Like a lot of FBS programs around the country, Ole Miss is building an entire weekend of events around its spring football game Saturday.
On Saturday morning, the Rebels will host the 26th annual Chucky Mullins Courage Award ceremony, where they will announce the upperclassman defensive player who will wear Mullins' No. 38 jersey this coming season. There's also a softball series against Georgia and a women's tennis match against Mississippi State taking place on campus.
It sounds like a lot of fun to Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze. Well, everything except the actual Grove Bowl spring football game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
"I'm not a fan of it -- at all," Freeze said. "I'd vote to get rid of [spring games] in a heartbeat, but I don't know that others would feel the same."
If Freeze had his way, the Rebels would scrimmage another school during spring practice, with the money raised going to charity. Or he'd like to hold an open practice, where fans could watch the Rebels go through their normal spring routine.
Really, Freeze would consider just about anything, except having to divide his team into two squads for a glorified scrimmage. Because of injuries, the Rebels currently have only eight scholarship offensive linemen and not nearly enough receivers to stage a game-like scrimmage. Without adequate depth, Freeze said there's really no use in trying to do it.
"We've yet to have a spring where we've been healthy enough to have a game-like experience," Freeze said. "As a coach, you're put in a position where you have to come up with some fictional point system that is equitable, which is nearly impossible. I don't think we'll get as much out of it as we would if we were practicing ones versus ones and twos versus twos."
Freeze isn't alone in his concerns. Across the country, FBS coaches are trying to find a balance in doing what's best for their teams, while also creating as much excitement as possible for thousands of fans who come back to campus for their football fix one day each spring.
"It's very unique," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We'll have the most fans or the second-most fans every year. It's very important to our fan base and very important to our players to get a chance to play in front of our fans. We try to make it as game-like as possible. It's a big deal for our coaches, our players and our fans. They're unbelievable. It's a real thing here."
In the past, some FBS coaches have taken the games for what they really are -- good fun. In 2013, former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini allowed 7-year-old cancer survivor Jack Hoffman to score a 69-yard touchdown during the Cornhuskers' spring game. The next year, Pelini entered Memorial Stadium for the spring game carrying a cat to pay tribute to the parody Twitter account in his name.
In last year's Arizona spring game, coach Rich Rodriguez ventured into the stands, play sheet and microphone in hand, and allowed spectators to call red zone plays, encouraging fans to turn on their own and "boo roundly" if the play didn't result in a touchdown.
Arkansas State is once again auctioning off its head-coaching position for its April 17 spring game. Last year, the Red Wolves raised $11,700 by auctioning off coach Blake Anderson's spot on the sideline on eBay. This year, the highest bidder will get to coach one team -- and he or she can choose a friend to coach the other side.
Some FBS coaches take their spring games more seriously. While former Michigan coach Brady Hoke liked to show fans nothing more than a practice, new Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh split his team up via a draft a week before last Saturday's game. The result: A 7-0 victory for Team Blue over Team Maize, which perhaps only Harbaugh found remotely interesting.
What did the Wolverines' first-year coach take from it?
"Competition," Harbaugh said. "Playing at a game-type of speed. That they execute. There was good execution. Nobody got injured. I was really pleased with that. I'm walking away right now with a really good feeling after the spring game."
While teams such as Alabama, Auburn, Michigan and Tennessee have embraced their spring games, other programs have tried to temper excitement around them. Boston College canceled its spring game this year and instead held an open scrimmage at Alumni Stadium on March 28. Eagles coach Steve Addazio said the scrimmage would "allow the team to maximize the team's preparation time for the 2015 fall season."
Former Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst took the same approach last year, when he canceled the Panthers' spring game in order to "maximize limited practice time." New Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi is bringing back the spring game this year, which will be played April 18 at Highmark Stadium, a soccer stadium, because of ongoing renovations at Heinz Field.
Narduzzi plans to split his coaching staff in half, and the coaches will then divide Pitt's seniors. The seniors will assemble the rest of their teams through a draft. Former Pitt All-Americans Larry Fitzgerald and Aaron Donald will serve as the teams' honorary captains.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher also has used drafts to divide his teams in the past.
Chryst also had a change of heart about spring games. He will coach in his first spring game at Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on April 25. Proceeds from the game will be donated to the UW Office of Undergraduate Advising.
Nearly every FBS coach approaches his spring game with the same goals -- avoid injuries and don't reveal too much to future opponents.
"From a coaching standpoint, you're very vanilla, you don't do too much, you don't want to get anybody hurt, and you don't want to give away too much of what you worked on in the spring," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "You've got that fine line of trying to show the fans, 'Hey, we're good, we're doing this.' At the same time, you're trying to rotate guys, get a bunch of different people reps, and not give too much away. So sometimes they're exciting, sometimes they're not."
Spring games certainly aren't meaningless. Miami coach Al Golden said they leave a lasting impression on coaches. It's the last time they'll see a player in action until preseason camp opens in five months.
"More than anything, you leave a very strong impression in the coaches' minds in terms of what you can do," Golden told reporters last month. "For anybody that says, 'Oh, I'll get it in the fall,' or 'I'll do it when we get back to training camp,' that's all fine and everything. But that doesn't mean the coaches aren't going to think about the game every day and devise their plans on offense, defense and special teams and decide who's catching what route and who's best at running this play and who's the best at nickel and all those things. From that standpoint, there's a lot at stake in this game."