Spring games are dying or dwindling in some corners, but Huskers’ version is only growing
Nebraska’s Red-White Spring Game has never been stronger.
All you have to do is look at the numbers. Spurred by Scott Frost’s hire in December 2017, the school has sold out Memorial Stadium in consecutive years, and the only question come 1 p.m. Saturday is whether the exact attendance number tops last year’s record of 86,818.
It’s difficult to envision a major slowdown anytime soon, particularly if Frost’s program makes strides toward national prominence.
While Nebraska’s huge spring game crowds have always been more the exception than the rule, it’s also safe to say that the divide is only growing. In fact, more and more schools have gone away from the format entirely or modified their events in significant ways.
“I think people are going away from the spring game format in large part because a coach’s biggest priority coming out of that game is keeping everybody healthy,” Frost said Wednesday. “You don’t want to see anybody go down in the spring game when it’s friendly fire and you’re going live against yourself.”
Then again, not everybody sells out a stadium in April. Really, part of the reason the Sea of Red will see a full scrimmage Saturday is because the Huskers feel a sense of duty.
“Nobody else sells out their stadium or very few sell out their stadium, so we can’t go out and not play a game,” Frost said. “Eighty-seven thousand Nebraskans are going to show up to watch us play and we owe it to them to play a football game.”
There are precautions taken, of course. The quarterbacks wear green noncontact jerseys, just as they do during normal practices. Many of the players who are established starters will play one half or less before mostly backups and scout-teamers take over. They are not being bashful about keeping players out of the game who are dealing with minor injuries, even if some like Wan’Dale Robinson and JD Spielman would be among the day’s top attractions.
In the grand scheme of things, though, these are rather modest steps to take.
All you have to do is look around the Big Ten. Northwestern doesn’t hold a spring game at all. Wisconsin’s was canceled due to weather in 2018 and this year the Badgers aren’t having a traditional spring game, opting instead for an open practice to close out the spring session. Iowa is having turf replaced currently so there is no spring game. Time will tell if they reinstitute it next year or follow the Badgers’ lead of not going back.
Ohio State is having a spring game this weekend — like NU’s it’s being televised on BTN — but it will feature no live tackling. The Buckeyes instead will “thud it up,” head coach Ryan Day told reporters there.
Minnesota has attempted to hold a spring game, but it’s been disrupted by injuries, weather or, this spring, both, for three straight years under P.J. Fleck.
“Our fans are the best in the country and I don’t know if it’s close,” Frost said. “I’m sure other people feel that way, too, but we have a fan base here that sells out in 24-48 hours for a spring game; that’s hard to match. There’s some teams around the country with a few hundred people at the spring game; we’re going to have a full house.”
One has to wonder if Frost and company saw the photos from Florida State, a traditional college football power, where photos from before the game showed a mostly empty stadium and the school later announced a crowd of 27,901. To be fair, the Seminoles were one of six schools in the nation in 2018 to have at least 60,000 (and one of nine with more than 50,000) at their spring game, aided in part by having a new head coach in Willie Taggart.
Only four schools topped 70,000, per numbers provided by NU: The Huskers, Georgia (82,184), Alabama (74,732) and Penn State (71,000).
NU defensive line coach Tony Tuioti will experience it for the first time this weekend and said he expects it to be unlike his previous college stops at Cal, Michigan and Hawaii.
“It’s going to be nothing like this and I’m excited about that,” Tuioti said. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the country that has something like this. It’s unique in its own right and I’m looking forward to it.
“I say to my players all the time, whether there’s one person in the stands or 90,000 in the stands, they’re going to get the same show. If we approach practice that way and attack that way, it doesn’t really matter, but it does make it more fun when people are out there cheering for you so we’ve got to come out and give them a reason to cheer.”
The Huskers aren’t the only ones left who are going to go live and have a full scrimmage. Michigan will mix scrimmage into a practice at the Big House. Up the road in East Lansing, Mark Dantonio made clear his intentions for a free event at Spartan Stadium.
“It’ll be a scrimmage,” he told reporters. “It’s not gonna be a tag-you-off-touch-you deal. We will play. We’re looking forward to people coming out.”
So the spring game isn’t dead yet. It may be dwindling in some corners, but it’s not going anywhere in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go down that road because of the support we get and the unbelievable amount of fans that show up at the spring game,” Frost said.