Coach-turned-author John Barry still loves football but urges caution during pandemic

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Three facts you should know about author John M. Barry, the former football coach whose masterful historical literary works include both “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History” and “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America”:

John M. Barry

• Barry, who once coached football at the high school, small college and major college levels, remains a huge fan of the sport who admits to watching replays of games from yesteryear on the SEC Network.

• Because of his exhaustive research for his book about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19, Barry has become a renowned expert on pandemic preparedness to the extent that both the (George W.) Bush and Obama administrations sought his advice. During the current pandemic, he has authored articles for scientific journals, as well as opinion pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post and several magazines. On any given day, you might catch him on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” PBS’s “The News Hour” or numerous NPR shows.

• Despite his love for football and his knowledge of pandemics, Barry doesn’t have a hard-set stance on whether or not college football should be played during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The season begins in Mississippi Thursday night when Southern Miss plays host to South Alabama.

“It’s a very difficult question,” Barry said. “I will say it would be a travesty for any university to play if students are not on campus. Why do universities exist? To provide entertainment for fans or for education? Any so-called school that does play without on-campus instruction should start paying their athletes.”

Rick Cleveland

Many college conferences have decided not to play this fall, including the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Big Ten, and the Pac-12. The Southeastern Conference delayed its season until Sept. 26 and will play conference games only. Conference USA will play a full schedule, although one league school, Old Dominion, decided not to play.

Said Barry, “I think you can play if you are doing everything right with testing, social distancing, masks and all the protocols – and if the rate of community transmission is low. I feel the same way about football as I do about living life. I think we should strive to be as normal as possible and to err on the side of caution.”

Southern Miss will adhere to all suggested and ordered protocols, including allowing only 25% capacity (about 9,000 fans) to attend the game. While the community transmission rates in Hattiesburg and Forrest County are improving in recent weeks, there were still 102 new cases last week (down from over 200 in late July and early August).

Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University

John M. Barry (far right), with Mississippi State president Mark Keenum (left) and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey when Barry spoke at MSU in 2017

During the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed at least 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S., the effect on sports, college football in particular, was similar to what we see today. Some conferences played, some didn’t. In Mississippi, Southern Miss did not play, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State played reduced schedules.

“One of the most powerful sports stories from the pandemic a century ago was in hockey,” Barry said. “Professional hockey actually canceled the Stanley Cup championship series when both teams had several players become ill.”

The series was tied 2-2-1 with just he deciding game remaining to be played. It never was. One player died. One coach never fully recovered from the disease and died a few years later. It remains the only time in history the Stanley Cup was not awarded after the playoffs had begun.

The so-called Spanish Flu, said Barry, left many of those afflicted with long-term health problems.

“There were complications, mostly neurological in nature, that did not show up for years,” Barry said. “There is so much we don’t know about this virus and its long-term health effects. We do know that many who are asymptomatic nevertheless have lung damage and heart problems. That’s why we should err on the side of caution.”

Barry lives in New Orleans where he is currently Distinguished Scholar at Tulane’s Bywater Institute and a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. In 1973, he was a graduate assistant, coaching wide receivers, for one of the most successful teams in Tulane history. Benny Ellender was the head coach of a Green Wave team that won nine games and lost three and defeated then arch-rival LSU, ranked No. 8 in the nation, 14-0.

Ellender, awarded a 10-year contract after the season, turned down an offer to become the Ole Miss coach — “he always regretted that,” Barry said. Ken Cooper subsequently got the Ole Miss job, and two years later Tulane fired Ellender.

As for Barry, he quit coaching and began writing highly acclaimed books. Now 73, he has a new one in the works. You might not be surprised to learn it will be about the current pandemic.