Spring games draw big crowds, but could soon be thing of past

Ohio State, Toledo yet to follow national trend


COLUMBUS — The sounds of fall are a rite of spring in Ohio.

For one day each year, when Ohio State hosts its Scarlet and Gray football game, helmets crack, sousaphones blare, and diehards erupt as the fourth-string running back plods through the third-team defense.

An exhibition record crowd of 95,722 took in the 2009 game while the Buckeyes often lead the nation in spring attendance. Another massive scarlet-mad flock will pay the $12 admission charge — $20 the day of the game — for April 12’s scrimmage at Ohio Stadium.

Yet could this spectacle soon become a relic?

As coaches increasingly seek to maximize the efficiency of their allotted instruction time, a growing number of schools are doing away with the pomp of the traditional spring game. Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, and Oklahoma State all canceled their events this season while dozens more are treating their spring finale as just another practice.

Teams are allowed 15 spring practices — only three of which can dedicate more than half of the session to 11-on-11 scrimmaging. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said the age-old format wastes valuable time, calling it “worthless to us when you have guys playing with starters and guys that are never going to play just to make two different teams.”

Others agree.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines’ spring game Saturday will resemble a practice session, while Bowling Green State University plans to hold an offense-defense scrimmage, keeping its units intact rather than forming two piecemeal squads.

“The spring game is good for the fans, but as a new staff putting in a new system, every practice is very important this spring,” new Falcons coach Dino Babers said.

“In future years, we may look to play more of a traditional spring game.”

John Infante, a former NCAA compliance officer who authors the popular Bylaw Blog, predicts spring games as we know them will eventually vanish.

Ohio State, meanwhile, is among the holdouts — a still-vast group of schools who have games too big to topple and/​or see value in the game-like setting.

Its spring games are hardly cutthroat. Quarterbacks wear no-contact black jerseys, there are no kickoff or punt returns, and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer plays loose with the rules.

At one point during last year’s game, he stopped the game to have kicker Drew Basil boot seven straight field goal attempts.

But two sides are picked, and Meyer wants the game to feel real. The day tells him how his young players will react on the big stage.

It is the same at schools like Alabama and Nebraska, which respectively drew crowds of 78,000 and 60,000 to their spring games last year. At Michigan, where admission is free, the turnout has ranged from 18,000 to 50,000 the past five seasons.

“I’m going to do it every year because I just think it’s priceless for a player to get a rep in front of 50, 60, 70,000 fans,” Meyer said. “If I was at a school where you get 400 people, I might stop because what are you really getting? I just think you find out about a Dontre Wilson, you find out about a Raekwon McMillan, a Johnnie Dixon.

“You find out how these kids perform when the lights go on at a place like Ohio State, where you get a good crowd. As long as we can, we’ll always have a spring game.”

University of Toledo coach Matt Campbell has a similar take. The Rockets, too, will host a classic spring game on April 12.

“Every year’s different,” he said. “If you have a really young football team and you have some injuries through spring practice, then there may be some merit to [canceling the game].

“If you have a veteran team and you stay fairly healthy, I like the evaluation of simulating the game. You put people in the stands, there’s general excitement, and now you get to see these people under the lights. What can they do? There’s something to that.”

Soon, though, Meyer and Campbell could be the exception. Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst called his decision to axe the spring game a “little bit selfish” but “best for the program.”

“The thought behind it, honestly, is to get one more good workday out of them,” Chryst said. “Most, if not every spring game I’ve been a part of, you really end up sacrificing a lot.”

In a phone interview, Infante said he expects the trend of vanishing spring games to “pick up steam in the next five, 10 years.”

“Institutions with big spring game traditions will look back nostalgically to when they were a regular occurrence,” he wrote on the Bylaw Blog. “But everyone else will wonder why spring games became such a big deal in the first place.”

Blade sports writers Ryan Autullo and John Wagner contributed to this report. 

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.