No clear consensus on spring game formats as coaches try different routes
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State let its players choose sides for the annual spring football game, like a group of kids meeting up on the playground. Arkansas State auctioned off one of its coaching spots on eBay, allowing a fan to come in and call plays.
Oklahoma State, meanwhile, scaled back its plans, inviting fans to show up for a practice instead of a scrimmage.
Spring games have become offseason highlights in many parts of the country. Alabama and Penn State announced crowds of over 70,000 this year, and they certainly aren't the only schools with fans who turn out in droves for their football fix. But for coaches, these public scrimmages present an interesting challenge — in part because there seems to be no consensus on what format works best.
"These games, when everybody is drafted like this, are always fun, they're always interesting," said Michigan State assistant Jim Bollman, who will coach one of the teams in the Spartans' spring game Saturday. "One thing you always see a little bit different, is the leadership side of things. You have some guys that all of a sudden are with some younger guys that they haven't been with all spring."
The spring game is a chance for players and coaches to put on a show for fans and there's obvious value in that. But spring football is also a time for preparation, and sometimes a game-like scenario isn't what a coach really wants or needs.
Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy decided to scrap the usual spring game format this year, opting instead for a public practice in which fans had a chance afterward to go onto the field for autographs and mingle with players. Gundy cited heavy roster turnover as the reason for the switch.
"Years ago, I was the guy trying to promote spring games. However, I also have to look at what is best for the team and our fans," he said. "There just weren't enough bodies for both teams. ... Every so often, when we have a big senior class leave — which I don't have a problem with a big senior class — we may have to do something like this."
Oklahoma State's "Orange Blitz" this year drew about 2,500 fans, down from 15,000 for the spring game in 2013.
Pittsburgh is another school that didn't bother with a spring game this year. Nebraska, on the other hand, drew over 60,000 fans — but instead of splitting players into two teams, coach Bo Pelini went with an offense vs. defense format, citing injuries and a lack of depth at some spots.
The offense won 55-46 in a scoring system that awarded points to the defense for certain accomplishments. The highlight, though, was probably Pelini's entrance, when he cradled a cat in his arms as he walked out of the tunnel and raised it over his head. The cat was a nod to the avatar on a popular Pelini parody Twitter account.
Yes, there's still room for goofiness in spring football, and Arkansas State may have come up with the most unusual attention grabber. The Red Wolves auctioned off a chance to coach their game.
Nick Bhardwaj of California submitted the winning bid of $11,700 in an eBay auction — raising the obvious question of how much money Alabama or Texas could raise with a similar stunt. Bhardwaj coached the Black team, which won 48-17 over the Red team. The auction drew plenty of publicity, and Blake Anderson — Arkansas State's real coach — was pleased with the game's atmosphere. He said plenty of recruits were on hand.
Anderson, though, is sympathetic any coach who feels he shouldn't hold a full scrimmage.
"I think you've got to do what the bodies allow you to do," he said. "I think if we get to the point where we don't have the bodies to do it, we'll find the next best option."
Anderson said he tried to keep first-teamers on the same team, so it was no surprise when the game turned into a bit of a mismatch. He figured it was best to let his top players get used to playing with each other in a game-like situation.
That won't be possible at Michigan State, where quarterback Connor Cook will be on a different team from running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Keith Mumphery. That should make for a less predictable result, although the quality of play is anyone's guess.
"Things certainly won't be as smooth on offense," Bollman said. "There's no way. There's just not so many things that you can get operating."
What there will be is suspense — and perhaps a more competitive attitude from the players — and that's the main benefit for the Spartans. Assistant Ron Burton will coach against Bollman, and he said the player draft itself has already taught the staff a little more about next season's team.
"It's a part of an experience as a true teacher, being able to set a team, find out more about your players from other players, from who they think can help their team, and you find out who they like and dislike," Burton said. "We found out who our guys thought were the best players. That was good."