Lucas at Large: Dantonio's situation a familiar one for Alvarez

The uniqueness of Michigan State's Mark Dantonio "coaching'' his football team from a hospital room was not lost on UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, the former Badger head coach.

Been there.

Done that.

1999.

"Probably the most unique and unusual day that I've ever spent in my life,'' Alvarez recalled Saturday morning before the Badgers played the Spartans in the Big Ten opener.

Two weeks ago, the 54-year-old Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack following Michigan State's overtime victory over Notre Dame.  A stent was inserted into a blocked vessel.

Dantonio attended some team meetings and went to practice Tuesday and Wednesday, but he was readmitted to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing on Thursday after doctors found a blood clot in his leg.

Earlier in the week, Dantonio was planning on being in the press box for Saturday's matchup against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium.

When Alvarez heard the news, he had a flashback to the 1999 season.

Five days before the UW's conference opener, Alvarez  consulted with doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and they advised surgery for a badly swollen right knee, a "football' knee and a souvenir of his playing days at Nebraska.

The knee replacement procedure was booked for Oct. 5 between the second and third games of the Big Ten season.  Following an upset win at Ohio State, Alvarez met with his players and assistants on Monday and flew to Rochester the same day. Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday.

But there were complications, an infection that delayed the knee replacement until the end of the regular season. Alvarez, though, was still restricted to his hospital room that Saturday when the Badgers played the Gophers at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

"It was surreal,'' said Alvarez, who, along with his wife Cindy, watched the game on a small-screen television. "You're in a quiet hospital room, but you're into the game. The nurses had to quiet me down several times. I was on the phone with assistants - screaming and yelling and carrying on like I'm still on the sidelines.

"You should have seen the phone I was using. It was one of those old phones which were the size of a lunch box. I was in communication with different people and I was trying to direct the game as far as when to punt the ball or when to go for it in short yardage situations.

"We had someone stay on the phone with me, and he shuttled information to our offensive and defensive coordinators. Naturally, you don't have quite the feel of the game. But you can manage a game - not as well as you could if you were standing on the sidelines. But you can get it done.''

Alvarez was asked before Saturday's kickoff at Michigan State, what kind of an impact Dantonio's absence might have on his players.  (When Dantonio wasn't on the phone with his defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi , he was texting him throughout the game.)

"They've already played one game without him, so it's not a surprise, '' Alvarez said of the Spartans who beat Northern Colorado the previous Saturday. Dantonio did not attend.

"It's business as usual. The same people who normally talk with players - the position coaches and the coordinators - are still going to be doing the talking. They just won't have their leader standing in front of them before the game or at halftime. He won't be there to deliver the overall message.''

Alvarez turned over the team to his longtime assistant John Palermo, the defensive line coach. (Dantonio's offensive coordinator, Don Treadwell, was the interim coach with the Spartans.)

Minnesota head coach Glen Mason raised some questions with the Big Ten office on whether Alvarez would have a competitive advantage by watching the game on TV.

"So I called Glen and offered him the opportunity to come and stay in the hospital room with me,'' Alvarez said. "I told him we'd get a six-pack, order a pizza and watch the game together.''

Mason declined.

As it turned out, Barry and Cindy Alvarez had plenty to cheer about. The Badgers rallied from deficits of 7-0, 14-7 and 17-14 and beat Minnesota in overtime on Vitaly Pisetsky's field goal.

"Me and Cindy were in the room yelling,'' Alvarez still remembered vividly, "and a nurse banged on our door and asked, 'Could you please quiet down?' They came in and took my blood pressure about 10 minutes after the game, and it was off the charts.''

That win was a key turning point in a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl season.
ON WISCONSIN