With sunny skies and 70 degree weather, today's spring game has the kind of weather that attracts record crowds. But when only 36,000 tickets had been sold through yesterday, the athletic department slashed ticket prices. And for obvious reason: selling only 40 or 50 thousand tickets to the spring game would be an embarrassment.
If you're familiar with the attendance figures for spring games across the country, you can't help but laugh at the previous sentence. If 40,000 people piled into Ohio Stadium, OSU's spring game attendance would still be in the top ten nationwide. It goes to show how seriously we treat the spring game – and the history of Ohio State's spring game shows that it's been treated seriously for nearly 80 years.
Before we get into the historical record, let's make one thing clear: finding documentation of Ohio State's earliest spring games is hard. For example: here is some footage of Andy Katzenmoyer intercepting Joe Germaine in the 1998 spring game:
Like the footage? It's the oldest footage of an OSU spring game in the public record. 1 Even the school's records don't go much further back: an athletic department spokesman said that Ohio State only has documentation of spring games going back to 1988.
To find the oldest spring game on record, we have to go waaaaaaay back to the early 20th century, pore over newspaper archives and estimate. According to Buckeye football historian Jack Park, there was definitely a 1943 spring game and the game's MVP was one Lee Tressel – College Football Hall of Fame inductee and father of some guy who works at Akron. Before then the spring game likely dates to the 1920s or 1930s. 2
Though there is no report of an earlier spring game, there is some fleeting evidence of spring practice. A March 21, 1929 article states that "the sixty men out for Spring football will be sent through much harder drills by Coach Sam S. Willaman." A 1935 article states that new coach Francis Schmidt "hopes to have the newcomers thoroughly versed in the wide open Ohio system by the time spring training opens in April." 3
A decade later, however, we have the holy grail: the first spring game with contemporary sources in 1946. Thanks to a zealous reporter from the Chicago Daily Tribune, not only do we have a record of the game taking place, we also have a lengthy game recap which informs us that 8,000 fans were in attendance to watch the second-string Red team upset the error-prone varsity White team.
After 1946, the intrasquad game would be mentioned in some column every few years. It would be another 23 years before another spring game received a full write-up in the national media. Eventually, scrimmage schedules started to regularize. In 1950 Ohio State's scrimmage was in mid-September; by 1953 OSU and the rest of the Big Ten held their scrimmages in May.
Ironically, regularizing the spring game led to unpredictable attendance numbers. For the 1956 game, 12,756 fans showed up. By 1969, the number was upwards of 25,000 attendees willing to watch a 62-0 slaughter by Team Red against Team White. But the numbers receded; by 1976, the number was down to 15,000.
The variability of crowds stuck to Bruce and onto John Cooper. Bruce and a promising young quarterback named Art Schlichter drew 30,000 in 1979, only for a significant drop off the next year. In 1986, 12,919 people went to the spring game; two years later, it was a then-record 54,302 for Cooper, and half as many the year after that.
Until Jim Tressel took over, the school was largely dependent on weather and star power to deliver crowds. Now, rain or shine, 40,000 is the floor and games with sensational athletes like Terrelle Pryor are the ceiling, inspiring a national record 95,000 to come in 2009. Braxton Miller has the same wattage, drawing 81,112 just two years ago, though Urban Meyer's debut may have had something to do with that as well.
So far, I've covered the traditional history of the spring football game. However, I am proud to announce that I have found proof of a school-sanctioned spring game that goes back even further -- and it wasn't played by the boys.
On March 1, 1913, the New York Times ran an article titled "Ohio State Plans to Hold a Big Carnival in April". It begins:
Animal shows, burlesque football games given by co-eds, shoot the chutes and a trip through Inferno are some of the features of a carnival planned to take place in April at Ohio State to raise funds to furnish the Women's Union. Carl Steeb, Secretary of the Board of Trustees, asserts that $3,500 can be raised.
Before your mind enters the gutter, this context of burlesque means humorous, a sort of parody of football game. But seeing as it's a spring exhibition game performed by Ohio State students in front of spectators and sanctioned by the Board of Trustees, I deem this the official first spring game in school history.
So if you catch somebody getting way too serious about today's spring game, feel free to remind them that it started with a century-old game of powderpuff football and laugh.
- 1 Except this video of Woody Hayes comforting a guy on crutches outside the 1985 spring game. Woody was the best. ↑
- 2 There's a 1929 article from a Los Angeles columnist griping about USC's spring game arrangements, showing that journalists have always been complainers. ↑
- 3 Schmidt's razzle-dazzle offense included strategies like an unbalanced line, which remained a viable tactic until Al Borges killed it last year. ↑