By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – As the saying goes, to truly understand a man, one must walk a day in his shoes.
Across the Southeastern United States, college football is so incredibly popular that, to some, it transcends the level of an avocation and becomes a religion of its own. Within that demographic, it’s hard to imagine a group of people more visible, yet perhaps more widely misunderstood than Southeastern Conference football officials.
From water-cooler discussion to talk radio to the incoming calls on the main telephone line at the SEC Office in Birmingham, Ala., SEC football officials are under constant scrutiny by football faithful across the league’s geographic footprint. I think a major reason for that is the fact that fans haven’t always been provided much insight into the lives and work habits of football officials.
It is with that in mind that I embarked on Nashville this past weekend for a special assignment for the SEC Digital Network. SEC Coordinator of Football Officials Steve Shaw, himself a longtime college football referee in the SEC, allowed me the opportunity to spend the weekend with an SEC football officiating crew from start to finish.
I spent this past Friday and Saturday as a member of referee Matt Moore’s officiating crew for the Auburn vs. Vanderbilt game. In addition to Moore, the crew consisted of Tom Quick (umpire), Gary Jayroe (head linesman), Paul Petrisko (line judge), Mike Williams (field judge), Chris Conley (side judge), Tony Josselyn (back judge) and Jeff Roberson (alternate).
Anything that the crew did this weekend, I did.
Shaw’s charge to the crew was to approach its routine and activities as it normally would despite my presence, in order to give me an inside look into a weekend with an SEC football officiating crew. To that charge, the crew’s openness and willingness to involve me in each and every activity exceeded even my own expectations.
7:58 a.m. CT, Friday, October 19, 2012
I was in downtown Birmingham, where the SEC Office is located, and had just picked up my rental car for that day’s drive to Nashville when I noticed a missed call and voice mail on my cell phone.
On the other end of the phone was Moore, welcoming me to the crew and filling me in on that evening’s agenda. Moore, like nearly every SEC football official, works a full-time job in addition to serving as a referee.
The executive vice president of an insurance company, he informed me that he would not be arriving in Nashville in time for dinner with the officiating crew that evening. His company was having budget meetings that day, and Moore would not be able to get away until around 2 p.m. that afternoon to make the drive to the Music City.
He informed me that he had spoken with Conley and Quick about my arrival and told me to meet them in the lobby of the hotel at 6:45 p.m. that evening to depart for dinner. The SEC’s Assistant Director of Football Administration, Ginny Thomas, had booked me a room at the same hotel as the officiating crew.
6:40 p.m. CT, Friday, October 19, 2012
Conley is the “dinner guy.”
Each member of the SEC officiating crew has a number of tasks for which he is responsible and, dinner falls under the jurisdiction of Conley, who resides in Atlanta and builds custom homes as his day job.
“Everybody on the crew has an assignment and, ever since this crew was put together about three or four years ago, I have always been in charge of dinner,” Conley explained. “I’ve been around the league a long time and so I know most of the restaurants.”
The majority of the crew assembled in the lobby to get ready to walk to dinner. In addition to the officials, several of the officials were accompanied by their wives and children, who would join us for dinner.
From the start, it was obvious that the crew has a family feel to it. It was a bond that wasn’t just between each member of the officiating crew, who hugged one another as they greeted each other in the hotel lobby. The families of each member of the crew also knew one another and enjoyed the collective company.
Josselyn had in tow his wife and three children. Jayroe’s wife and son were in attendance, as was Conley’s wife, who said she makes nearly every weekend officiating trip with her husband.
Don’t downplay Conley’s role as the dinner coordinator for the officiating crew. It’s an important task among his peers.
“One thing you will find out, eating is a really big thing for officials,” Conley said. “There are some places in the conference that are legendary and every crew goes there.”
Those places include the Hilltop Grille in Athens, Ga., Doe’s Eat Place in Fayetteville, Ark., and Ballyhoo Grill in Gainesville, Fla.
What considerations does Conley take into account when carefully selecting the crew’s Friday night dinner?
“Steak,” he said. “We always try to go to a good steakhouse. I’m probably the exception, I like to get fish, but most of these guys need a good piece of meat for dinner.”
But it’s not just the main course.
“We probably eat more appetizers than we do actual food,” Conley said, before he and his wife listed off a laundry list of tasty appetizers they have sampled over the past two months of the 2012 season.
And don’t forget about the post-game meal.
The officiating crew’s favorite post-game destination is Kentucky Fried Chicken and the officials enjoy eating fried chicken while watching the remainder of the day’s games.
According to Conley, the crew has had KFC following each of its games this season.
With all of that in mind, Friday’s dinner spot was Stoney River on West End Avenue known for, not surprisingly, steaks. The crew walked the short distance from its hotel. The constitutional was not without its share of entertainment, as Conley leapt into the empty street across from the hotel and pretended to serve as a traffic officer for his dinner party as it crossed the street.
The fellowship that was evident in the lobby continued from the walk to dinner all the way through the end of the evening. It became evident that the group’s fondness of one another extended well beyond pleasantries. These people genuinely enjoy being around one another.
