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Debating the Merits of the College Spring Game Tradition

Is it worth it to have a real game at the end of spring camp?

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The sun was shining on that Saturday morning. There was a crispness to the air familiar to all the fans who were used to making that early morning trek to the Memorial Stadium parking lot. The opportunities to gather as a community and celebrate in a tailgate setting are few and as precious to many of these people as oxygen.

Sizzling brats and smoking briskets provided both the sounds and the smells for the event. Revelers gathered around their themed cornhole and ladder ball games. Moms and dads put plenty of air under the ball as they tossed the pigskins across the parking lots into the arms of kids decked out in team attire. Jerseys, facepaint, temporary tattoos, and cheap plastic shades adorned with a red block ‘N’ were scattered across the crowd as far as the eye could see.

A former Husker had taken over as coach. On this day the first glimpse of the future guided by a favorite son would be unveiled. The electricity was so palpable that people feared even grazing the fan next to them in fear of getting a nasty shock.

This game was a big one. It sold out in less than 24 hours after the tickets went on sale. There are 85,458 seats in the stadium. Somehow 86,818 fans would find their way into the venue, bodies spilling out into the concourses. They were all here for one reason. They wanted to see their Nebraska Cornhuskers win the day.

Fortunately for them, that outcome was guaranteed before the game even began. This game, you see, was played last weekend. In April. And the Huskers were playing the Huskers.

Scott Frost debuted his new-look Huskers last weekend in front of a record-setting crowd for his school. In doing so, he stimulated a sense of excitement about his program that had been lying depressed and dormant across the Husker community for the better part of a decade. Whether his team demonstrated all the fundamentals he was trying to implement, ran the plays he wanted to install, or took the proverbial “next step” in the advancement of his plan was beside the point.

On this day, football was a community event once again. Fans of all ages - from newborns to octogenarians - bore witness to the debut of Frost as the next new program savior. They were all hungry for some football. And they showed up on droves.

Nebraska isn’t the only program that sees such rabid interest in spring football that doesn’t count for anything but a reason to take some selfies and post some snaps. Ohio State regularly puts similar kinds of numbers in the stands for their spring game, including a remarkable 101,000 last season. Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, and Auburn are other programs that regularly generate attendance levels that exceed those of a sold-out Husky Stadium during the regular season.

Contrast this to the increasing number of programs that choose to either scale back or do away altogether with the spring game tradition. Most schools in the west subscribe to that strategy. So do some teams in the east including SEC programs like Texas A&M and Kentucky.

Most coaches will acknowledge that there is little football value to a spring game. Springtime depth charts are always challenged by the fact that departing seniors have not been fully replaced with fall recruits mostly not yet in school. This is true even before the added challenge of trying to divide that same roster into two teams. Playbooks are by definition “vanilla” as no coach worth his salt is going to put new stuff on tape at that point in the offseason. And player health is always a concern, especially that early in the season.

So, why do some of these schools do it anyway?

“Well, son, that’s how we’ve always done it” is a powerful argument. After all, what is college football without a strong sense of tradition woven into its fabric?

Beyond the tradition, exposure can be a powerful motivator for an athletic department. There is no better way to continue to cultivate ticket sales, merchandise sales, and content value than by increasing the number of events that are both held and televised. That same exposure can also be leveraged by coaches as a great recruiting tool in an era where recruits are increasingly committing earlier and earlier.

Finally, one could argue that there is some real value to getting live reps in both helping to develop a player who might be in line for his his first real playing time in the fall or in helping to identify players who can rise up to the challenge of facing live fire.

(Is this where we drop in the Allen Iverson “practice” gif? Yes it is.)

I was inspired to write this piece after hearing the Husky Honks debate the topic on their April 20th KJR broadcast. As part of that discussion, Hugh Millen noted that the Huskies would let each of the coordinators draft their own teams and then put the players through a full game that included the quarterbacks being live for contact (which, as Coach Baird noted, once resulted in an injury to Husky star Mark Brunell). Fans would grace the stands even if they never reached “sellout” status.

That would be a far cry from what the stands looked like on Saturday.

I suppose I’m going to cop out here and claim that I don’t really know what the right answer is. On one hand, I think that a real spring game could evolve into a terrific community event in support of a team that seems to be recapturing fan faith. As UW’s national profile rises, this kind of even could also increase Washington’s stature as a premier program with all the perks and privileges that come with it—not the least of which is a more prestigious recruiting reputation.

On the other hand, spring football isn’t really a strongly supported tradition among West Coast fans. Even if UW put on the best event on the planet, I would still wonder if fans would brave the weather and rearrange their otherwise stacked weekend schedules to fit in that kind of game. When you layer that along with the arguments that Chris Petersen would make around depth, player health, and the precious nature of those 15 springtime practices, the case for not going all in on a game can be viewed as compelling.

So, the debate continues as I suspect it will for some time. The most ardent of fans will continue to insist that we can have as a fanbase what Nebraska fans enjoy. The more pragmatic among you will see the logic in Chris Petersen’s stance and advocate for taking the full-season view on the matter. And on it goes.

By the way, Nebraska won that spring game last weekend. Shocking, right?