Since end of Varsity vs. Alumni game, Washington spring football has been a tough sell
The Huskies will hold their spring preview on Saturday, but the crowd will pale in comparison to those of the 1960s and 70s.
SEATTLE — You can tell from the newspaper clippings that Don James wasn’t particularly thrilled about the spring-game situation he inherited at Washington, though it was a halcyon era for coaxing people into the stadium to watch spring football.
UW hired James ahead of the 1975 season. By that point, the Huskies had concluded 14 consecutive springs with a scrimmage against a team of alumni, including several players who still occupied pro rosters (Ben Davidson, a defensive lineman who spent a decade-plus in the NFL and AFL, was a regular participant). The brainchild of former coach Jim Owens, the varsity-alumni game began in 1961 and sometimes drew more than 25,000 fans.
James, though, seemed skeptical from the start.
“We might play it this year and see how it goes,” he said in January 1975. “I don’t want to make too many changes right away, so we might try it this one time.”
He tried it three times, as it turned out, playing the final iteration in May 1977, the spring that preceded James’ first conference championship and Rose Bowl victory. Announced attendance was 9,472, and the Huskies beat the alumni for the ninth consecutive year. James acknowledged that it was difficult for the alumni to get organized in time to play a football game against a team of college players who had been practicing together all spring. Pro teams were growing wary, too, of their players risking injury in an exhibition, and then-athletic director Mike Lude had grown concerned about costs.
“We give the alums a couple of parties, and we also give them a gift, and that all adds up,” Lude said at the time. He later told reporters the school lost money on the 1977 game.
It all pointed toward an inevitable conclusion: James and Lude announced in February 1978 that the alumni game had run its course, and would be replaced by an intrasquad scrimmage.
Only occasionally in the 45 years since has UW come close to replicating the crowd brought in by those varsity-alumni matchups. The (Tacoma) News Tribune estimated that the 1992 game drew about 20,000 fans, with the Huskies fresh off an unbeaten season and split national championship. The 2017 spring preview, months after UW’s appearance in the College Football Playoff, drew … not 20,000. And maybe not even 2,000.