The part of an SEC football official’s job that is most on display takes place on a 100-yard field over the period of approximately three hours on a Saturday afternoon. But there’s such a significant time investment that goes along with the job.
Just how many hours does each official spend each week working on football officiating responsibilities?
“How many hours is he breathing?” responded Jayroe’s wife, laughingly. “He is thinking about it all the time. He calls it ‘Honing my craft.’”
Conley explained that each official spends at least eight hours per week actively working on officiating-related responsibilities. If all the time spent watching games and tape were considered, the time commitment away from the field would well exceed 20 hours per week.
As soon as he returns on Sundays, Conley spends at least an hour reviewing plays from the day before; many officials will also DVR the previous day’s television broadcast of the game and will watch in full.
On Monday evenings, he will watch the full game and review notes taken by the SEC observer at that past week’s game. On Tuesdays, the crew receives an officiating test on a secure Web server, and he will spend that evening working that week’s test. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he will review game plays on a software called Hudl, which allows officials to review individual plays from multiple cuts of film per play. Officials also receive their grades from the film grader on Wednesdays, which allows them to further evaluate their own performance.
Their own games aren’t the only ones that the officials are watching. In addition to the “training tape,” a weekly instructional video put together by Shaw that reviews plays from all SEC games over the previous week, the officials take advantage of every opportunity to watch football on television.
“Most football officials will watch any game that is on at any time,” said Conley, who said his passion for watching college sports isn’t just limited to football. He regularly watches the Wednesday night SEC volleyball package on ESPNU and is a frequent viewer of SEC softball during the spring.
Petrisko was a substitute to this week’s crew, filling in for Kirk Lewis at line judge.
SEC officials are not permitted to work games involving their alma maters. Petrisko’s usual crew was assigned the Georgia vs. Kentucky game, but he is a former football player for the Bulldogs. Lewis, an Auburn alum, filled Petrisko’s spot in Lexington this weekend.
“We’ve had Paul on our crew twice in the last two years and he has made some unbelievable calls,” Conley said. “He has pulled us out of a couple of jams.”
Petrisko, who downplayed Conley’s compliments by saying, ‘If the crew looks good, then I look good,’ echoed the sentiments of the other officials on the crew with regards to watching copious amounts of football games.
“We’re not really watching the game,” Petrisko said. “We’re watching the officials.”
Conley, who serves as the chaplain for the SEC Football Officials Association, gives the invocation each week before members of the dinner party begins eating.
Speaking from personal experience, the 10-ounce filet and steak fries are an excellent selection.
Just as the three hours an official spends on gameday aren’t the extent of his work during a typical week of football season, just because a college football season only lasts from August to January, that doesn’t mean that those are the only times officials are “honing their crafts.”
“Steve really emphasizes year-round fitness,” Conley said. “He is pushing us to stay in shape year-round. It has been a huge change from 12 to 15 years ago. Guys are really staying in shape and we have a test once a month.”
Following an official’s last game of the season, they will have the month of January and the first couple of weeks of February off from football, with the exception of their fitness plans.
From mid-February through April, officials are participating in their winter clinics and officiating spring football.
Once May rolls around, each official begins studying the rules and preparing for the upcoming season. In nearly every metropolitan area, college football officials begin working together to form study groups which help them in their preparation.
“Things have really changed over the years,” Conley said. “Everybody is spending a lot more time on everything in the offseason.”
While Conley was explaining the offseason conditioning and studying programs to me, little did I know that Quick had been scheming with our waitress.
Shortly after, my conversation was interrupted as our waitress shoved a check in front of me and said “Everyone said ‘thanks for paying for dinner.’”
Just then, laughter erupted from the other end of the table. Mike Williams, who looks every bit like a professional football player, was the first one to speak, grinning with amusement.
“That’s what you call an introduction,” he said.
Quick had been the perpetrator but, as I found out later, he was also the one that picked up my dinner tab.
9 p.m. CT, Friday, October 19, 2012
“Who needs tickets?”
The question came from Moore, who sat in the center of a conference room located on the second floor of the hotel, with the rest of us surrounding him.
Moore, who had finally made it to Nashville, is the leader of the crew as its referee and heads up the evening film session the night before. Among his many administrative responsibilities, he distributes game tickets to the officials for their families to use at the next day’s game.
Conley arrived toting several large bags and the film projector. In tow were a sizeable bag of candy and a plastic container of homemade chocolate cookies. As Conley distributed the evening’s treats, Moore passed out some prints of a photo taken of the officiating crew from its Sept. 29 assignment of the Tennessee at Georgia game.
He handed me a booklet entitled “2012 Pregame” with my name on it, the same that all of the members of his crew receives before the season. The first page of the book is a list of best practices and thoughts called “Football Officiating Axioms.” The remainder of the book is a step-by-step how-to guide of every responsibility, itinerary and situation and that could occur while officiating an SEC football game.
