Spring game still big deal for many college football programs
In February, Pitt coach Paul Chryst canceled the annual spring football game, halting a tradition that goes back further than anyone can remember.
Meanwhile, the Blue-White spring game in State College is being touted by the athletic department as “one of the highlights of the Penn State sports calendar,” complete with its own title sponsor.
Spring football games, an embedded college football institution, have recently set attendance records on some campuses. Several are nationally televised. Last week, Penn State coach James Franklin tweeted a picture of a capacity crowd from a “Whiteout” game day at Beaver Stadium with the words, “Pack the Whitehouse April 12,” imploring fans to break the spring record of 76,500.
“There's the traditional football powers — like Penn State is one of those — at which the spring game is a big deal and the fans really get excited for it,” said Michael Calderon, the Big Ten Network vice president for programming and digital media. “And some other schools … are less passionate about it.”
Pitt would fall into that category. The NCAA allows 15 practices during the spring, and Chryst said he believed a regular practice would use the allotted time more efficiently.
“Most, if not every, spring game you end up really sacrificing a lot,” Chryst said. “These days are really valuable for us.”
Walt Harris, who coached the Panthers from 1997-2004, agrees.
“He just made a decision that many coaches would have loved to have enough guts to do or didn't think of it,” he said.
Harris recalled long staff meetings before the spring game, trying to figure out how to make the event fair and safe for his players. And, he added, “Don't waste a day.”
Pitt's recent spring games have been sparsely attended. Fewer than 4,000 fans came out last year for the game at Bethel Park High School. Heinz Field was all but empty on a rain-soaked afternoon in 2011.
Geography often matters, especially in places such as the college football-crazed Southeast. Auburn and Alabama drew 83,401 and 78,315, respectively, last season, tops in the nation.
Many programs see their spring football game mainly as a major marketing opportunity designed to attract recruits, potential season-ticket holders and booster support. For a new coach like Franklin, the game affords fans a chance to see what former Kansas and Minnesota coach Glen Mason called “their first glimpse of what's coming in the future.”
ESPN broadcast its first spring game (Mississippi State) in April 2005. Five games will be aired this season on ESPN and ESPNU, along with nine games streamed on ESPN3.com.
The Big Ten Network is showing each of its members' spring games tape-delayed or on its website. (Penn State's game will be carried live on BTN2go.com and shown later that evening on the Big Ten Network.)
“The value for the schools is in exposure,” ESPN director of programming and acquisitions Kurt Dargis said. “And value for us is delivering some windows of programming to college football fans.”
Some programs believe otherwise. Pitt is not the only school to give up its spring game. Texas A&M's stadium is undergoing renovations. Northwestern, TCU and Oklahoma State also decided to pass, although each is hosting open practices at its home stadium.
After drawing an announced 15,000 for last season's game at Boone Pickens Stadium, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said a lack of depth caused his switch from a spring game to an open practice.
“When you have a spring game, you've got to divide teams up and go almost two deep on each team,” Gundy said. “You start switching jerseys, and it becomes not really a very attractive game for the fans.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson never has had a spring game in 14 years as head coach at the school. Patterson said he used to scout his opponents' spring games on TV and did not want his opponents to do the same.
Instead of a spring game or an open practice, Pitt is inviting fans to “Field Pass” on Sunday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. Assistant coaches will address fans, and players will hold on-field football clinics for children below the ninth grade. University officials said Monday more than 1,500 people have registered for the event, exceeding initial expectations.
But a vast majority continue the tradition. West Virginia's Gold-Blue Game on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium has its own title sponsor and a $10 admission charge that will benefit the university-affiliated Children's Hospital.
In addition to the game, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen has staged full-pad open practices — often including scrimmages — at locales across the state each Saturday.
Asked if the spring game helps the team or the fans, Holgorsen replied, “I think you can accomplish both. One of the reasons for opening up practices on all the Saturdays is to create interest when it comes to the fan base and get kids kind of jacked up, too.
“The monotony of spring practice is a reality, when you practice 15 times with no game on the horizon, so we have to do what you can do to create some excitement. Their families come to town (for the spring game) and it's good for recruiting and having people in the stands.”
Mason, a Big Ten Network analyst, said it comes down to competing philosophies.
“You have people that are trying to put on the big show … who will try to fill their house up,” he said.
“And then you have some other people saying, ‘I'm not gonna have one.' For a variety of reasons, they're thinking more about what they're trying to accomplish in their program rather than worried about the public relations end of it.”