'Train wrecks'

I never got to know Bobby Gaston, who is retiring after 27 years as the Southeastern Conference's coordinator of officials, so I can't say I liked the man. But I can say I liked his philosophy … a lot.

Gaston believed that the best officiating crew was the one that stayed out of the way and let the game unfold. He regularly told his underlings to refrain from flagging minor infractions and instead focus on "train wrecks." In other words, call the obvious fouls that affect the outcome of a play and don't sweat the small stuff. As Gaston often noted, "You could call SOMETHING on every play if you really wanted to."

Thankfully, Gaston's officials never "really wanted to." Football is a tough game, and SEC teams play a tougher brand than just about anyone in the NCAA. That's a credit not only to superior players but also to a "Let ‘em play" approach among the league's officials. That approach started at the top … with Bobby Gaston.

Gaston served as a lightning rod at times, of course. Whenever an SEC official appeared to miss a call, the controversial decision was tossed in Gaston's lap for review and interpretation. Usually, he supported the official. Occasionally, though, he admitted one of his men blew the call.

In a 2002 game against Tennessee, Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle threw a pass from his backside to a receiver who had one knee on the ground, yet was allowed to further advance the ball. Gaston admitted his officiating crew made two mistakes on the play, which showed me both guts and candor.

A few years back I wrote an article on former Vol football players Rocky Goode, Terry Brown and Eddy Powers – all of whom were serving as SEC officials under Gaston at the time. All three seemed to like and respect their boss, which may be the ultimate testament to the man.

I heard Gaston speak at SEC Media Days probably a dozen times. I was always struck by his resemblance to Uncle Charlie from the "My Three Sons" TV show. I also was struck by his eagerness to discuss the nuances of offiating. He obviously had a real passion for his job.

Some people will celebrate Gaston's retirement. I'm not among them. As noted earlier, I can't say that I liked the man but I certainly liked his philosophy.

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