Under Chris Petersen, it was called a Spring Showcase, with the word “showcase” used in the same sort of ironic sense that causes a quiet person to be nicknamed “Gabby.”
The truth is, Petersen didn’t want to showcase anything, because he knew that eyes would be watching — mainly, the eyes of future opponents who would comb through the film for snippets of useful intel.
If that meant the eyes of the ever-decreasing number of fans who showed up for the event at Husky Stadium would end up being glazed over from boredom, well, that was a tradeoff Petersen decided was well worth it. So for six years, the culminating event of Husky spring football was a glorified practice, a paint-drying exercise that revealed virtually nothing and excited virtually no one.
Petersen’s successor as Washington’s football coach has an entirely different vision of the spring game, one that was unveiled Saturday after getting tabled in 2020 by COVID-19.
For one thing, Jimmy Lake decided to make it an actual game, with the squad divided into two teams which, on Saturday, went at each other in mostly authentic game conditions. I say “mostly,” because quarterbacks were off limits for contact, hitting was robust but controlled, and some of the logistics were manipulated to make it run more smoothly.
But it was operated like a game, with a winner and a loser (Purple 22, White 13, if you must know). And for the first time since the 2019 Apple Cup 496 days ago, there were fans in the stands — roughly 9,000 of them, who were reserved but engaged.
It was Lake’s grand vision, writ small. He dreams of a day when the stands at Husky Stadium are filled to the brim for the spring game, just as they are at Alabama and Clemson and other football hotbeds.
“The city of Seattle is a football city,’’ Lake said afterward. “The goal is, every single spring, I want to pack more people in here to come out to a huge event and get to watch a game and get to watch the new team, and see what’s in store for the fall.”
It’s something for which many Husky fans have been clamoring for years. Mainly, the ones who don’t think that stretching sessions — an actual part of Petersen’s showcase — necessarily warrant a trip to the stadium to see.
Mind you, this wasn’t exactly riveting theater either, even though Lake admitted that he tried to manipulate things at the end of the game to create a dramatic finish. Spring games by their very nature tend to be bland and ragged.
But it was still instructive to see how players have progressed since last fall’s abbreviated season, and to get the first glimpse of transfers and freshmen. It was also compelling to see the three prime combatants in the quarterback race — Dylan Morris, Patrick O’Brien and Sam Huard — perform under live game conditions. My assessment: Morris’s command of the offense stood out, and it will be tough for anyone to unseat him.
For Lake, it’s a showcase for the Husky program, and also an indoctrination into the pressure that will envelope them in September.
“It’s all great for our players to be in front of people and have to perform,’’ Lake said. “They need to get used to that. We have a lot of new players on our team, coming from high school, where they were playing in front of a couple of thousand fans, or whatever it is. It’s a whole new game when you’re playing in front of a huge stadium with a huge following. The more we can get our players more comfortable playing, with the lights shining on them, the better we will perform when it’s a real game.
“But it goes hand in hand. We want our fans and everyone to see us. We want our recruits — possible recruits, younger recruits — to be able to see us. We want to show the country that Seattle’s a football town and they love their football. I mentioned it before, other areas of the country, they pack their spring games. It’s packed all the way. You can’t even get a ticket. That’s the way it needs to be in Seattle; for the things we want to do here and the places we want to go, it needs to be that important to our city and our fans.”
It was pointed out to Lake that it can be hard to get the attention of sports fans in Seattle, compared to, say, Tuscaloosa, because there are so many other options. Asked what it would take to fulfill his goal of filling the stadium in spring, Lake replied, “We’re going to have to win some games this fall. That’s what it’s going to take. And make sure we have an exciting product out there.
“Win some games, win some championships, win some big bowl games, and I believe we’ll get a bunch of people here. It will be a hot-selling ticket. It will be free. Spring football, I always want it to be free. I want people to be able to come here and bring their families. I think it’s going to happen. I know it will happen. … If we give them a good product, they’ll come see us.”
It’s hard to knock Petersen’s methods, considering the huge amount of success he had. And Lake is an unwavering supporter of the man he considers his mentor. Yet Lake admitted that he felt compelled to tinker with this part of the program he inherited.
“We’ve had a bunch of conversations,’’ Lake said of Petersen regarding the spring game. “I totally understood where he was coming from. He’s probably said it before. I know he didn’t want to show very much to our opponents, which I totally get. We held back a lot of stuff today as well because we know it’s on TV. Every coach does that.
“I don’t want to answer for him, but to me, the importance of having a real game, for our fans and for our players, that outweighed us trying to hold back really everything so nobody could see it.
“I’d rather our fans and recruits be excited about our program and see what we’re doing, and see the bonds that our players have and the energy we play with, because I think that’s going to attract more fans and more attention.”
The Husky spring game is turning into something akin to an actual showcase — and not in an ironic sense.