Coaches relish rites of spring

Updated: March 5, 2007, 2:54 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Spring training arrives every February as if in a Betty Crocker box, a premixed recipe of optimism and hope and history that is as dependable a harbinger of the season as the robin's song. Say the words "Pitchers and catchers report," and cynicism melts from the most hard-bitten baseball fan's heart.

Tommy Tuberville
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstTommy Tuberville, like all football coaches, tries to stress the importance of spring practice to his players.
Spring practice arrives each March, and fans barely budge from their couches. It's clear that spring practice needs a new publicist. If only fans reacted the way coaches do.

"It's always good to start a new team," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who began spring ball this past week. "Even if you get everybody back, it's still a new team."

Part of the reason spring practice doesn't elicit the same emotion in the public as spring training is the purpose behind spring practice. Unlike in baseball, the arrival of spring practice does not mean college football season is around the corner.

The season is still six months away, a faint foghorn in the distance. Those of us who follow the sport are adrift, as far from the beginning of the last season as we are from the beginning of the next one.

Practice during the season is on a weekly rhythm, with the incentive for hard work Tuesday awaiting every Saturday. It is the difference between cashing a paycheck and a buying a six-month CD. Nothing earned in March will provide any payoff until September.

That might be why longtime Texas coach Darrell Royal once wrote, "Spring practice is pretty much drudgery, no matter how much camouflage you stack around it."

Camouflage is the favorite garb of every head coach. The lack of public fervor for spring practice is the direct result of the natural secrecy of coaches. Fans are not invited to practice. There are only a handful of scrimmages open to the public, and every flavor served at them is vanilla.

Coaches like the privacy not only to keep their plans secret but also because it allows them and the players to focus on learning. The principal reason for spring practice is to teach the young and inexperienced how to play the game. In an era when coaches are marketers, recruiters and counselors, they treasure spring practice because it reminds them of what they got in this business to do.

"The whole fall, you don't have the opportunity to work with freshmen," Tuberville said. "It's something new. You're looking at guys you worked so hard to recruit for three years. They have been here for a year, and you still don't know what they can do."

Tim Brewster
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTim Brewster brings enthusiasm to his first spring practice as Minnesota's head man.
Coaches return to fundamentals, sometimes further than they care to go. When Pappy Waldorf took over as head coach at California in 1947, rosters had swollen in that postwar era. In his first spring, Waldorf welcomed 255 candidates for the Bears. Waldorf, an avuncular man, rarely lost his temper or his sense of humor.

According to the 1999 biography, "Pappy: The Gentle Bear," one quarterback candidate in spring 1947 lined up under tackle.

"That cow's dry, son. Move over," Waldorf said.

The lack of an immediate payoff for the players helps the coach determine their hunger and desire. Who will push themselves to get better in March when the games don't arrive until September?

Said veteran NFL quarterback Brad Johnson, remembering in the book "Pure Gold" the philosophy he learned playing for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, "What you did in February and March and April would carry over into the next season and into life."

Johnson had been out of school 14 years when that book hit the stores last year. That lesson remained with him. It is the essence of what every coach hopes to instill in his team.

At Minnesota, Tim Brewster began his first spring practice as a head coach Thursday. On his worst days, Brewster is a by-product of optimism and Red Bull. When he spoke Saturday about the first practice, that upbeat feeling coursed through the phone line.

"It was an extremely emotional, thrilling day," Brewster said. "I didn't sleep much the night before. This was an opportunity I waited for for 21 years."

Emotion will last only so long as a fuel to develop a team. Brewster plans to use it every day. He said he gathered his players together and "I looked them dead in the eye. 'Do you really love football?' I asked them. 'To be successful, you've got to love football.'"

To get through the drudgery of a long scrimmage in March, you had better love playing the game. That's the love of which Brewster speaks. Maybe that's why the charm of spring practice escapes the common fan. The fan's love for the game encompasses the rhythms and pageantry of autumn. There are rituals passed down from parent to child, whether they involve the logistical efficiency of a tailgate or the good-luck habits in front of a television.

Spring practice calls for little in the way of fan ritual. If you don't get jacked up for it, the coaches understand.

As long as you're not a player.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com