Who says football isn't a spring game?
Harvard and Princeton launched the Intercollegiate Football Association on April 28, 1877. Notre Dame once played Michigan on successive mid-April days in 1888. And in Texas, the saying goes that there are really only two sports, football and spring football.
The reference here, of course, is to the spring football practices that many college teams engage in at this time of year.
Small colleges are prohibited from out-of-season practices, but the larger football programs are permitted 20 post-season practices (not including bowl game preparations) in a period of 36 days.
Each school draws up its own practice schedule, usually between early March and early May. Many teams skip over a weekday here or there, only to practice on Saturday, and sometimes even Sunday.
For the most part, all this activity goes relatively unnoticed. Whatever attention it receives is usually focused on the intrasquad, Blue-vs.-White games that traditionally cap spring practice.
Beyond this, few seem too interested what goes on during this off-season training. Ah, but the temptation for big-time excesses is there. The publicity mills appear particularly vulnerable. To keep up with the Joneses, or the Clemsons, West Virginias, etc., school publicists must be prepared to print some pretty elaborate-looking spring football prospectuses.
Louisiana State's is 60 pages long with a full-color cover photo. Penn State's is more modest, just 32 pages in one color, but still quite an expenditure of ink, time, and money on an off-season sport.
At the same time, coaches are beginning to call for games against outside competition in the spring against otherwise unscheduled natural rivals.
Such games could benefit other sports, Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry feels. ``I think this would be a great income-producing thing,'' he said. ``It might salvage some of the sports that we have had to eliminate simply because of budget restrictions. Assure that everybody plays. Don't put all the premium on winning.''
It's hard to imagine these practice games not becoming really serious business, especially if thousands of spectators attended to see the school's football honor upheld.
Rather than increasing the money, hype, and pressure surrounding college football in the spring, wouldn't it be better to go the other way, even to the point of eliminating spring practice altogether?
Many coaches, of course, make the point that the spring is often the only time they really have to teach their players, claiming that, once the fall season starts, the attention shifts to getting ready for Saturday's opponent.
That may be true, but if spring practices were dropped, wouldn't coaches find a way do more in-season teaching, as occurs in the Ivy League? And as long as everybody started preseason practices at the same time (which isn't the case now), no one would have an edge.
Teams often only have partial squads in spring anyhow, since some players are excused and next year's freshman recruits haven't arrived. If there must be extra practice, most teams might be far better off with an expanded preseason, rather than relying on lessons learned months earlier.
Most Americans don't mentally embrace football in the spring (note the USFL's failed attempt at a spring season), and college players may be no exception. Abolish spring practices and you would allow these athletes to enjoy other facets of campus life, recharge their football batteries, and give their studies greater attention. Needless to say, this latter development would be most welcome at some schools.