Braxton Miller, one of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy heading into the 2014 season, made news last Saturday even though he didn’t play in Ohio State’s annual spring game.
After the game, Miller, sidelined after having right shoulder surgery, sent out a tweet that made national news.
He mentioned the 61,058 fans who showed up for Saturday’s scrimmage – and then listed Michigan’s spring game attendance – 15,000. He then gave a shout out to Buckeye fans “best fans in the land!”
When it comes to the best rivalry in college football, there's not much to debate when it comes to spring football. Miller’s got a point – I, too, watched the Wolverines’ spring game on the Big Ten Network and wondered how the “Big House” could be a little more than one-tenth full for an annual spring game.
Spring attendance can be gauged in many ways, including the weather, but largely is predicated on the optimism of a fan base. For example, Tennessee fans who have suffered through a decade of mediocrity led the SEC with 68,548 last Saturday. Vol fans are thrilled with Butch Jones entering his second season as head coach.
Alabama plays its spring game this Saturday and probably will surpass all NCAA schools. The Tide drew 93,000 two years ago. The Buckeyes had 95,000 in 2009 and more than 80,000 for Urban Meyer’s first spring in 2012.
Likewise, Penn State fans are looking forward to the James Franklin era. The Nittany Lion athletic department announced an estimated attendance at 72,000, which would lead the Big Ten in spring attendance. However, BTN’s cameras showing the stands at Beaver Stadium seemed to show far more empty seats.
One thing most be noted – only Ohio State charges admission for the spring game. Advance tickets cost $12 and the day-of-the-game price was dropped to $5.
Whether they got their money’s worth is up for debate – Ohio State’s scarlet and gray teams combined to score two offensive touchdowns Saturday. But hey, after a long, tough winter, the temperature was in the 70s and the sun was shining.
Spring games have come a long way over the years, thanks to television and media coverage.
I remember the first time I attended an Ohio State spring game. It was May, 1970, and the Buckeyes only six months removed from that heartbreaking 24-12 upset at Michigan, snapping a 22-game winning streak. It was cold and windy and there must have been no more than 20,000 fans in Ohio Stadium during that spring game, despite the fact the Buckeyes had a 20-1 record the previous two seasons.
I was 10 years old and remember having one of the greatest days of my young life. I had my picture taken with Lou Groza, a former Buckeye who was sitting a few rows behind us. After the game, All-America tackle Rufus Mayes, who appeared only slightly bigger than Morrill Tower, handed me his sweaty chinstrap. I only wish I still it. I shook hands with Rex Kern and John Brockington.
Following the game, we drove up to the Biggs Athletic Center, a rustic facility where the players showered and changed. Jim Stillwagon, then an All-America nose guard, walked out of the West entrance, wearing a brown sweater and with his cleats tied together and hanging off his shoulder. I had my picture taken with him as we both squinted in the sunshine.
The following season would end in heartbreak again as the undefeated Buckeyes were upset by Stanford and a quarterback named Jim Plunkett in the Rose Bowl when Brockington was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Stanford 20-yard line.
Stanford was then known as the Indians, not the Cardinal.
It shows how times have changed.
Now some 44 years later, the Biggs – as the players called it then – is named the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and it is a state-of-the-art palace. I got to know Lou Groza in the early 1990s when the Palm Beach County Sports Commission founded the Lou Groza Award and I was a member of the original voting committee. Long after their playing days were finished, Kern became a friend, as did Stillwagon. For old times sake, we took a picture together recently and placed in the foreword of What It Means to Be a Buckeye.
Anyway, spring games do serve a purpose. They are for avoiding injuries, for young players (more than 12 Ohio State starters did not play last Saturday) -- and for young fans who may never get the chance to see a big-time college game on a fall Saturday.
Some other spring game attendance figures…
Penn State – 72,000
Tennessee – 68,548
Ohio State – 61,058
South Carolina – 36,412
Florida – 35,834
Mississippi State – 21,710
Michigan – 15,000
Vanderbilt – 8,400