How to revive spring football games

BYU found itself in a precarious position at quarterback as they rolled into spring football in Provo. An injury had already shelved starter Taysom Hill, and his top projected backup, McCoy Hill, got hurt at the start of drills. Thinking on their feet, the Cougars staff called on Christian Stewart, the guy who replaced the injured Taysom Hill last fall – but who had used up his eligibility. They convinced the graduating senior to suit up one more time, just for spring practice.

“It’s been fun to just come out here and play football for the love of the game – no pressure, no stress – and just play how I like to play,” Stewart told the Salt Lake media after starting at QB in the Cougars spring game. “Just throw the ball around; it’s just been a really rewarding experience.”

Could Stewart be a trendsetter?

On Saturday, Colorado State will be one of the last schools to hold their annual spring football game when the Rams wrap things up with the final of their allotted 15 spring practices. New head coach Mike Bobo will know he’s not in Georgia anymore (almost 47,000 watched the Bulldogs spring game last Saturday) when a “crowd” of maybe 5,000 shoehorn themselves into the death-row inmate known as Hughes Stadium.

The Green team will kick it off against the Gold team, the coaching staff will be split in half, some guys will switch jerseys midway through the game, the quarterbacks won’t get touched and the clock will run unabated so they can get the thing over with before anyone gets hurt. It will resemble a football game, which makes it fun, but it could be a lot more fun.

These spring football games offer a unique situation where the final practice could actually be much more than just a quality practice. It could be a pep rally. An event. For schools like Colorado and Colorado State that don’t have a baseball season, spring football is pretty much the send off into the long summer. Why not send people into the offseason with an event to remember?

There are a lot more guys like Christian Stewart out there. There’s an entire team at South Dakota School of Mines. They’re one of the very few colleges that still hold a spring football game between the current varsity and a team of alumni. They play it again on April 25. So how about reviving the Varsity vs. Alumni game around here?

The Varsity vs. Alumni format – according to CSU historian John Hirn – began at CSU in the 1950s and continued until 1983. Those early games were highlighted by contests in the mid-1950s that featured a gathering of CSU alums who were still active in the NFL, including Fum McGraw, Gary Glick and NFL Hall of Famer Jack Christensen, who each returned home to play against the varsity more than once during their NFL careers. The format was discontinued, according to Hirn, due to concerns about possible injuries.

That’s understandable, of course. And today, certainly no active NFL players would be allowed to participate. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of qualified alums who would jump at the chance. Guys that have suited up within the last decade, if they prove to be physically fit, could be eligible to play.

Not having spoken to them, I’ll just speculate about names like recent NFL retiree’s Joel Dreessen and Caleb Hanie, who jump to mind. Within the last decade, CSU has had good players like John Mosure, Kory Sperry, Gartrell Johnson, Michael Kawulok, Chris Nwoke and James Skelton, just to name a few, who would be in line to play should they chose to.

“From a desire standpoint, I’d love to get out there and hit it again,” said former CSU stalwart tailback Kyle Bell. “Me personally, I don’t think I could do it physically after my knee surgeries. But it just depends on the guy. Some guys would kill for another opportunity like that.”

Bell, a 2008 CSU grad who’s now the general manager of a local new car dealership, has a young family and lots of great memories. As much as he’d like to, he can’t see himself trying to relive past gridiron glories due to the lingering effects of a knee injury. There would be many like Bell who’d be forced to decline the opportunity to play for legitimate reasons. On the other hand, he’d most certainly watch because a whole lot of other guys he knows and played with would welcome a chance for a last hurrah.

“I know some of the guys I played with are still in phenomenal shape,” Bell continued. “If you make it something that these guys can put on a calendar in advance and they could prepare for it, I think you’d have lot of guys who were willing and able.”

So how tough could it be to put together a roster of around 55 or so 20-something former players who could put up a decent fight against next season’s Rams? Getting an actual game like that on film would be better for the new coaching staff, while the game could become an event for current players, students and alums, as well. Roll out some throwback uniforms for the alumni team. Heck, have the CSU Alumni Association put together marching band and cheerleaders… and trainers of course. A lot of alums have gone on to become doctors, right?

The crowd would be at least four or five times what they’ll draw to Hughes Stadium on Saturday, and the overall interest level even higher than that. And now that everyone has health insurance, the injury concerns that caused the format to be discarded won’t be as much of a factor. Having the alums sign a simple waiver that removes all liability from the school could satisfy those kinds of concerns. Alumni would participate at their own risk. A whole lot of them will jump at the chance.

The best part? The CSU Alumni team could be coached by Sonny Lubick. How much fun would that be?

So sign ‘em up, give Sonny three weeks to practice and install a game plan and let ‘em get after it, like a REAL football game.

And while we’re at it, how about a Buffs Alumni team coached by Bill McCartney?

The last time the University of Colorado played its spring game featuring the varsity against the alumni was as recently as 1987. Colorado actually mixed varsity and alumni players over the next five years before shifting to the inter-squad format still used today (in various ways) for the culmination of spring drills. So it hasn’t been that long.

“The one I remember the most was when Kenny Johnson (who quarterbacked the Buffs to a No. 3 final national ranking in 1971) came back and played so well (for the Alumni) that he got another pro contract,” recalled former CU assistant coach turned Denver sports radio icon Irv Brown. “They used to really hit each other. Those alumni would really give ‘em a go. They’d play hard.”

The Buffs began playing alumni games in 1953, and the games in Boulder also featured NFLers like legendary brothers Dick and Bobby Anderson. All in all, CU played 23 Varsity vs. Alumni games, with the alums actually coming out on top three times. So it was competitive.

A whole lot of former Buffs might like another go ‘round. Guys like Cody Hawkins, Tyler Hansen, Scotty McKnight, Bryce Givens, Aric Goodman, Brian Lockridge, Anthony Perkins and many more recent grads. There’d certainly be enough of them to fashion a representative team for Coach McCartney. If physically able, who among that group would not want a chance to suit up and play a game for the CU legend?

And try to tell me that wouldn’t bring out a very nice crowd to Folsom Field. It might be bigger than the gathering for the UMass game next September.

Just think, if these games grew and got big enough, you could move them to Sports Authority Field in Denver! Oh, wait. We’ve tried that. Forget that part…

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