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He slowly paced the LSU practice field, clutching a piece of paper full of scribbled notes. Les Miles silently eyed his team of nearly 100 players, who stood around him in a circle, outfitted in pads and sweating under the bright sun. It was the first week of spring football practice in Baton Rouge, and every player waited for Miles's next command—as did the assistant coaches, the trainers, the student-managers filming the 90-minute session, the handful of former players watching from afar and the 20 members of the media standing on the sideline. The first game of the season was still six months away, but to Miles, this moment in the spring was as big as any that would occur on a Saturday this fall.
"Give me 52 versus 27!" Miles yelled. Linebacker Luke Muncie (number 52) and running back Kenny Hilliard (27) sprinted to the middle of the circle. "Let's see who wants it!" Miles screamed. "Show me what you have!"
The players squatted in three-point stances, waited for Miles to blow a whistle and then slammed into each other. It was a raw, high-speed collision. The other players and the coaches roared like a blood-thirsty mob as Muncie and Hilliard crashed to the ground. This was as ruthlessly fundamental as football gets—man versus man—and Miles smiled devilishly as he called out two more names to step into the cauldron.
"That drill is called Big Cat, and it's all about desire," Miles said after practice, as he sat on metal bleachers and watched a few players toss footballs in the March dusk. "You need to have a comfort and enjoyment of violence to succeed in this game, and that is developed in the spring. That's why spring is absolutely critical to what we do: It gives us a time to teach, to try new things and discover new players."
In 1971 Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey famously said, "There are only two sports in Texas: football and spring football." Forty years later that sentiment applies to much of the country as the popularity of spring football—15 days of practice usually conducted in March or April and almost always ending with an intrasquad scrimmage—is at an alltime high. In 2010 almost 1.5 million fans attended spring games, most receiving free tickets but some paying as much as $15 for the honor to attend a glorified practice. Thirteen schools set spring game-attendance records; Alabama drew the biggest crowd (91,312), while Nebraska (77,936) topped the 77,000 mark for the third straight year. ESPN is also in on the action; in the next few weeks its networks will broadcast at least five spring games nationally. (The most they have ever done is six.) And, not surprisingly, spring football has turned into a moneymaker for schools: Nebraska reportedly rakes in about $500,000 from tickets (at $10 apiece), parking, concessions and merchandise sold during its annual Red-White Game—or roughly one third of what the Huskers' men's baseball, golf, gymnastics, tennis, track and wrestling teams combined to generate over the entire 2009--10 school year.
So what is the allure of spring football? Ask current and former coaches, and they say the same thing: In spring, more so than in the fall, anything is possible. The canvas is blank, potential untapped. Forget a fourth-and-one situation in November; coaching matters most in March. "So much can happen in the spring," says former Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne, now Nebraska's athletic director. "Some real significant events in the history of college football have occurred in the spring."
Indeed, spring has always been a time of discovery, innovation and fresh beginnings in the sport. From Pop Warner to Bear Bryant to Bobby Bowden, spring practice has presented the same opportunity to mold a team in the coach's image, the chance—as one former coach says—"to try everything under the sun to get a goddam advantage."
Bowden will never forget the April day that changed his career. It was 1960, and the fresh-faced Bowden was 30 years old and about to enter his second season as head coach at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Ala. One morning he slid behind the wheel of his new Pontiac station wagon and drove 60 miles on country roads to Tuscaloosa. The coach at Alabama had invited Bowden to observe the Crimson Tide's spring practice, and minutes after Bowden parked his car he was standing next to Bryant, who presided over the practice with a whistle hanging from his neck and a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips.
Bryant's spring practices were brutal. The Bear obsessively focused on two simple things: blocking and tackling. Bryant made his players dress in full pads for every workout, had them scrimmage several times a week and frequently put them through the living hell known as the Circle Drill. In this exercise one player stood in the middle of a circle of teammates. At the whistle a player on the ring would charge forward, trying to either block or tackle the man in the center—whichever Bryant commanded. The player in the middle stayed there until his back was on the ground.
"Back then we had contact every day," recalls Gene Stallings, a defensive assistant on Bryant's staff from 1958 through '64 and head coach of the Alabama team that won the national championship in '92. "I remember one scrimmage that lasted for hours and didn't get over until 11:30 at night. But Coach Bryant wanted to see who was tough in the spring, who he could count on in the fall. He did that by having the players practice blocking and tackling over and over and over. The players didn't particularly enjoy spring ball."