Why do so many people watch a football practice in April? A Spring Game newbie investigates Columbus' most curious tradition.
It's insane to have more than 100,000 people show up for a college football practice. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett knows it, and he's from Texas. "That's crazy, y'all," he says after 100,189 fans filled Ohio Stadium for the 2016 Ohio State Spring Game. Yeah, they capitalize it, even though it's not a game at all.
But then again, what should we call this thing? The last time I was in a place with 100,000 people was a Lynyrd Skynyrd/Peter Frampton rockfest in Philadelphia in 1977, and I tell you this: If those boys had put on a show like the one the Buckeyes did in April, we would have burned JFK Stadium to the ground.
Those 100,189 Buckeye fans could not have been there to watch football. The action on the field, once things finally got underway, was incomprehensible. There were footballs in the air, to be sure, and guys in scarlet and gray running around, but there was no discernible purpose. "A practice," says Barrett after the game. "A very basic practice at that."
The 2016 Spring Game set a new standard for pigskin lunacy, topping the 99,391 who showed up last year and the 95,722 in 2009. Ohio State fans are by far statistically the craziest in the country: Georgia pulled a paltry 93,000 this year, while Alabama managed 92,310 in 2011 to round out the top five spring games ever.
Ohio State fans have been crazy for a long, long time. According to OSU Archives, the first spring game (it was called the Reds vs. the Whites) was played in 1931-that's 85 years of crazy. The only times OSU didn't mount the event were during World War II and in 1990, when grass was being planted in Ohio Stadium. In 1950 the game was played in September, which kind of defeats the purpose.
There's no documentation for attendance at those early games, but the 1946 game was covered by theChicago Tribune, which said 8,000 people showed up. The next year 14,000 attended, and a tradition was born.
While OSU coaches in the modern era have one overriding goal in the Spring Game-don't let a starter get hurt (imagine Earle Bruce in 1984 when QB Mike Tomczak broke his leg)-Woody Hayes had his own approach.
"A trial," was how one of Woody's boys from the '50s described it to theDispatchin 2006. Injuries were common, he said. Woody wanted to build up the starters' confidence so he made sure it was always the first string against the scrubs. Imagine the fun for the scrubs in 1969 when the final score was 62-0.
Earle Bruce liked horseracing almost as much as football, and for a couple years he scheduled the game so it wouldn't interfere with the Kentucky Derby. After the Art Schlichter gambling scandal blew up and stories appeared about Earle and Art at the track together, the coach didn't worry so much about Derby Day.
John Cooper was from Tennessee and was often accused of not quite understanding OSU traditions. Comments like this, which he gave theDispatchin 1989, didn't do him any favors: "Oh, I don't think there's anybody, players or coaches, who really deep down likes spring football." Cooper's assistant, Jim Colletto, offered this rationale for the Spring Game: "It probably keeps a lot of these guys out of problems elsewhere."
In 1994 Coop raised the possibility of canceling the game because of injuries, only to back off in the face of public outrage: "My goodness, there are wars going on all over the world, and all kinds of things happening in this country, and they're worried about whether or not we're going to have a Spring Game."
Cooper was coach in 1997 when the game was first televised live. It didn't hurt the gate, though: About 55,000 showed up. The attendance numbers varied through the years: 15,000 in '76, 30,000 in '79, 12,919 in '86.
The rules were just as unpredictable, changing from year to year depending on the coach's whims: assistant coaches drafting teams, playing with a clock, without a clock, no kickoffs or punts; sometimes it hewed close to regular game conditions, other times just a glorified scrimmage. They made it up as they went along.
But the games were always free. Because of stadium renovations in '99, the game was played on a practice field in front of an invite-only crowd, leading to enough public grumbling that the 2000 game was moved to Crew Stadium-but with a wrinkle: The place only held about 22,000. The freebie era was over-the Spring Game would now cost you $5. The price has varied, but 2016 came in at the same $5, children under 6 for free.
Here's the real reason 100,000 people show up for a very basic practice: Ohio State has created a caste system for its football fans. The cheapest ticket for the upcoming season is $70 for the Bowling Green and Tulsa games. Want to see Nebraska? That will cost you $135. Michigan? Try $195. And that's just so you can climb the endless ramps and stairwells to get to C Deck, where you sit on concrete. And if it rains, you're going to get wet.
But if money is no object (or you know the right people), you can go for the reserved club seats (actual individual seats) or even one of the posh suites below C Deck. There's a fancy lobby and elevators that whoosh you right to a carpeted, covered world away from the masses. Alcohol is available, and you don't stand in line for 10 minutes to get a hot dog or go to the bathroom.
Ohio State plans further renovations that will add more of these luxury suites, cutting into seating available for those who don't manage hedge funds. In other words, if you want to take your kids to see the Buckeyes but don't want to take out a second mortgage, the Spring Game may be your only chance.
So there we were, me and 100,188 other people with nothing better to do on a gorgeous spring day than watch the local college team practice five months before the season starts. Whoops, forgot about the lacrosse match: Recent versions of the Spring Game have been preceded by the OSU lacrosse team versus Michigan.
So surely some of these people are lacrosse fans, or at least relatives of the players. Two hours before the football team takes the field, the lower deck is about one-third full-10,000 people, maybe, which is actually a hell of a crowd for a lacrosse match in Columbus, Ohio, but far smaller than the masses still strolling the concourses or lining up for Brutus Dogs or tailgating outside.
Yep, tailgating at the Spring Game.
I lived in Baltimore for a while-a lacrosse hotbed, believe it or not-so I'm up for watching OSU and Michigan. And these guys are pretty good. I settle down among the others watching the game to gauge the level of interest in the happenings on the field.
Nobody is talking about lacrosse.
There's a guy behind me with his small son and the kid has lots of questions: "Where's the band?" he asks.
"Maybe they're getting ready," the dad says.
"Where's Brutus Buckeye?"
Dad thinks. "He's with the band."
Not to worry. At halftime of the lacrosse match, Brutus and the band emerge with a rousing version of the OSU fight song. Well, it's a band. Something called the Ohio State Spring Athletic Band, wearing khakis and polo shirts instead of uniforms. They play great, though, and the crowd automatically stands for "Carmen Ohio."
Then the real fun starts. Anybody tired of watching highlight videos of the national championship season? Nope. The giant screen on the scoreboard brings it all back for us, set to a thundering hip-hop soundtrack. We get a montage of Ezekiel Elliott runs, and man, we're gonna miss that guy.
By the time the Buckeyes take the field, the place is full except for some empty pockets in the top tier. Urban Meyer has said he wants 100,00 fans, and my eye test says he's not quite there. But hell, there appear to be a couple thousand people on the field-players, coaches, managers, cheerleaders, cops, photographers. If Urban Meyer says he wants 100,000 people, then by God we'll make it happen.
The team gathers at midfield, and we'd have no idea what was going on if not for the video screen, which reveals the "circle drill," where two guys square off in the middle of a circle created by their teammates for a violent collision. Meyer himself leads the drill, a hand on each guy's helmet before they try to beat each other's brains out.
Then we get to the Spring Game proper, and it's ridiculous. Just like a practice, the coaches stand in the middle of the action; like a practice, they run the play over if they don't like it; guys run on and off the field, changing jerseys (therefore teams); after a field goal they kick another one from farther out. It's about as exciting as watching my old friend Peter Frampton play air guitar.
This is my first Spring Game, and it will be my last. The lacrosse was pretty good, though.