Here’s a quick contrarian message for UGA fans, in advance of the G-Day spring game:
You are not a bad fan, or a despicable person, if you don’t show up at Sanford Stadium for a glorified scrimmage.
The above thought has been spinning around my head for weeks, once new head coach Kirby Smart began beating the Dawg Nation drum to fill UGA’s football home this Saturday — to the tune of 93,000 strong.
The dual rationale: A capacity crowd at Sanford Stadium would effectively send an earth-shaking message to the other SEC programs, signifying that a new era of UGA football has launched with a bang. As luck would have it, the 93,000-plus mark would also eclipse the reported attendance tally for Alabama’s spring game in 2007 (92,138) — the first year of Nick Saban’s Tuscaloosa tenure.
(Smart served under Saban for nine seasons at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide collect four national championships during that span.)
However, a crowd short of 90,000 won’t make the experience of seeing 5-star recruit Jacob Eason (perhaps the next Matthew Stafford at UGA) make his first public passes in red and black any less special.
It also wouldn’t sour any blue-chip recruits on the idea of signing with UGA in either 2017, 2018 or 2019.
Bottom line: If these student-athletes choose to become Dawgs For Life, it’ll have everything to do with Smart, the assistant coaches and UGA’s social/academic advantages … and nothing to do with a pro-tailgate crowd that briefly spills into a stadium for 40-50 minutes in April.
Besides, if no one ever remembers the final score of a spring game, why should the attendance mark have any meaning?
Conversely, a filled-to-the-rafters stadium won’t be enough to warrant tailback Nick Chubb’s on-field return come Saturday. Yes, the junior-to-be has been recovering nicely from last year’s horrible knee injury; and yes, he’s averaging 7.4 yards per carry and one touchdown for every 14 touches in college … but that’s no reason to suit up for a meaningless scrimmage.
Which brings us to this: Remember Lee Evans, the all-everything receiver at Wisconsin from a decade ago? In 2002, the senior wideout tore his knee in the final minutes of the Badgers’ spring game — a devastating injury that forced Evans to redshirt that season and postpone any NFL plans for two years.
(Thankfully, Evans rallied for 1,213 receiving yards/13 touchdowns in 2003 and became a first-round pick with the Buffalo Bills the following spring.)
After the Evans injury, there was a nationwide outcry for spring games to end; the collateral effect of that reasonable proclamation still exists today, with a number of programs “resting” their primary contributors or simply reducing scrimmages to something akin to two-hand-touch football.
For the record, I’m impressed with Smart’s moxie to fill Sanford Stadium like no other spring game in UGA history. I just don’t see the necessity in playing actual tackle football for four 10-minute periods (with an irrelevant scoreboard count).
As an attractive alternative, why not have a quick non-contact scrimmage for the masses … and then follow it up with an all-day concert event, where Bulldogs players — past and present — sign autographs and mingle with the crowd, in the form of taking endless iPhone selfies?
It would satisfy Smart’s year one ambition of stocking Sanford Stadium with red-and-black-clad supporters. It might also guarantee zero injuries by day’s end, which should always be the No. 1 priority in mid-April.
Here’s another aspect to ponder: It would behoove Smart to avoid the pressure of politely demanding 93,000 fans to the stadium.
In 2013, Gus Malzahn’s first head-coaching year with Auburn, the Tigers faithful actually outdrew the Crimson Tide fans for their respective spring games.
The partial reason for this: Auburn fans also occupied campus to pay their final respects to the famed Toomer’s Corner oak trees, which were damaged from the infamous Harvey Updyke “poisoning” incident.
It made for a great afternoon, watching Auburn briskly move through the spring-game paces and then bid adieu to a Toomer’s Corner institution with a huge send-off celebration (streets/bars packed).
Of course, three years later, the Tigers athletic department must now spin positive vibes from the news of Auburn incurring a noticeable drop in spring-game attendance — relative to the special A-Day event from 2013.
In earnest, Auburn has been penalized for setting the bar so high.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.