He slowly paced the LSU practice field, clutching a piece of paper full of scribbled notes. Les Miles silently eyed his team of nearly 100 players, who stood around him in a circle, outfitted in pads and sweating under the bright sun. It was the first week of spring football practice in Baton Rouge, and every player waited for Miles's next command—as did the assistant coaches, the trainers, the student-managers filming the 90-minute session, the handful of former players watching from afar and the 20 members of the media standing on the sideline. The first game of the season was still six months away, but to Miles, this moment in the spring was as big as any that would occur on a Saturday this fall.
This is an article from the March 28, 2011 issue
"Give me 52 versus 27!" Miles yelled. Linebacker Luke Muncie (number 52) and running back Kenny Hilliard (27) sprinted to the middle of the circle. "Let's see who wants it!" Miles screamed. "Show me what you have!"
The players squatted in three-point stances, waited for Miles to blow a whistle and then slammed into each other. It was a raw, high-speed collision. The other players and the coaches roared like a blood-thirsty mob as Muncie and Hilliard crashed to the ground. This was as ruthlessly fundamental as football gets—man versus man—and Miles smiled devilishly as he called out two more names to step into the cauldron.
"That drill is called Big Cat, and it's all about desire," Miles said after practice, as he sat on metal bleachers and watched a few players toss footballs in the March dusk. "You need to have a comfort and enjoyment of violence to succeed in this game, and that is developed in the spring. That's why spring is absolutely critical to what we do: It gives us a time to teach, to try new things and discover new players."
In 1971 Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey famously said, "There are only two sports in Texas: football and spring football." Forty years later that sentiment applies to much of the country as the popularity of spring football—15 days of practice usually conducted in March or April and almost always ending with an intrasquad scrimmage—is at an alltime high. In 2010 almost 1.5 million fans attended spring games, most receiving free tickets but some paying as much as $15 for the honor to attend a glorified practice. Thirteen schools set spring game-attendance records; Alabama drew the biggest crowd (91,312), while Nebraska (77,936) topped the 77,000 mark for the third straight year. ESPN is also in on the action; in the next few weeks its networks will broadcast at least five spring games nationally. (The most they have ever done is six.) And, not surprisingly, spring football has turned into a moneymaker for schools: Nebraska reportedly rakes in about $500,000 from tickets (at $10 apiece), parking, concessions and merchandise sold during its annual Red-White Game—or roughly one third of what the Huskers' men's baseball, golf, gymnastics, tennis, track and wrestling teams combined to generate over the entire 2009--10 school year.
So what is the allure of spring football? Ask current and former coaches, and they say the same thing: In spring, more so than in the fall, anything is possible. The canvas is blank, potential untapped. Forget a fourth-and-one situation in November; coaching matters most in March. "So much can happen in the spring," says former Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne, now Nebraska's athletic director. "Some real significant events in the history of college football have occurred in the spring."
Indeed, spring has always been a time of discovery, innovation and fresh beginnings in the sport. From Pop Warner to Bear Bryant to Bobby Bowden, spring practice has presented the same opportunity to mold a team in the coach's image, the chance—as one former coach says—"to try everything under the sun to get a goddam advantage."
Bowden will never forget the April day that changed his career. It was 1960, and the fresh-faced Bowden was 30 years old and about to enter his second season as head coach at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Ala. One morning he slid behind the wheel of his new Pontiac station wagon and drove 60 miles on country roads to Tuscaloosa. The coach at Alabama had invited Bowden to observe the Crimson Tide's spring practice, and minutes after Bowden parked his car he was standing next to Bryant, who presided over the practice with a whistle hanging from his neck and a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips.
Bryant's spring practices were brutal. The Bear obsessively focused on two simple things: blocking and tackling. Bryant made his players dress in full pads for every workout, had them scrimmage several times a week and frequently put them through the living hell known as the Circle Drill. In this exercise one player stood in the middle of a circle of teammates. At the whistle a player on the ring would charge forward, trying to either block or tackle the man in the center—whichever Bryant commanded. The player in the middle stayed there until his back was on the ground.
