NORMAN — If University of Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson had his way, today's 1 p.m. Red-White spring game would be followed by a Toby Keith concert, with the stage in the end zone. "If Toby came out afterward and sang four or five songs, we'd fill it up,” Wilson said. "That would be awesome.” Wilson's vision of the Red-White spring game isn't that farfetched. Across college football, spring games are no longer just glorified scrimmages. These days, universities are pushing to make them events. It's true here, too. In Stillwater, country music singer and Oklahoma State alum Keith Anderson will perform tonight at Gallagher-Iba Arena following the 4 p.m. Orange-White game, which last year brought in an estimated 15,000 fans.
How times have changedJust six years ago, almost no one saw the OSU spring game after Cowboy coach Les Miles moved the time from 7 p.m. to 1:30 because of weather without notifying anyone. Now, OSU has one of best-attended spring games in the country. OU, which drew more than 21,000 to the Red-White game last spring, has joined in the marketing movement. The Sooners auctioned off the chance to call an offensive play on the coaching headsets during today's game to Shae Farmer of Carrollton, Ga., for $2,900. "I know everyone is expecting something crazy, but I'll actually try to make an educated call,” said Farmer, who before this weekend had never been to Oklahoma. "Then again (for $2,900) you kind of feel like you have to go for it with a fly pattern or something like that.” The Bedlam universities aren't alone in their desire of making spring games an event. This year, a New York entertainment producer planned to attract 1 million people to 16 college campuses with hopes of making more than $15 million with big-name concerts and pep rallies on the eves before spring games. Tickets for the "Gridiron Bash” were going for more than $40 and included musical acts ranging from Kelly Clarkson at Iowa and Fergie at Penn State to the Counting Crows at Colorado and the Goo Goo Dolls at Kansas State. The Bash was canned last month in fear that football players participating in profitable shows would lead to NCAA violations. The effort confirmed where spring football is headed. "It's getting to be like a lot of people's ‘Midnight Madness,'” said Wilson, referring to the popular college basketball event, which annually launches the college basketball season in front of packed gyms. This move to market spring football, meanwhile, has led to record attendance figures. Last year, more than 92,000 fans attended Alabama's spring game, in part to see first-year coach Nick Saban. Both Ohio State and Penn State drew 70,000, and Nebraska and Notre Dame had more than 50,000 at their spring games last year. ESPN's coverage of spring football has also added credibility to the event. ESPN has televised OU's last two Red-White games, though Sooner coach Bob Stoops declined the station's invitation this year. "We didn't want people watching everything we were doing,” he said. "We don't want to be right out there, this is what we're doing.” Stoops insists attendance at spring games has always been big, but that television and increased media coverage have elevated the overall interest.