You go back to the people who know the business. You go back to the doctors. That’s their business. I want to hear what people who are in that business say. I want them to give us direction. Is it safe? Is it not safe? It’s not what one of us [coaches or administrators] thinks.”
Alvarez credited Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who he said “canceled practice until Monday” because he “decided there are too many questions our players have” that they couldn’t provide answers to.
“Ever hear of a football coach passing up days to practice?” Alvarez said with a chuckle. “That doesn’t happen. I’m concerned. We felt like we had to have some other answers.”
What other answers are needed?
“Let’s make sure everyone is square on the protocols,” Alvarez said. “Let’s make sure the testing is what is it is and everyone is doing the same thing. How many times are we testing a week? Is everyone else doing the same thing? Is everyone squared away and doctors at every school on the same page as far as contact tracing? All those things have to be answered. The doctors have to be the policeman. It can’t be a coach or administrators. It has to be the doctor and trainers that manage all that.”
Alvarez wondered if all programs are handling the virus the same way.
“There are a lot of guys who take another approach,” he said. “They look a different direction. That’s fine. They can do whatever they want. I’m concerned. I’m very concerned.”
Alvarez also referenced “cardiac issues” that have surfaced with athletes in the Big Ten who have tested positive for COVID-19. “I don’t know if everyone is testing for that after a positive test,” he said. “There are a lot of questions.”
And the biggest one around college football is simple: What happens next?
Alvarez expressed his disappointment in the lack of central leadership in the sport and joked that he’s discovered many new branches of NCAA governance in recent months as the NCAA Division I Council and the Board of Governors are making decisions that impact the sport. “I’ve been in this a long time, I don’t know some of the committees,” he said. “They pop up out of nowhere, I can’t keep up with them.”
And that’s left Alvarez wondering who decides the fate of the entire sport in 2020.
“The question is, ‘Who is going to make the decision?’ ” he said, referencing college football as a whole. “That’s why I think our league has tried to engage doctors and people that that’s their business. The experts. To me, that’s who you lean on.”
At the end of the interview, Alvarez was asked a simple question: Will there be college football in 2020? “I’m not going to answer that. Don’t make me do that, in all respect. I like to be positive.”
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