"Back then we had contact every day," recalls Gene Stallings, a defensive assistant on Bryant's staff from 1958 through '64 and head coach of the Alabama team that won the national championship in '92. "I remember one scrimmage that lasted for hours and didn't get over until 11:30 at night. But Coach Bryant wanted to see who was tough in the spring, who he could count on in the fall. He did that by having the players practice blocking and tackling over and over and over. The players didn't particularly enjoy spring ball."
Stallings served as Bowden's tour guide that day in 1960. As Bowden strolled around the practice field, he marveled at the ferocity of the training session; the players hit each other so violently that many were bloodied by the end of practice. "That's when I learned the secret to Bear Bryant," says Bowden, who was head coach at Florida State from 1976 through 2009 and retired with the second-most wins in Division I-A history, behind Penn State's Joe Paterno. "If a player was going to quit, Bryant wanted him to quit in [spring] practice, not in a game. That practice I saw was really, really tough. Looking back, that day was the single most important one in my 56 years of coaching. I took everything I saw from Bryant and applied it to what I was going to do as a head coach."
The history of coaches making discoveries in the spring goes back to the late 19th century, when Arthur J. Cumnock, captain of the Harvard football team, organized what is believed to be the first spring football "program." With a student reporter from The Harvard Crimson covering that first practice, on March 14, 1889, Cumnock told his teammates that they would practice for two months and then would have a "drop kick" tournament lasting from May 1 to May 28. "The football squad was practising [sic] on Jarvis Field yesterday afternoon," the Crimson reporter noted. "The work consisted of kicking, tackling and falling on the ball."
Perhaps the most significant springtime revelation in college football history occurred 18 years later in Carlisle, Pa. One afternoon in April 1907 an 18-year-old student at the Carlisle Indian School, dressed in overalls and a pair of sneakers he had found earlier that day in the school gymnasium, was walking across the school's athletic fields when he spied a group of high jumpers. Jim Thorpe was on his way to an intramural football game, but he wanted to try to clear the bar, which was set at 5'9". The other students taking jumps laughed at Thorpe, who looked more like a farmer than an athlete. But then one of them told Thorpe to give it a try.
Taking a running start, Thorpe soared over the bar almost effortlessly. One of the students who witnessed the jump told Carlisle's football coach, Glenn (Pop) Warner, about it. The coach then called Thorpe into his office. "Do you know what you have done?" Warner asked.
"Nothing bad, I hope," Thorpe replied.
Warner explained that Thorpe had just broken the school's high jump record. The coach walked around his desk and put his arm around Thorpe, and this was the moment that their lives became irrevocably linked—the football equivalent of Socrates taking Plato under his wing. Warner eventually invited Thorpe to play on his football team, and over the next five years they would revolutionize the game. In Warner's single-wing offense—another spring discovery, diagrammed by the coach on a notepad, also in 1907—Thorpe would receive the ball and zigzag all over the field. Football at Carlisle became a ballet of athleticism and grace, no longer the lumbering scrum it had been in its early days. What happened 104 springs ago in central Pennsylvania still reverberates across the nation: The DNA of Warner and Thorpe can be found in many college football formations, including in the Pistol, which dozens of teams used at various times last season.
In April 1969 Tom Osborne was desperate. An offensive assistant coach at Nebraska, Osborne and the Cornhuskers were coming off back-to-back 6--4 seasons. There were whispers in Lincoln that the coaching staff might not survive another mediocre autumn. But that spring Osborne had an idea that would transform not only Nebraska but also the entire sport.
One day Osborne saw an injured track athlete assisting a few injured football players in the Nebraska weight room, which at the time was 424 square feet and contained one bench press and a few barbells. The track athlete was Boyd Epley, a 6-foot, 200-pound pole vaulter. "The poles were made of bamboo back then, and Boyd, being a big weightlifting muscle guy, kept breaking the poles," Osborne recalls. "The track coach eventually asked him to go do something else."
Osborne discovered that the injured players Epley worked with were returning to spring practice faster and stronger than ever. In those days most coaches believed that lifting weights diminished players' flexibility and coordination, but Osborne thought, What if the Huskers created a new staff position and hired Boyd to be their strength coach? No team in the country had such a coach, but Osborne took Epley to meet coach Bob Devaney. After hearing a sales pitch from Osborne, Devaney agreed to hire Epley at a wage of $2 an hour. But before Epley left Devaney's office, the coach warned him, "If anyone gets slower, you're fired."
