Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst is on the verge of something unprecedented. It's a decision that could mold how other programs' offseasons are handled in the future. It’s not groundbreaking in nature, but rather an honest assessment of his current situation.
Chryst has decided to cancel his team’s spring game, which typically serves as an annual celebration of the program. Instead of leaning on injuries or venue complications, however, he’s openly expressed his desire for just one more practice—a few hours with his kids—instead.
And given his current situation, he’s absolutely correct in doing so.
For coaches, practices are like currency. Call it a mix of supreme confidence—some might even call it arrogance—a solid helping of experience and a dollop of unrelenting optimism. Whether these valuable hours come before a bowl game—perhaps a college football coach’s most cherished seven-win commodity—or on an unassuming day in March, this time in invaluable.
This mindset is shared everywhere, from Alabama to the Division III school striving to hit that five-win mark next year. Rarely are such cutthroat approaches revealed in such broad daylight, however, especially with the perception that might come from it.
Speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chryst justified the cancellation of the game with the following:
The thought behind [the decision], honestly, is to get one more good work day out of them. Most, if not every spring game I’ve been a part of, you really end up sacrificing a lot. It sounds crazy, but just being locked into a place, bad weather. … You’re kind of locked into that day. These days are really valuable for us.
It’s a little bit selfish doing what’s best for the program. You appreciate [the fans]. You don’t want it to come off as not being appreciative. It’s not the intent. But there is real conviction that for this group of guys, the guys in the building … you feel really good that this is the right thing. You hope the people appreciate that.
Last season, Florida canceled its spring game after the offensive line endured a flurry of injuries. The Gators held a regular practice at Florida Field instead. Other teams have had to adjust their plans because of injuries, turning their spring “game” into an open practice of sorts.
Texas A&M has canceled its spring game for 2014 and 2015 because its football home, Kyle Field, is undergoing a massive renovation.
The solid excuse for not having a game hasn’t stopped head coach Kevin Sumlin for chiming in on their overall worth. While he didn’t go as far as Chryst in his assessment, his comment wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement, via Coachingsearch.com:
I miss it for the fans. Last year, we have 50,000 people here and ESPN here as a great recruiting opportunity, great national exposure for the program. It’s a great thing for fans. It was a beautiful day to get out and see the team. But from a football standpoint, I’ll be honest with you: You guys know me. That second half goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there. The goal of that day is to look halfway decent and get out of that thing without getting anybody hurt. That’s the goal of that. For the fans, it’s a bigger deal.
On the other side of the reaction spectrum is Auburn or, more specifically, athletic director Jay Jacobs. Jacobs is not only in favor of the game, but he took his appreciation of the event to another level while speaking with CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler.
“There isn't any doubt” the game was a springboard for a national title run, Jacobs told Fowler.
The benefits of these games can vary greatly on the situation—something Pitt is currently coming to public terms with. But the reality of most well-attended games is they serve as a showcase for the program. They’re for the fans, the cameras and the recruits tuning in at home.
Their actual football usefulness is typically drowned out by the absurd scoring systems often used and the buzz hopefully manufactured throughout the afternoon.
While you can preach game situations, experience and live play as selling points for these team-on-team scrimmages, most spring games are moving billboards.
That’s not to say this is all for show and playing in front of the masses can’t have a positive impact on young players, but this is an event more than a time to learn. The problem for Pittsburgh is the term “event” is relative.
Unlike Texas A&M, Pittsburgh didn't draw 50,000 fans to their 2013 game. In fact, they fell well short of 5,000 according to SB Nation.
The 3,642 fans who attended the Panthers' spring game at Bethel Park High School put them ahead of just 15 teams nationally and behind the likes of Wake Forest (4,200), Texas State (4,608), Middle Tennessee (5,000) and Western Kentucky (6,500).
Without an on-campus stadium, Pitt has had to be creative when picking locations. And while playing at a local high school is a solid play in the local recruiting world—it can also be a tough sell. It can be a tougher sell if the weather does not cooperate.
That's not the case for the SEC, which enjoyed sunshine and enormous attendance figures last year. Eight out of the top 11 best-attended spring games came from the SEC. In total, a staggering 569,638 fans attended spring games within that conference, according to al.com.
For teams like Tennessee and Kentucky—No. 3 and No. 6 overall in spring attendance—the spring game served as the first real public celebration of a hopeful turnaround. Other football-centric schools in the conference took advantage of the nice weather and an established, passionate following.
But not all programs have these luxuries, be it sunshine, T-shirt temperatures or a guaranteed fan base that will pour through the gates on a spring Saturday regardless of last year’s win-loss mark.
Pittsburgh, at the moment, is on the exact opposite side of the spectrum in many of these categories, and it has identified it appropriately. Instead of a day of underwhelming, forced excitement, the Panthers are hoping to cash in this practice currency for one more practice.
Given the totality of the situation, how could you possibly blame them?
This is not a vendetta against the fans or a national stand that should be admired. It’s a candid assessment and a strategy to which other programs can relate. While Nick Saban would love to seal the doors and maximize these hours, Alabama’s spring game garners far too much interest—78,315 fans and maximize coverage—for him to pull the plug.
For Alabama, despite the questionable football worth, the spring game still offers up enormous perks. The situation makes sense, and there is value.
This overall value is mainly in our corner—the desperate media member craving news and the fan looking for a good excuse to drink beer and watch live hitting out of season. Those reasons are good enough from our perspective, but they might not match up with a team’s agenda.
The answer isn’t immediately to follow Pittsburgh’s lead and cancel every spring game from here on out. There are conversations to be had, though—realistic evaluations of the value of these games for a particular program. And if that means removing the game in the favor of one more practice—just a few perceived critical hours—so be it.
Spring buzz is just that—buzz. And the reality of such desired hype is that nothing generates program interest like the tried and tested approach.