Friday April 11th, 2008

When Urban Meyer coached his first spring game at Florida in 2005, he gazed out into the stands at Florida Field and saw more than 59,000 people. "I was kind of like, 'What are you people doing? Go play golf or something,'" Meyer said this week.

Meyer won't encourage anyone to hit the links when his Gators scrimmage Saturday. Florida will be the first school to host the next logical step in the spring game's evolution from casual, sneak-peek scrimmage to full-fledged event/major recruiting tool when ESPN's College GameDay broadcasts live from Florida Field at 11 a.m. on ESPN2. After GameDay, the network will broadcast the first two hours of Florida's spring game on ESPN and on its broadband Internet platforms.

While casual fans may still consider the game to be a glorified practice, die-hards consider it a welcome relief from NBA playoff games and regular-season Major League Baseball games. "People," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said this week, "are starved for football."

Dave Brown, the ESPN vice president for programming who made the call to devote the resources and manpower to broadcast GameDay from a spring game, said spring games give his network a platform to cover big offseason stories in a sport that draws significant viewership. "The bottom line is we haven't had any games for three months," Brown said. "Spring football is the only time period where you will see the team and get a glimpse of what it might look like next year. It's a little bit like an oasis in the middle of an eight-month desert."

Brown said he can envision in future years broadcasting from multiple sites during a three- or four-week period after the Final Four. Meanwhile, more schools will offer free parking and free-or-heavily-discounted admission to lure fans and turn the games into events that keep interest stoked and donations flowing through the doldrums between the BCS title game and the opening of preseason camp in August. Coaches, always on the lookout for an edge in recruiting, have found that a packed stadium on an April Saturday can offer a final chance to fire up recruits, many of whom will commit to schools before the football season begins.

Last year, Alabama coach Nick Saban reaped the benefits of such a recruiting boost. When more than 90,000 packed Bryant-Denny Stadium for Saban's first spring game, recruits in attendance could sense the renewed excitement. Meanwhile, reports of fans getting turned away because the stadium was full ran across the country. Alabama wound up signing the nation's top-ranked recruiting class.

"The fan support, the positive energy that the fans had to support the program, had as much to do with having the No. 1 recruiting class as anything," Saban said. "Their continued support and interest is something that can help us be successful here, and they need to know that. They need to understand that."

Perhaps the best Web site for predicting attendance at spring games is Weather.com. The nicer the weather, the better the chances of packing the house. When 'Bama's A-Day game kicks off at 2 p.m. CST on Saturday it should be sunny, breezy and 68 degrees. That forecast could bode well for signing day next February.

It may not matter whether the weather cooperates at Nebraska. The school already has announced a sellout of 65,000 reserved tickets for Bo Pelini's first spring game as the Cornhuskers' coach on April 19. Fans snapped up the last 1,000 obstructed-view seats in a matter of hours on Wednesday. After complimentary admissions are figured in, officials expect to fill almost all of Memorial Stadium's 81,067 seats.

Fans who can't make the games will get plenty of spring coverage on GameDay Saturday, and ESPNU also will broadcast Missouri's spring game on April 19. The NFL Network will broadcast Pitt's spring game live on April 19 with guest color commentary from Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. The Big Ten network will provide live look-ins on eight of the conference's spring games on April 19, and fans can watch those games in their entirety live on the network's Web site or on tape delay on television.

So why the sudden glut of spring football programming? Cable networks need fresh content, but that doesn't explain it all. Put simply, media companies based mostly in large metropolitan centers have finally realized that people love college football -- in many cases more than professional sports. For example, the state of Florida has nine NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL franchises, but the two most popular sports teams in the state probably are the football teams at Florida and Florida State. In Ohio, diehard Cleveland Browns fans had to suffer the indignity of losing their team to Baltimore, but they know the Buckeyes will never leave Columbus, where those Browns fans can join forces with Bengals fans and celebrate their shared hatred of Michigan.

Speaking of the Wolverines, stadium construction at The Big House will keep Michigan from enjoying the momentum bump that usually follows the first spring game for a new coach. Rich Rodriguez's first spring game will be played at nearby Saline High, and instead choosing which fans can occupy the 8,000 seats at Saline's stadium, Michigan officials have closed the scrimmage to the public. That's unfortunate for a fan base anxious to see a glimpse of how the Wolverines will look at the dawn of the Rodriguez era.

In recent years, Southern Miss could have held its spring game in a high school stadium. First-year Golden Eagles coach Larry Fedora, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, would love to change that. Fedora is like many other non-BCS coaches who hope to emulate the success of the jam-packed spring games at their power-conference brethren, but Fedora may be more ambitious than the rest. He has mounted a campaign to draw 30,000 people to Carlisle-Faulkner Field on Saturday -- an especially daunting task considering Southern Miss averaged 26,768 at its home games last season. How did Fedora arrive at the number?

"That was the first number I threw out where people said, 'You can't do that. That can't be done,'" Fedora said. "So obviously when they said that, that was the number I decided on."

Fedora realizes 30,000 may be a stretch, but his moxie has earned his program more attention than it would have received normally. Patrick Magee, a sportswriter for the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, has promised in print that if 30,000 people show, he'll dance an Irish jig at midfield. Who knows? Maybe if Fedora pulls it off and repeats the feat next year, Magee will wind up dancing a jig while College GameDay broadcasts from a glorified practice.

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