The results of Epley's work were swift and stunning: Nebraska won the national title one season later, in 1970, and repeated as champion the following year. The Cornhuskers became the strongest team in the country. "Before Boyd came on, if we had a lineman who weighed 250 pounds, that was considered really big," Osborne says. "But we turned our whole program around mostly because of strength training. Nebraska was ahead of the curve."
Indeed, more than 60 of Epley's assistants went on to become head strength coaches at other colleges and in the NFL. Forty-two years after the $2-an-hour hiring, Nebraska boasts one of the largest weight rooms in the world (more than 30,000 square feet), a fact that is included in every pitch that coach Bo Pelini makes to prospective recruits. "Nebraska fundamentally changed the way the game is played because of its strength program," says Bowden. "The first thing I did when I got to Florida State [in 1976] was to send my strength coach to Lincoln in the spring to learn as much as he could."
Throughout the 1980s and the early '90s, Bowden, Osborne and nearly every other coach followed the Bear Bryant approach to spring football by holding physical practices daily and in full pads. How taxing could spring ball be on players? In 1981 Auburn coach Pat Dye, upset with what he considered the poor effort and intensity level of his team during the spring game, told his charges to meet him on the Jordan-Hare Stadium field two nights later. "We're going to play another game," Dye said, "and we're going to find out who wants to play ball next fall."
"That game was a first-class bloodbath," says Ray Moon, an SEC official from 1974 through 2001 who worked as a linesman for both of those games at Auburn. "Dye locked the doors to the stadium, and it was as violent as anything in the spring I ever saw. If a player got hurt on one side of the field, the coaches would move the ball to the other hash mark and tell the kids to keep playing, even while the injured player was still on the ground. It was vicious."
Ever since the leather-helmet days of Warner and Thorpe, injuries have been a part of spring practice. In 1951 the NCAA limited the number of spring practices a team could conduct to 20 sessions over 30 days, but it didn't dictate how much contact could take place in those practices. "Most coaches in the '70s, '80s and early '90s treated spring football like boot camp," says John Robinson, who won a national championship at USC in '78. "Twenty days of practice meant 20 days of pads. I would hold my breath hoping a player didn't get hurt."
The debate over how to curtail spring-practice injuries peaked in 1997. That year an NCAA study revealed that more serious injuries occurred in spring football than in every other sport, including fall football. In spring games that year, for instance, three high-profile players suffered serious injuries—Tennessee wide receiver Peerless Price (broken ankle), Nebraska running back Dan Alexander (torn ACL) and Florida State defensive end Sean Mitchell (career-ending right-knee injury)—and many coaches argued that spring practice should be cut back. Limiting contact in the spring became the personal crusade of Grant Teaff, the coach at Baylor from 1972 through '92, who has been the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association since '94. In '98 Teaff and a handful of other former coaches persuaded the NCAA to issue new spring guidelines: Teams could practice only 15 times over 34 days; players couldn't have contact the first two days; tackling could occur in only eight of the workouts; and only three full scrimmages were allowed.
"Those restrictions changed everything," says Teaff. "Injuries aren't as common now, and coaches have adapted to not having pads on."
The limit on the number of full-contact days unintentionally helped bring about an offensive revolution. With power-running programs unable to practice as they had before, coaches put players in pads and shorts and spread them across the field, working on one-on-one drills and operating in space. The result: a proliferation of the spread offense, run in some form by dozens of teams.
"You can coach the spread all year round," says Bowden. "That rule of limiting contact in spring practice absolutely led to a shift in what offenses you see in college football today."
Countless players have used the practice days of March and April as springboards to greatness. In the spring of 1992, quarterback Charlie Ward outdueled Kenny Felder for the starting job at Florida State. A year later Ward won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national title. During USC's spring practice in 2003, Matt Leinart beat out three other quarterbacks in a tight competition. He would end up taking the Trojans to national championships in '03 and '04 while also winning the 2004 Heisman.
