There was a time when the notion of not holding a spring game was uncommon.
Fans and recruits could circle the date on their calendars, young players and new coaches saw it as the first opportunity to make a lasting impression.
More recently, however, the value of the spring game has been challenged with various coaches pondering if a traditional spring game is the most efficient use of time as they aim to prepare their rosters.
This spring, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy raised eyebrows when the Cowboys announced their “Orange Blitz” open practice session would replace their traditional Orange-White spring game. TCU has rarely held a traditional spring game under Gary Patterson, with the Horned Frogs preferring intra-squad scrimmages.
Patterson values the opportunity to watch other team’s spring games on television but refuses to give other coaches that advantage over his team and doesn’t view the event as essential for the Horned Frogs program. TCU has not finalized its plan for this spring, but a traditional spring game seems unlikely.
Although his program normally holds an event, OSU opened the spring with a young, battered roster, which was the main reason for Gundy’s decision to shun a spring game this year. For Gundy, engaging fans with a spring game had to take a backseat to the overall development of the young players in the program during the 15 practices the Cowboys will hold in March and April.
“At some point I have to make a decision based on what's best for our team first and then our fans and people that follow us second,” Gundy said earlier this week.
Other Big 12 coaches point to health concerns as obstacles to holding a traditional spring game featuring two separate squads.
“Spring games are always a trying time due to depth at certain positions,” said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who will hold KU’s spring game on April 12. “Concern for injuries is always an issue, not being able to field two entire competitive teams is a problem.”
Postponing the spring game can become a real option, particularly after losing a large class of seniors off the roster thus crippling the overall depth of the program until February signees arrive in the summer. Quarterbacks end up switching teams in the middle of the game, a lack of available linemen waters down the quality of the action and fears of a season-changing injury can cloud these spring finales.
“Everyone says, ‘Well I would love to have a draft and have my guys go on each side of the ball,’” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “You can’t, you don’t have the personnel. Sometimes you have so many injuries or you may be thin that you can’t afford to have a spring game and get somebody hurt. Some other years, when we are a little bit down, I don’t want to take a chance on it. It is all great until someone gets hurt and blows a knee out, and then it is, ‘Why did I do that?’”
The Sooners are one of the Big 12 programs that are all-in on the spring game, selling tickets to the event, televising the action and creating a game-like atmosphere at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. But even OU dumbs down the efficiency of the actual football in the game, sitting starters and simplifying schemesto avoid lurkers, such as Patterson, who are aiming to gain useful tidbits on the Sooners that they can use in the fall.
Even with all those drawbacks, the spring game remains valuable for the majority of the conference, with several Big 12 coaches pointing toward the game-like atmosphere, not to mention the recruiting value, of the traditional spring game as assets too useful to ignore.
“I think it's great for the fans,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You only get six home games in the regular season, sometimes we only get five some years. So to have another game at Jones Stadium so that everyone can come back and tailgate, have some festivities, I think it's great for the university and great for the fan base. And I like to see our players when the lights come on. Anybody can do it in practice, but when the lights come on and there's some pressure and people are watching, let's see how you perform."
Kansas State won’t kick off its spring drills until April 2 but will hold its spring game on April 26. Head coach Bill Snyder believes the tradition of the spring game outweighs any cons.
“The positive attributes of having a spring game for us include tradition, for our young people and our fan base, the benefits it provides our local community and the experience our players get by playing in front of a large crowd,” he said.
Charlie Strong is convinced his team can still get quality work done with a traditional spring game. The Longhorns will hold their version on April 19, with UT’s new head coach convinced it will be just another day for his players to get better.
“The most important thing is that the spring game is another opportunity to get out on the field and coach your team,” Strong said. “It's another practice, more reps and more video to look at as you get ready for the season. It is the final spring practice and having a chance to go in the stadium with a great crowd gives you an opportunity to see how the team responds to that as well."
Realistically, while opinions about the spring game vary when it comes to its value in terms of developing the current roster for the upcoming season, its recruiting value cannot be understated. There is no better spring event to put all the positives of the program on full display and intrigue potential recruits to make a special trip to campus.
“When you can bring players in and see people in the stands cheering and excited, it really helps,” Kingsbury said.