Indeed, more than 60 of Epley's assistants went on to become head strength coaches at other colleges and in the NFL. Forty-two years after the $2-an-hour hiring, Nebraska boasts one of the largest weight rooms in the world (more than 30,000 square feet), a fact that is included in every pitch that coach Bo Pelini makes to prospective recruits. "Nebraska fundamentally changed the way the game is played because of its strength program," says Bowden. "The first thing I did when I got to Florida State [in 1976] was to send my strength coach to Lincoln in the spring to learn as much as he could."
Throughout the 1980s and the early '90s, Bowden, Osborne and nearly every other coach followed the Bear Bryant approach to spring football by holding physical practices daily and in full pads. How taxing could spring ball be on players? In 1981 Auburn coach Pat Dye, upset with what he considered the poor effort and intensity level of his team during the spring game, told his charges to meet him on the Jordan-Hare Stadium field two nights later. "We're going to play another game," Dye said, "and we're going to find out who wants to play ball next fall."
"That game was a first-class bloodbath," says Ray Moon, an SEC official from 1974 through 2001 who worked as a linesman for both of those games at Auburn. "Dye locked the doors to the stadium, and it was as violent as anything in the spring I ever saw. If a player got hurt on one side of the field, the coaches would move the ball to the other hash mark and tell the kids to keep playing, even while the injured player was still on the ground. It was vicious."
Ever since the leather-helmet days of Warner and Thorpe, injuries have been a part of spring practice. In 1951 the NCAA limited the number of spring practices a team could conduct to 20 sessions over 30 days, but it didn't dictate how much contact could take place in those practices. "Most coaches in the '70s, '80s and early '90s treated spring football like boot camp," says John Robinson, who won a national championship at USC in '78. "Twenty days of practice meant 20 days of pads. I would hold my breath hoping a player didn't get hurt."
The debate over how to curtail spring-practice injuries peaked in 1997. That year an NCAA study revealed that more serious injuries occurred in spring football than in every other sport, including fall football. In spring games that year, for instance, three high-profile players suffered serious injuries—Tennessee wide receiver Peerless Price (broken ankle), Nebraska running back Dan Alexander (torn ACL) and Florida State defensive end Sean Mitchell (career-ending right-knee injury)—and many coaches argued that spring practice should be cut back. Limiting contact in the spring became the personal crusade of Grant Teaff, the coach at Baylor from 1972 through '92, who has been the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association since '94. In '98 Teaff and a handful of other former coaches persuaded the NCAA to issue new spring guidelines: Teams could practice only 15 times over 34 days; players couldn't have contact the first two days; tackling could occur in only eight of the workouts; and only three full scrimmages were allowed.
"Those restrictions changed everything," says Teaff. "Injuries aren't as common now, and coaches have adapted to not having pads on."
The limit on the number of full-contact days unintentionally helped bring about an offensive revolution. With power-running programs unable to practice as they had before, coaches put players in pads and shorts and spread them across the field, working on one-on-one drills and operating in space. The result: a proliferation of the spread offense, run in some form by dozens of teams.
"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."
Countless players have used the practice days of March and April as springboards to greatness. In the spring of 1992, quarterback Charlie Ward outdueled Kenny Felder for the starting job at Florida State. A year later Ward won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the national title. During USC's spring practice in 2003, Matt Leinart beat out three other quarterbacks in a tight competition. He would end up taking the Trojans to national championships in '03 and '04 while also winning the 2004 Heisman.
One year ago Cam Newton was a junior college transfer when he strode onto the practice field for spring football at Auburn. What did the veteran Tigers players think of the 6'6", 250-pound quarterback when he unleashed his first pass? "Right away you could tell he was a phenomenal athlete," says Ryan Pugh, Auburn's starting center last season. "He stuck out, and he worked hard. No [defender] could touch the quarterbacks in the spring, but we knew he was going to be special."