At this time last year, Texas A&M was the epicenter of college football during spring practice. The Aggies' 2013 spring game drew a record crowd. ESPN televised the game, "Johnny Football" was the face of the sport and it helped swing in-state recruiting momentum from the Longhorns.
It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.
“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”
The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.
Spring games are at somewhat of a crossroads in college football. They’re hardly fighting off extinction as 54 FBS programs held games this past weekend. But the watered-down product is giving coaches reason for pause. The argument against holding the spring game is picking up steam, and coaches are questioning the value in using the final spring practice on a half-speed “dog-and-pony show,” as Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship puts it.
A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.
Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.
“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”
Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.
“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”
However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”
Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.
“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”
There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.
Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.
A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.
“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”
Fans and alumni are maybe the most overlooked part of the equation of whether it is realistic to ditch the spring game. Florida State director of marketing Jason Dennard said it would be nearly impossible to change the Seminoles’ spring game model, which begins with downtown events Friday. The school even receives grant dollars from the local economic development council to fortify the weekend lineup.
“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”
While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.
“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.
Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.
“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”