Why Do We Have Spring Practice?

Football is a fall sport. As the summer cools, the air itself seems to change. And, to me, that fall air always smells like football. The games are then played for the next few months until, bleeding through the winter holidays, the championships are played and the final tallies are taken on another season gone by. Still in winter, coaches, players and fans all turn their eyes back to the hope of a new season, the next game: the fall.

Just a few more months...

Except that there’s actually some odd little mini-training long before the real one: spring practice. Colleges all have it — it’s considered a must, an outbreak of actual football bracketed by long, grueling months of winter conditioning — and even most high schools now have it. Urban Meyer, speaking to high school coaches, lamented that Ohio doesn’t allow spring practice for high schoolers and vowed to do his part to change that. Indeed, the importance of spring practice is questioned by almost no one, and it’s obvious to see why: In a world of time limitations on practices, anypractice — whenever it is — is good practice. But why is it for one little block in the spring?

In the NFL, the summer months are taken up with “mini-camps” and “OTAs” (“organized team activities”), where the basics in terms of schematics are installed and technique is addressed in relative leisure, before the intense sprint of fall camp and the season begin. Some of that timing is because, with free agency and the NFL draft, teams often aren’t quite sure what their rosters will look like until around the summer, but that’s not altogether different than in college. True freshman are increasingly important to the success of even top flight college teams, and they tend to arrive on campus around June. It may have something to do with the idea that most universities break their academic calendar years into semesters, but (a) players “work on football” in the form of conditioning year round and (b) almost all of them spend the summer term on campus as well. You don’t hear about too many star college players who spend the summer before their senior years at an internship with Proctor & Gamble or studying abroad in Barcelona. And in high school there are definitely oversight issues with allowing practices in the summer, but fall camp itself begins before the fall school year begins and presumably most of the high school kids stay local.

So there is something odd and maybe even anachronistic about “spring practice.” Obviously, no coach is ever going to vote against less practice, but why spring? And, given that it is in the spring, how important is it to player development?

In 1971, Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey famously said: “There are only two sports in Texas: football and spring football.” And it’s clear that this phenomenon has spread across the country, as fans pack in to see their team’s spring game — filling the stadium to watch practice — encouraged by hope. Spring practice is disconnected enough from both the prior season and the following one to exist only in a world of optimism: Everything is possible.

Indeed, many of the game’s great innovations have come in the spring. Spring practice itself was reportedly invented at Harvard in March of 1889 when the football team met and, according to the Harvard Crimson, their “work consisted of kicking, tackling and falling on the ball.” In 1907, Pop Warner supposedly invented his single wing offense between spring practices, and the ability to doodle and experiment without the pressures of a weekly gameplan or even fall installation frees up coaches to try a lot of new things.

But spring practice was likely most changed by Bear Bryant, first at Kentucky then Texas A&M and later Alabama, as he used the distance from the upcoming season for one primary advantage: It gave his players time to heal. Bryant’s approach to spring practice was to treat them as boot camp, with war on the near horizon:

“If a man’s going to quit,” once said the Bear, “I want him to quit in practice, not in a game.”

This approach — that the primary purpose of spring ball was to separate the men from the boys, no matter what it took — was the dominant modus operandi. (Though it was really the modus operandi during fall camp as well, really.) Yet spring ball became so brutal, both in terms of high profile injuries and the sheer volume of small ones, that reform became simply necessary. The NCAA issued sweeping reforms in 1998 to what is essentially the modern system of 15 practices spread across 34 days with limits on contact. And yet even after the reforms, if Jones Ramsey was right that spring practice is its own sport, many studies show it is the single most dangerous NCAA sport of all.

But there has been a movement away from the kind of brutal, anything-goes approach of Bryant (an approach that was often extended much further than even the Bear took it by those claiming his legacy). If the thought behind spring practice then was simply to identify who were the men you could win with, there has been at least some evolution to the current model, which seems to be on identifying football players you can win with. There is still plenty of contact but there is also plenty of teaching, focus on technique, and installation of schemes.

Bobby Bowden has actually gone so far as to argue that the changes to spring practice directly caused the shift in emphasis in college from the old, traditional power game to today’s more wide open offenses.

“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.”

I’m not so sure. The point about coaching the spread year round has always applied, and given that the new time limit rules (presumably) apply in equal force to all teams, then everyone else should be operating under the same limitations in terms of installing a power game. And considering how sophisticated the strength and conditioning programs are, it’s not like players have gotten weaker and less capable of executing an off-tackle play.

So what are the purposes of spring practice? Michael Fielder has a good description of the nuts and bolts of modern spring ball, but the upshot is still to find out the same things that Bear Bryant and Pop Warner were trying to find out, though through slightly different methods: Find players (what will our depth chart look like?); find schemes (what kinds of plays can we actually execute this year?); and find a team (how will we identify leaders and cohesiveness heading into the fall?).

Many — though certainly not all — coaches will even go so far as to tell you that they like spring practice maybe most of all, because it really and truly is all about football. It’s all about teaching technique and fundamentals, and without the constraints of a game in two days the coaches can give attention to a wider variety of players. And without the ossifying effect of a fixed, media guide printed depth chart, every player still feels like they have a chance.

I don’t know why spring practice is in the spring versus the summer, or why high schools in some states have it while others don’t. But I do know why it’s not going anywhere, and why coaches and players who endure its rigors typically have the same feelings about it as fans do: Hope springs eternal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katharine-Rose/100002844973693 Katharine Rose

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  • adam chase

    i agree. spring is about getting back to the basics….and hitting the nuts and bolts of football

  • http://twitter.com/kleph kleph

    summer, obviously, is when schools are  not in session. and in bryant’s era many players took jobs during that period to pay for a lot of the expenses of attending school. 

    the other way spring provided an ideal time to develop players under bryant was through conditioning. at alabama in the early 1960s, players took a “gym class” that was really nothing more than mat drills for credit. and most accounts of these workouts make it clear they were as difficult as the on-the-field practices. the upshot being, when players completed the conditioning program, they were in better shape to survive the demands of the regular practices.bryant would also require players to report in the fall at very specific weights, often deliberately set low to ensure there would have to be regular work done in the summer to keep it where it needed to be. fall began with a three mile run for all the players designed to find out from the start who was in shape or who was not.

  • http://twitter.com/SaturdayEdge The Saturday Edge

    ND head coach Brian Kelly is also in agreement that spring is for getting back to the basics and teaching the fundamentals.

    In response to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s comments encouraging spring games versus different teams, Kelly said “No way…I need the spring to do what I just did. Reteach the fundamentals…I need that teaching time, that skill development. We then become the NFL, just go out and play games. Play as many as you can.”

    Another observation, the past several years freshman have been graduating early from high school so they can participate in Spring practices.