One year ago Cam Newton was a junior college transfer when he strode onto the practice field for spring football at Auburn. What did the veteran Tigers players think of the 6'6", 250-pound quarterback when he unleashed his first pass? "Right away you could tell he was a phenomenal athlete," says Ryan Pugh, Auburn's starting center last season. "He stuck out, and he worked hard. No [defender] could touch the quarterbacks in the spring, but we knew he was going to be special."
Locked in a battle to be the first-team quarterback with senior Neil Caudle and sophomore Barrett Trotter, Newton shone in the spring, and coach Gene Chizik named Newton his starter a week after the spring game. "Spring practice was huge for Cam," Chizik says of the player who would win the Heisman Trophy and lead Auburn to the BCS title, the school's first national championship since 1957. "That's when he won the players and the coaches over. He couldn't have done much better. That's really where our journey as a team coming together started."
It's the day before the start of spring ball at South Carolina, and well-traveled coach Steve Spurrier is sitting in his office in Columbia, telling one of his favorite spring-practice stories. "In 1989, which was the year before I [became the coach at] Florida, they had a really intense spring game," Spurrier recalls. "They called it the Steak and Beans Game because the winning team got to eat steak for dinner and the losers had to eat beans. It meant so much to them that Emmitt Smith carried the ball 31 times in the game. Thirty-one times!"
Spurrier pauses. Then, laughing, he adds, "I promise you Marcus Lattimore or any of our other running backs won't be carrying the ball 31 times in our spring game. You don't want to get anyone hurt, and I mean, come on, it's just practice. But I'll tell you what: I sure like our team. We've got a chance to be pretty dang good."
This, more than anything, is the true beauty of football in the spring: No matter what happens over the next few weeks, all teams will emerge believing there is promise in the coming fall, all of them dreaming big, all believing they got a chance to be pretty dang good.
SPRING STORY LINE
The Tigers' national title chase begins behind center
With 15 starters back from an 11--2 team, LSU will make the short list of national championship contenders. The road to the title would be much easier with an improved passing attack (the Tigers ranked 107th in 2010), and coach Les Miles has addressed that need by opening up a quarterback competition. Seniors Jarrett Lee (left) and Jordan Jefferson (middle) and junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger (right) are battling for the starter's role this spring. While the Mad Hatter was immediately high on Mettenberger, formerly of Georgia—"[he] gets an opportunity to start [for us] quickly," the coach said last month—Miles has recently been effusive about Jefferson, last year's starter and the current front-runner.
SPRING STORY LINE
The Cardinal has a new coach and new faces up front
Nowhere is spring practice more important than at a school with a new coach, and of the 21 programs with new men at the helm, no team will likely start higher in the polls than Stanford. David Shaw, the offensive coordinator the last four years, takes over for Jim Harbaugh and inherits a likely top 10 squad that includes Heisman Trophy favorite Andrew Luck (far right, taking snap). Shaw's first order of business is replacing three starters, including All-America center Chase Beeler, on what has been a ruthlessly efficient offensive line the last two seasons. "This spring we'll see who is ready to step up and fill those roles," Shaw says. "A lot of our success will depend on how we play up front."
SPRING STORY LINE
Wholesale changes have the Horns starting from scratch
This spring is about renewal in Austin, where six new assistants, including the coordinators on both sides of the ball, have been entrusted with bringing fresh ideas to a team that fell to 5--7 in 2010. On offense, the staff is installing a multiple scheme that emphasizes the run; but who will operate that attack? Four quarterbacks—including last year's starter, Garrett Gilbert, and backup, Case McCoy (right)—are taking snaps with the first team. The myriad changes have everyone playing catch-up. Says coach Mack Brown, "There is no question we will be a work in progress for a while."
SPRING STORY LINE
Kellen Moore is good, but who will catch the ball?
In what will be quarterback Kellen Moore's last season in Boise, the Broncos have lost just six starters, but two of those are NFL-bound receivers Titus Young and Austin Pettis, who combined for 2,166 yards and 19 touchdowns receiving in 2010. Tyler Shoemaker (left), the team's No. 3 receiver last year, is in line to see more playing time. "This is a big spring for him because he really hasn't been in this role before," coach Chris Petersen says. Freshman Troy Ware and sophomore Kirby Moore, Kellen's brother, have also been early-spring revelations.