KNOXVILLE — Phillip Fulmer first came up with the idea a couple of years ago.
“Why not play another school in your spring game?” the Tennessee football coach repeated early Saturday afternoon, about an hour before the Vols’ annual Orange and White scrimmage began.
“You could schedule Clemson or North Carolina or somebody, a school you don’t usually play, but a school that’s a bus ride away. It could make good money and serve as a cost-saving thing.”
Fulmer is so fascinated by the concept that he’s previously brought it up to the American Football Coaches Association, of which he is a past president.
“Just about every coach I’ve talked to really likes the idea,” said the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches. “But I don’t think the coaches are the folks we need to convince.”
To listen to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rodney Allison, Fulmer is right about the coaches’ interest.
“Oh, I think it would be a great idea,” Allison said before the Mocs wrapped up their spring drills at Chamberlain Field last Friday. “It could be us and Tennessee Tech, or maybe Tennessee State, someone we don’t play on a regular basis. Maybe play it in the middle of spring practice. Anything you can do to give the kids something to look forward to would be great.”
Yet much like Fulmer, Allison softly added, “I don’t know if you can get it done.”
Fulmer is correct that college presidents and athletic directors are the ones who would need convincing. And given that group’s unpredictable past, Allison might be right that the chances of the football Vols facing the Tar Heels in April waffle somewhere between slim and none.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t. Almost anything is doable if enough people want to make it happen. The NCAA basketball tournament didn’t start out with 65 teams. Augusta National wasn’t always 7,445 yards long. The American League didn’t always have a designated hitter.
That’s not to say any or all of these changes have been good. It’s just to say a real spring game could take place if enough coaches, players and boosters — especially fans and boosters — spoke loudly enough.
Yes, university administrators could whine about the potential study time lost, or the perception that this is only a money issue. ADs will grumble about dealing with season-ticket holders. So what? Everything’s a money issue today, and judging from attendance figures throughout the country (28,000 at UT, 8,500 at Kentucky, to name but two), most season-ticket holders skip spring games even when the tickets are free.
As Fulmer said, “This could help cover the Neyland scholarships, which the spring game helps do anyway. It could help in a lot of ways.”
Here’s a way it could help almost everyone, from BCS schools such as Tennessee, Clemson and North Carolina to I-AA schools — sorry, Football Championship Subdivision programs — such as UTC:
(A) Limit snaps per player to 35. That ensures it remains a spring game and that no coach can use it to make a BCS statement for the next season’s early polls.
(B) Make each spring series a two-year home-and-home. UT plays at Clemson one year; the Tigers visit Neyland Stadium the next. Limit travel to a 350-mile radius and institute a 12-year window before scheduling the same school again.
(C) For BCS conferences, the third year must always go to a FCS school such as Chattanooga, with the game at the BCS stadium. Ticket prices for all these games — regardless of the opponent —should be half the price of regular-season tickets (UT’s are around $48). But when an FCS school is involved, the gate should be split after home team expenses.
For instance, let’s say the Vols host UTC and 50,000 show up at, say, $25 per ticket. That’s a gate of roughly $1.2 million. Even if the Vols claim it cost $200,000 to stage the event, that would still leave about $500,000 for the Mocs’ athletic department. Talk about funding some scholarships.
A couple of other things. Play all the games on Saturday afternoons so as to cut down on lighting costs. And throw in a coaching clinic for the home team’s state high school coaching association with both college head coaches and their staffs running the clinic on the morning of the game. No prep players, just coaches, so as to avoid any recruiting irregularities.
See how easy that could be? And that’s not even considering television revenues, which could be rolled into a fund for nonrevenue sports or each university’s library.
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Fulmer said.
If enough fans rally behind it, maybe it won’t be.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...