Oregon State’s football team will take to the gridiron on April 26 at Reser Stadium for what is touted as the “Spring Showcase.” The practice game to end spring drills will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.
Spring football at OSU has an interesting history that dates back at least a century. The concept of holding spring practices to get a good look at the following season’s talent first appeared at Harvard in 1889.
It’s not clear exactly when Oregon Agricultural College took up spring football, but it might have been exactly 100 years ago.
“The latest thing in athletics at Oregon Agricultural College is spring football practice, which will begin next Monday on the college field,” the April 13, 1913 edition of the Oregonian reported. “Twenty men were fitted out with regulation togs Friday and Dr. Stewart (head coach E.J. Stewart) will take them in charge at the initial gathering Monday.
“Punting, tackling and the foundation principles of college football will be taught. This will enable Coach Stewart to become acquainted with the material available for next fall.”
The spring football tradition had been established and would only be disrupted during wartime years. In 1926, coach Paul Schissler saw 104 players turn out.
“Men are divided into small groups with a varsity man in charge,” the Oregonian reported. “After a period the men are called together for brief instruction and demonstration, followed by more group work.”
One of the earliest mentions of an actual spring game appears in February 1929. Oregon State College was recognizing “the first commemoration of the defeat of New York University.” A celebration was arranged around the presentation of a silver cup in honor of the victory. OSC defeated NYU, 25-13, on Nov. 29, 1928 at Yankee Stadium and represented one of the biggest victories in the history of the program.
“The affair will involve a host of athletic festivities on the campus, including a football game in the afternoon between two picked elevens of the spring football practice squad.”
On April 2, 1932, OSC’s varsity ended spring drills with a game against a team of all-stars. Ted Hermann, a substitute fullback, scored a touchdown in the second quarter on a drive set up by a long pass from Jim Clarke to Ed Adams. Quarterback Russell Acheson kicked a field goal and Norm Franklin scored a TD on a 2-yard plunge for a 15-0 victory.
The following spring, former players Hal Moe and Wayne Harn picked teams for a scrimmage to be supervised by then-acting coach Lon Stiner.
“Plans for a game between the varsity and a team of all-stars were dropped when it was learned a conference ruling forbade such a contest,” the Oregonian reported.
However, in 1934, that particular rule must have been either revised or ignored because OSC was back playing an all-star opponent again. As part of the university’s “Dad’s Day” celebration in 1934, Stiner arranged his varsity to play against a team of former stars that included Moe and “Tar” Schwammel.
In the following years, Pacific Coast Conference rules changed when it came to the number of practices allowed. Back in 1940, for example, 30 sessions were allowed and OSC drilled players for six weeks. At around this time, the Beavers were also playing weekly intrasquad games over the final four weeks of practice.
Spring football then took on a new meaning in 1943. Early that spring as World War II raged on, it became obvious that the majority of OSC’s players would not be back in school for the fall term. Stiner, wanting to stress physical conditioning, established a new course to help men get in shape for service duty. The idea worked and 125 students registered for the “spring football” class.
Stiner implemented his own take on the rules to be attractive to the students who had never played. He called it “flash ball” and it was similar to touch football but allowed passing at any time anywhere on the field. Linemen could even pass and catch, no pads were used and blocking was permitted.
At the time, Stiner was still expecting to field a football team that fall, although he knew it would be made up mostly of freshmen. As it turned out, football was suspended for the 1943 and 1944 seasons.
The first postwar spring practices began on April 2, 1946, with Stiner announcing plans to work on combining the T-formation with its regular single-wing.
In 1959, the idea of a varsity vs. alumni game returned and a popular series was established. Among the hundreds of players that participated in these games over a nine-year period was OSU’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Terry Baker. Others such as Sam Baker, John Witte, Jack Hogan, Bob Riggert and John Horrillo were regulars.
The final alumni game in the series was held on May 6, 1967, at Corvallis High School. The game was played at CHS because Parker Stadium was undergoing a seat expansion and new turf project at the time. Twenty-four members of the 1965 OSU Rose Bowl team participated on the alumni squad, which was coached by Paul Brothers and Jack O’Billovich.
But that didn’t matter with the varsity taking a 19-0 win before 4,000 fans.
“At the close of the game, (coach Dee) Andros, colorfully garbed in orange sweater and socks, had the look of a gent who had just learned that he owned a winning sweepstakes ticket,” a game story reads. “He knew that from the clash emerged the kids who should carry the orange and black to high success next fall.”
Over the life of the series, the alums won just twice — 20-10 in 1960 and 24-22 in 1964.
The alumni games were dropped after 1967 because professional teams insisted that their players not participate because of injury risks. Since most of the alumni teams were made up of pro players, OSU decided to end the series.
So, in 1968, the “Picnic Bowl” was born. The idea was that the losers had to serve the winners a picnic dinner following the game. It appears that these Picnic Bowl games continued for at least a decade.
Nowadays, spring football receives more attention than ever with media coverage, speciality sports networks and social bloggers.