Stallings served as Bowden's tour guide that day in 1960. As Bowden strolled around the practice field, he marveled at the ferocity of the training session; the players hit each other so violently that many were bloodied by the end of practice. "That's when I learned the secret to Bear Bryant," says Bowden, who was head coach at Florida State from 1976 through 2009 and retired with the second-most wins in Division I-A history, behind Penn State's Joe Paterno. "If a player was going to quit, Bryant wanted him to quit in [spring] practice, not in a game. That practice I saw was really, really tough. Looking back, that day was the single most important one in my 56 years of coaching. I took everything I saw from Bryant and applied it to what I was going to do as a head coach."
The history of coaches making discoveries in the spring goes back to the late 19th century, when Arthur J. Cumnock, captain of the Harvard football team, organized what is believed to be the first spring football "program." With a student reporter from The Harvard Crimson covering that first practice, on March 14, 1889, Cumnock told his teammates that they would practice for two months and then would have a "drop kick" tournament lasting from May 1 to May 28. "The football squad was practising [sic] on Jarvis Field yesterday afternoon," the Crimson reporter noted. "The work consisted of kicking, tackling and falling on the ball."
Perhaps the most significant springtime revelation in college football history occurred 18 years later in Carlisle, Pa. One afternoon in April 1907 an 18-year-old student at the Carlisle Indian School, dressed in overalls and a pair of sneakers he had found earlier that day in the school gymnasium, was walking across the school's athletic fields when he spied a group of high jumpers. Jim Thorpe was on his way to an intramural football game, but he wanted to try to clear the bar, which was set at 5'9". The other students taking jumps laughed at Thorpe, who looked more like a farmer than an athlete. But then one of them told Thorpe to give it a try.
Taking a running start, Thorpe soared over the bar almost effortlessly. One of the students who witnessed the jump told Carlisle's football coach, Glenn (Pop) Warner, about it. The coach then called Thorpe into his office. "Do you know what you have done?" Warner asked.
"Nothing bad, I hope," Thorpe replied.
Warner explained that Thorpe had just broken the school's high jump record. The coach walked around his desk and put his arm around Thorpe, and this was the moment that their lives became irrevocably linked—the football equivalent of Socrates taking Plato under his wing. Warner eventually invited Thorpe to play on his football team, and over the next five years they would revolutionize the game. In Warner's single-wing offense—another spring discovery, diagrammed by the coach on a notepad, also in 1907—Thorpe would receive the ball and zigzag all over the field. Football at Carlisle became a ballet of athleticism and grace, no longer the lumbering scrum it had been in its early days. What happened 104 springs ago in central Pennsylvania still reverberates across the nation: The DNA of Warner and Thorpe can be found in many college football formations, including in the Pistol, which dozens of teams used at various times last season.
In April 1969 Tom Osborne was desperate. An offensive assistant coach at Nebraska, Osborne and the Cornhuskers were coming off back-to-back 6--4 seasons. There were whispers in Lincoln that the coaching staff might not survive another mediocre autumn. But that spring Osborne had an idea that would transform not only Nebraska but also the entire sport.
One day Osborne saw an injured track athlete assisting a few injured football players in the Nebraska weight room, which at the time was 424 square feet and contained one bench press and a few barbells. The track athlete was Boyd Epley, a 6-foot, 200-pound pole vaulter. "The poles were made of bamboo back then, and Boyd, being a big weightlifting muscle guy, kept breaking the poles," Osborne recalls. "The track coach eventually asked him to go do something else."
Osborne discovered that the injured players Epley worked with were returning to spring practice faster and stronger than ever. In those days most coaches believed that lifting weights diminished players' flexibility and coordination, but Osborne thought, What if the Huskers created a new staff position and hired Boyd to be their strength coach? No team in the country had such a coach, but Osborne took Epley to meet coach Bob Devaney. After hearing a sales pitch from Osborne, Devaney agreed to hire Epley at a wage of $2 an hour. But before Epley left Devaney's office, the coach warned him, "If anyone gets slower, you're fired."
The results of Epley's work were swift and stunning: Nebraska won the national title one season later, in 1970, and repeated as champion the following year. The Cornhuskers became the strongest team in the country. "Before Boyd came on, if we had a lineman who weighed 250 pounds, that was considered really big," Osborne says. "But we turned our whole program around mostly because of strength training. Nebraska was ahead of the curve."