Spring practice is not the most enjoyable of times for college football players. It’s all about work and getting ready for a season that seems far away.
But there are limits in place. Teams can practice 15 days in a 34-day period. At least three of those days, including the first two, must be without full pads. Of the 12 permissible contact sessions, no more than eight can involve tackling. No more than three practices can be primarily devoted to 11-on-11 scrimmages, and the spring game is one of those. Players can’t be required to devote more than 20 hours a week or four hours a day to football.
It wasn’t always that way.
When Pat Dye arrived as Auburn’s head coach in January 1981, he brought a philosophy of toughness and accountability that would result in four Southeastern Conference championships over the next decade. But there were times that first year when some of his players wondered if he was just mean.
“I can remember players being so tired coaches would hold them up at the line of scrimmage,” says Randy Campbell, who would become the starting quarterback a year later. “When the ball was snapped, they’d shove them in there. We were just trying to find out who was tough and who wasn’t. Between 30 and 40 people left the program.”
By the time the 1981 season arrived, Auburn players were convinced they were tougher than anybody. That team went 5-6, but the foundation had been laid.
Nine years earlier, Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley had made Auburn history and moved on. Head coach Shug Jordan looked around and decided the Tigers could no longer be a pass-oriented team. Jordan would return to his roots. The 1972 Auburn team would play blood and guts football.
Steve Wilson, who was a senior linebacker, remembers that spring with a mixture of pride and wonder. Even before players took the field, they went to work underneath the stands at what was then Cliff Hare Stadium.
“We wore helmets and shoulder pads,” Wilson says. “There was a blocker, a tackler and a ballcarrier. You got that sand in your eyes and on your skin. It would get in your lungs and you couldn’t breathe. The mental part was as tough as the physical, and the physical was something you don’t want to think about.
People were throwing stuff in their cars and leaving. We lost three high school All-Americans. People were packing up and getting out of there.
“I think we were supposed to have 20 days of practice. If we had one Coach Jordan didn’t like, he would say it didn’t count.”
Linebacker Bill Newton, who months later would become an Auburn icon for the ages when he blocked two punts against Alabama, said Auburn players believed by the end of spring that they could take on anybody, anywhere, anytime.
“I can’t tell you what we actually went through,” Newton says. “It was nose to nose football. They were going to find the men on the field. The spring of 1972 was much harder than any football game I ever played in.”
That Auburn team, written off as yesterday’s news, went 10-1, beat Alabama 17-16 and became wrote a glorious chapter in Auburn’s football history. The 1981 team started the run to the greatest decade in Auburn history.
Wednesday, another Auburn team will take the field with another first-year head coach. Will stories be written years from now about Gus Malzahn’s first spring and where it led?
Maybe, but it won’t be the same.