On a Lost Spring Game
Photo Credit: Ryan Loco

On a Lost Spring Game, Turning Attention Forward, Challenges Ahead

April 16, 2020

Someone once told me making the transition from high school football to the college game was more difficult than making the jump from college to the NFL. Your head is spinning, your body isn’t anywhere near ready (most instances), and there’s an entirely separate world serving to complicate matters—balancing school responsibilities. You see more and more high school athletes each year enrolling early to get a head start. Winter conditioning is important, but its purpose is to prepare you for spring football.

“It’s not so much the game necessarily, it’s all the practices leading up to that. Spring ball is incredibly vital. It’s every bit as vital, and I’d say more so than winter conditioning,” former Nebraska wideout Kenny Bell told Hail Varsity this week. “Winter conditioning allows you to not only get stronger and rehab the guys who got hurt during the season, but it really prepares you for spring ball where you start really getting after one another, which then prepares you for the summer.”

The practices that come before the game are in almost every instance more impactful in terms of development than the game itself. “Absolutely.”

Bell left Nebraska after the 2014 season. He has the distinction of being part of the only other instance of a canceled spring game in Nebraska history.

In 2012, the Bo Pelini-led Huskers got their first 14 practices in but had their game called off at the last minute. Bell recalled the storm that brought an end to that spring period as a “torrential downpour.” With spring break immediately after, there was nothing to go back to after losing that game. They were done.

The logistics of trying to make that game possible, in hindsight, look similar to trying to reignite the Akron opener in 2018 that was called off due to weather. Too many moving pieces, too few resources to try and turn around and play the game on a Sunday.

But, serving as some consolation, Nebraska felt prepared even though it wasn’t able to show the class its work.

“With the way Bo ran that entire program, there wasn’t a day where we came to work and didn’t get after it,” Bell said. “There were days we didn’t have great days, but we never left any camp, whether it’s spring ball or fall camp, without feeling like we were prepared.”

Fast forward eight years and Scott Frost is in an entirely different—and unprecedented—boat.

No practices. No preparation. No adjustment period for the young players. Nothing.

Saturday would have been Nebraska’s 71st spring game. It was canceled on March 16 as the spread of the COVID-19 virus began to flex its effects on the very fabric of society in the United States. Two weeks earlier, Nebraska had said it had no plans of calling off the scrimmage, but things have changed rapidly in a matter of days, much less weeks, over the last few months.

Instead, this weekend Nebraska will host a virtual football experience. At 1 p.m., the same time the real game would have kicked off, Nebraska will stream a simulated game pitting Husker legends against each other and dubbing commentary from the Husker Sports Radio Network over it.

A unique alternative in a challenging time.

Now, the question isn’t one of whether Nebraska will get those practices back that it lost, but whether it will get to take the field at all.

“I, like everybody else, want to see us back to some sense of normalcy and want to see sports come back,” University of Nebraska President Ted Carter said Wednesday night in an appearance on Sports Nightly. “Scott Frost and I talk often, and I’m staying plugged in at the higher level in terms of some of the discussions going on. Right now, we’re still five-plus months away. There’s still a lot that’s going to happen.”

The growing sentiment around college football is one of optimism.

"Our players are students. If we're not in college, we're not having contests," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Vice President Mike Pence in a call Wednesday between White House officials and the College Football Playoff Management Committee, according to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd.

"Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open, that we were education-based programs, and we weren't going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on.”

Football faces unique challenges, especially at the college level. To stage a game is to put 200 or so student-athletes and coaches on both sidelines. Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium can hold close to 90,000 additional fans.

Who exactly will make the call on when such a large-scale gathering can happen is something of a hot-button issue at the moment. It certainly won’t be made by collegiate athletic directors, but does that power lie with local health officials or a larger governing entity?

In speaking with ESPN’s Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada this week, Dr. Jeffrey Smith, the chief executive for Santa Clara County, said a decision on when to reopen sports will be made by local health officials and not the President or comissioners for the major leagues. According to ESPN, he forecasted to the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors that sports wouldn’t return until after Thanksgiving.

Those comments came shortly after President Donald Trump told reporters “I want fans back in the arenas.” The President has also created an advisory group that includes NBA commissioner Adam Silver and several high-profile owners (i.e. Jerry Jones) to provide feedback on when to reopen not just sports leagues but the larger economy. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and one of the more public figures in President Trump’s coronavirus task force, cautioned earlier this week in an interview with Snapchat’s Peter Hamby that strict parameters would have to be put in place for the sports world to restart—and that fans wouldn’t be in the plans.

“There's a way of doing that," Fauci said. "Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [the players] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don't wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

Fauci was speaking specifically on professional basketball and baseball, though a season with partially-empty or even completely empty stadiums is a possibility for college football as well.

“Some of the hygiene things that we’ve learned here will probably start to change our habits even when we start to look like things have opened back up,” Carter said. “I think it’ll be a long time coming before we put 90,000 people in Memorial Stadium. Maybe I’m wrong about that, I’d like to see this go back to (normal) pretty quickly, but that could be a while.”

But less than 90,000 doesn’t necessarily mean zero. Athletic directors across college football’s landscape don’t want to play games without fans in the stands.

“What I’ve heard from coaches and athletic directors is, first of all, they don’t believe that football should be played in front of empty stadiums,” Carter told reporters at a news conference with Gov. Pete Ricketts on Wednesday. “The fans are part of the college football experience. I don’t know whether that means half-full stadiums or fans that are spread apart and following some of the physical distancing limits that we have now.”

ESPN’s Chris Fowler took to Instagram recently to share what he called “informed speculation” on scenarios being tossed around. The first, which he conceded appears unrealistic at the time, is that the college football season begins on schedule and carries on without any major alterations. The second is the seasons starts later than originally scheduled and is shortened.

“There’s a third scenario that’s gaining momentum,” he said. “Football in the spring, beginning at some point in February. It would be bizarre and it would wreak havoc on other sports that time of year, but to avoid financial disaster of having no football season in the academic year, I think it might be a fallback position.”

Fowler said the growing belief is a decision, or at least clarity, will come by the end of May.

Schools need time to sort through logistics of hosting games, and athletes need time to prepare themselves to play those games.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand how much goes in to football,” Bell said. “I’m not trying to be rude, but I just think people are a little bit naive as far as the preparation. Spring ball is incredibly vital, especially at the college level. If this thing starts messing with summer workouts, not to be pessimistic, but I just don’t expect them to play a football season. You can’t ask these kids to be ready—professional or college—to just go play football through one fall camp. You need the preparation.”

And in order to practice, students need to be able to access campus. Carter believes they’re working toward that.

“I’m optimistic about two big things: One, that we’ll be able to bring students back to the campus in the fall, … then, of course, how do we get back to the sports that we love. I think there’s a chance they may not start exactly on time depending on what the situation is, but I think there’s a great desire to get back to NCAA football.

“There’s 130 teams in FBS and we’ve got to find a way to make it work for all of them. There’s still a lot of work to be done there but I’m optimistic.”

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