Two top 25 teams, a Heisman Trophy candidate who could break the NCAA's all-time rushing record and a possible record crowd at the Metrodome are all headline-grabbing elements of Saturday's football game between No. 25 Minnesota and No. 20 Wisconsin.
But trumping all that is Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who will be at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for knee-replacement surgery.
Badgers assistant coach John Palermo will take over the reigns while Alvarez watches the Badgers (3-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten) and Gophers (4-0, 1-0) from a recovery room with a large-screen TV.
Palermo said John Chadima, the Director of Facilities and Events for Wisconsin, will be on the Badgers sideline with a cell phone so Alvarez can reach them whenever it is needed.
Facing a team without its coach is something Gophers coach Glen Mason said he has never encountered.
"Obviously, that's tough because we're so emotionally involved with our jobs," said Mason when asked about Alvarez's situation. "I know that unless this wasn't a very serious thing that had to be tended to right away, he wouldn't do it. Having your knee replaced -- I don't even want to think about that."
How would that affect the Gophers if Mason was in a similar predicament?
"Well, I think my guys would probably do a lot better if I wasn't there," Mason said with a chuckle.
Alvarez's knee has caused him severe pain ever since he re-injured it when he was attending an exhibition game between the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos at Camp Randall Stadium.
The injury caused some internal bleeding that was filling his joint with fluids.
"He was in a lot of pain and it was just something he had to get done," Palermo said of Alvarez.
Alvarez has coached the last two games (a home loss to Michigan and a win at Ohio State) from the press box. Mason said he figures Alvarez's absence will inspire the Wisconsin players.
"I'm sure that will serve as motivation for them," Mason said. "We wish Barry a speedy recovery, because that's a very serious thing."
Penn State coach Joe Paterno, the epitome of longevity who has never even missed a day of practice because of health issues during his 50 years with the Lions, said he is sure Alvarez and his staff will still be able to prepare the team effectively.
"You have to imagine it might happen sometime -- we're not all iron men," said Paterno. "I don't know how Barry's going to react to it, but one thing about Barry -- he's a very tough individual and he's physically and mentally tough."
Making Mason a believer
Mason has said the Gophers' first top 25 ranking in almost 14 years means nothing to him. He also said the 4-0 start is something he expected from his squad.
All in all, his demeanor after Monday's practice revealed a coach trying not to put out several little potential fires that could burn up his squad.
He said is worried about the ranking going to his players' heads and possibly affecting their play. But during Tuesday's weekly luncheon with the media, he let loose with a little burst of positive emotion.
"I said at the beginning of the year that I sensed enthusiasm in the air concerning Gophers football," Mason said. "And now I sense excitement. It's exciting for us, because Saturday will be a monumental challenge for us."
Palermo and fellow Wisconsin assistants Phil Elmassian (secondary coach), Jim Hueber (offensive line coach) and Jeff Horton (quarterbacks coach) have all coached for the Gophers.
Palermo was here as an assistant from 1984-87. Hueber was at the University from 1984-91, and Horton and Elmassian were here for just the 1984 season.
Michael Dougherty covers football and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
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