By Lee Pace
Back in the day, college football players pummeled one another to a springtime pulp with up to 30 days of full-contact practices. Perhaps a couple of newspaper guys showed up at the end of it all to crib a few quotes and jot down the stats from the official spring scrimmage.
Today, teams can work out only 15 times and full-contact tackling can occur in only eight of them, but the results are parsed via newspaper, television, social media and online message boards. Some teams take to the road for exhibitions-a la the Tar Heels going to Charlotte and Greensboro-and the spring-ending climatic event has morphed into a mini-version of a home Saturday in the fall. Alabama has drawn more than 90,000 fans at no charge for its spring game, Nebraska has attracted more than 65,000 playing $10 a head, and Carolina's high-water mark was 30,000 for its ESPN-televised 2010 Blue-White Game.
"Football has become a year-round sport now," says Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora. "As soon as basketball is basically over, everyone turns right back to football. You see it more and more around the country with spring football being a much bigger deal. There's more excitement and hoopla than ever."
Brian Chacos was a Tar Heel offensive lineman from 2002-06 and now is on the Rams Club staff in a marketing and fan development role. He and his staff set up a tent at Grimsley High in Greensboro April 4 to promote season ticket sales and visit with fans before and during the Tar Heels' intra-squad scrimmage that evening. "When I played, we had 14 practices at Navy Field in Chapel Hill and beat each other up for a month, and then had the spring game in Kenan Stadium," Chacos says. "There was no real fanfare or excitement around it. Now the spring game and the scrimmages out of town are ways to market the program to recruits and season-ticket buyers and keep football out front 12 months a year."
Adds Rick Steinbacher, another former Tar Heel football player and now an associate athletic director, "Sports aren't as restricted by seasons as much anymore. Obviously, there is still a 'playing season,' but the media coverage, attention and interest is a 12-month thing now. We went from the football season and a little bit of spring football to now spring football being part of a year-around experience.
"For our spring game, we're trying to build game-day traditions like we have in the fall. Today we treat our spring game like it's the first game of the 2014 season."
Spring football games at Carolina have taken on various forms and formats the last quarter century.
Mack Brown preferred a controlled scrimmage with no score kept. Carl Torbush once tried to jazz the proceedings up by inviting walk-on candidates from fraternities to take the field on the kick-off cover team, hoping to create a "12th-man" tradition a la Texas A&M. That idea fizzled when one of the young men tore up his knee. John Bunting liked to anoint two captains, hold a player draft and stage as much of a lifelike game as possible, the losers eating hot dogs and having to wash cars for charity. Butch Davis invited youngsters to run a 100-yard wind sprint with players at the end of his first Blue-White Game in 2007, then the kids could get autographs from the players and a special-guest contingent of NFL alumni that included Dré Bly of the Denver Broncos, Alge Crumpler of the Atlanta Falcons, William Henderson of the Green Bay Packers and Jeb Terry of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The buzz reached its high water mark in 2010 when ESPN offered to telecast the game as part of its expanded campus presence in April, and as a way to kick-start promotion for Carolina's season-opener against LSU in Atlanta in August. The network had begun covering spring games in 2007 and in 2008 it staged a spring GameDay Live from Gainesville before the University of Florida spring game. Some 30,000 fans filled most every crevice of the north and west seating areas in Kenan Stadium on a brilliant April afternoon.
"To have 20,000 to 30,000 fans show up today was phenomenal," cornerback Kendric Burney said. "As a player, it makes you want to work that much harder the next five months. Fans don't realize how much impact they have on players."
The introduction of a new head coach and his up-tempo spread offense was an ideal hook in 2012 to ratchet up the spring game experience a few notches. More than 15,000 Carolina fans descended on the Chapel Hill campus for a spring fest of country music from ex-linebacker Chase Rice, kids' photos with Rameses, autographs from the players and concessions ranging from venerable Eastern North Carolina barbecue to a pizza truck that sold salami, pistachios and smoke gouda mixed on the same pie. Fedora has even auctioned off "coach for a day" positions to a pair of fans-giving them locker room and sideline access and the chance to call a play or two.
"It was a great crowd today, a lot of students showed up," tailback Giovani Bernard said. "We had great support."
And it's not just spring football itself that's risen in public awareness-it's the annual pro timing day as well. In March 2011, some hundred-odd NFL scouts, head coaches, assistants and general managers convened at Navy Field on a cool, gray morning to watch The Greatest Show on Turf-Johnny White dashing to 4.53 time in the forty, T.J. Yates completing 98.2 percent of his passes and Robert Quinn pounding 24 reps at 225 pounds and running a 4.59 sprint to boot.
"Boy, what do they have in the water around here?" wondered Joe Vitt, the New Orleans Saints linebackers coach.
One of Fedora's challenges when he went to Southern Miss in 2008 was to raise the Golden Eagles' profile against in-state rivals and SEC members Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and one way to do that was to take spring scrimmages outside of Hattiesburg. In 2009 he began taking one scrimmage north into the Jackson area and a second one south to the coast, to Biloxi or Ocean Springs. That concept transferred well to Carolina by moving the Tar Heels to Charlotte and Greensboro.
It's a lot of man-hours for sure, picking up a team and its medical, video, equipment and coaching staffs and moving them off-campus. But it's worth it. Having more of a game-day atmosphere hones the players' focus and the road shows are innovative outreach to fans, high school coaches and recruits.
"I think it's a great idea," says receivers coach Gunter Brewer, whose in-state recruiting focus is the Charlotte area. "If you're going to change the culture around a program, you've got to be willing to try new things, new ideas, different approaches. Going to Greensboro and Charlotte make a statement that it's not the same-old around our program."
NCAA rules prohibit one school playing another in the spring, but a team could play an alumni team or a team made of other students. The idea of a scrimmage or mock game against another school, similar to the NFL's practice of training camp scrimmages with other teams, has been floated for years among coaches and NCAA administrators.
Alabama's Nick Saban and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops have been against the idea, saying spring is for developing young players and that playing another team would divert that focus and perhaps create more off-season injury issues. Other coaches like Michigan's Brady Hoke and Harvard's Tim Murphy note that basketball, soccer and field hockey scrimmage against other schools prior to their first games, and cross-school exhibitions could be a means to generate revenue.
For now, there's nothing concrete brewing along those lines, but you never know as revenue generation becomes more important and seasons spread to more niches on the calendar. Meanwhile, Carolina will hold its annual Blue-White Game Saturday at 3 p.m. in Kenan Stadium with an array of entertainment and dining options and with football followed by fireworks and the Tar Heels' baseball game at 6 p.m. against Wake Forest.
"We're trying to make our fan base understand that football is a 12-month a year deal," Chacos says. "We want to see them treat the spring game like it's a game in the fall and we're doing our best to make the experience worth the trip."