SEC Officiating Changes Need To Be Made

It's time for Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive to earn his considerable salary. It's time for him to give Bobby Gaston, the supervisor of football officials, a gold watch, have an appreciation dinner and send him into retirement.

What has been a festering problem for several seasons is rapidly becoming a crisis. If Slive isn't embarrassed, he ought to be. SEC officials, the nation's best when the late Gordon Pettus was in charge, have become a joke. They have the eyes of eagles when it comes to throwing flags for six men on the line of scrimmage because an offensive tackle is half a step too far back, but on the calls that really matter, it is putting it kindly to say they are inconsistent.

There are still some good officials in the SEC, but the hard truth is that a growing number are woefully incompetent or poorly trained or both. Auburn felt the sting of that incompetence in its 28-21 victory over Tennessee on Saturday. In the second quarter, Jason Campbell threw what should have been a 28-yard touchdown pass to Devin Aromashodu that would have given Auburn a 21-0 lead. The receiver caught the ball cleanly and came down with both feet in the end zone. It was waved off as incomplete. Turns out that Tennessee had 12 players participating on the play, and the play before. It is a cardinal sin of officiating to forget to count the number of players on the field.

As Tennessee drove for what could have been the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, Auburn cornerback Kevin Hobbs was called for a late hit on quarterback Casey Clausen out of bounds. On tape, it is obvious that Hobbs hit Clausen because he was shoved in the back by a Tennessee blocker. The same thing happened when Auburn was called for a personal foul on a kickoff involving Derrick Graves.

On Tennessee's drive to its final touchdown, the key play was a pass interference call against Junior Rosegreen. On tape, Rosegreen is with the receiver step for step. He is looking back for the ball when the receiver shoves him in the back. The flag comes down. There is joy on the Auburn sideline, but it turns to dismay when the official signals the penalty is against Rosegreen.

Two weeks ago, Alabama lost to Arkansas because an official felt the need to throw a flag when Crimson Tide players were celebrating an interception in the end zone in overtime. Alabama players said one official told them to get up. A second later another came up and threw his flag. Technically, I guess it was a proper call or at least a call within the rules. In the real world, let it go and let the players decide who wins the game. Moments later, an agitated and complaining Arkansas player bumped into an official and nothing was called. Celebrating a big play is unsportsmanlike conduct and bumping an official is not? You figure that one out.

For reasons I have never understood, SEC policy is that officials are immune from public criticism. If a coach offers public criticism, he is reprimanded. If he does it enough, he can be suspended. Players are accountable in public. Coaches are accountable in public. Officials aren't. And unfortunately most officials don't do their jobs nearly as well as the players and the coaches do their jobs.

As in any human endeavor, even the best officials are going to make mistakes. It's not an easy job. Offensive linemen hold on almost every play. When do you call it? When do you not call it? The game is played by fast and talented people. Things are going to be missed. I don't know what it's like in other conferences, but in the SEC, calls are being missed with alarming frequency. Even worse, calls are being made for fouls that simply don't happen.

Incompetent officiating didn't cost Auburn a game Saturday, though it certainly contributed to making a close game out of what really probably should have been a rout. It almost certainly did cost Alabama a victory over Arkansas. Gaston has heard the complaints of SEC coaches, but instead of getting better, things get worse. There are men officiating in the SEC who weren't even good high school officials.

South Carolina's Lou Holtz, who said Tennessee defenders were illegally mimicking the Gamecocks' snap count in Knoxville, laughed sadly last week when asked if he expected any satisfaction from complaints to Gaston. "I think the conference will handle it the way they handle most things," Holtz snorted. "I sent them 27 plays from one game and haven't heard from them yet."

It's time for a change. And it should start at the top.

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