On every possible game scenario, it lists each individual official’s responsibility and position. The book also includes a section on 2012 rule changes and reviews the procedures for overtime games.
It has been two weeks since the crew last worked together. The LSU vs. Florida game in Gainesville on Oct. 6 was the group’s last assignment. Several officials worked assignments in the interim, primarily as alternate officials. Jayroe worked a full-game assignment in the Alabama vs. Missouri game the previous week, filling in for an injured official.
“It’s been two weeks since we last worked together,” Moore told the crew. “We’re going to go over some things from Florida/LSU. It is going to be a very, very competitive game tomorrow and one we need to stay on top of. Both teams are hungry for a win and I know we’re going to do a good job of that.”
The crew usually reviews plays from its previous week’s assignment but, because the crew was not together the week prior to this past Saturday’s game, it reviewed plays from the LSU vs. Florida game.
If anyone doubts that officials aren’t concerned about getting each and every call correct, that uncertainty would be erased by spending five minutes in the film room with an SEC officiating crew.
The light-hearted, fun-loving jokesters that had made dinner so enjoyable were nowhere to be found.
In their place was a very serious group of football officials who were harder on themselves and their own performances than any evaluator could possibly be.
The first 10 minutes of the session were spent reviewing a play from the Florida vs. LSU game that the crew had gotten right, but was not procedurally sound. The thought that seemed to permeate the room was “What could I have done better?”
Each member of the crew had watched the play countless times and was still trying to find out a way that he could improve in a similar situation in the future.
And, remember, this was a play that the crew had gotten right.
Before moving forward, Moore reminded the crew that getting plays right “goes to our credibility.”
The officials discussed plays that they had lost points on in their film grade from the previous contest. Moore reminded the crew that Shaw emphasized that the grade was less important than each official learning from the play cited in the grade.
“’Disregard the grade, make sure we’re making the play,’ is what Steve tells us,” Moore said.
Moore had each member of the crew review mechanics for a specific area of a game. They discussed various situations as they relate to kickoffs and punts, among others. He also reviewed each team’s tendencies for the upcoming game, noting whether teams would go no-huddle or not, and the situations for which the crew should be prepared.
The wealth of knowledge that each official had for past plays, in games that they didn’t even officiate, is vast and wide. It wasn’t uncommon for certain plays that appeared on video to jog someone’s memory and create a discussion of how best to officiate that circumstance.
“Paul had a play like that two years ago in the Alabama/Arkansas game, remember that?”
10:33 p.m. CT, Friday, October 19, 2012
Moore dismissed the group after about an hour and a half of film work. It would be a short turnaround as the crew planned to meet at 6:15 a.m. the next morning in the lobby for breakfast.
I had been with the crew only about four hours, but I was exhausted. They packed a lot of information into a four-hour period.
I returned to my room on the 14th floor of the hotel and was quickly asleep.
6:14 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
Jayroe was the first person to meet me in the lobby that morning before the rest of the crew arrived to have breakfast at the Commodore Grille in the hotel.
“The early games are great because you get to get up and get it done and have the rest of the day to watch the other games,” Jayroe said. “I prefer that over the 8 p.m. kick. The 2:30 kick is the best one because you have time to rest and then time to unwind after the game.”
The Commodore Grille featured a full buffet that the crew members and I fully enjoyed, filling our plates with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, pancakes and oatmeal. Josselyn, who is very organized and clean cut, was the exception to the group.
Josselyn, whose peers referred to him as a health nut, returned with a bowl of fruit salad and a couple of boxes of Wheaties.
“It’s the Breakfast of Champions,” he said with a smile as he returned to the table, showing off his boxes of cereal.
Moore told the story of how officials used to walk from the hotel to nearby Vanderbilt Stadium, but now they travel by van for security purposes.
“We used to walk to the stadium in our uniforms,” Moore said.
“But we would run back,” he said with a laugh.
I asked how many times the officials on the crew would speak to each other over the course of a week. Jayroe informed me that they talk to each other at least twice a week, with Moore taking many more calls because he speaks with each of the officials on a variety of topics.
But it’s not always about work.
“Sometimes we call just to talk,” Moore said.
If there was one overarching theme over the course of the weekend, it was that the officials on this crew are very good friends as well.
“This group cares about each other a lot,” Quick said. “They are great people with great families. It’s like a reunion every weekend.”
Much of the breakfast discussion centered on new experimental communication systems that several crews of SEC officials were testing throughout the season that allowed constant communication between officials during the games. Jayroe had used the system the previous week when he worked the Alabama vs. Missouri game in Columbia, Mo., and was offering his insight.
As Moore returned from the breakfast bar with a banana and a package of peanut butter (“my pre-game snack,” he said), I asked if the officials had any superstitions as they went about their weekly assignments. I learned that, more than anything, routines were important.
“You don’t have time for superstitions,” Quick said. “You just focus and repeat.”
7 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
We adjourned back to the meeting room on the second floor for the crew’s pre-game preparation.
It was there that I met John Bible, the game’s replay official and a former Big 12 referee, and observer Al Ford. Bible’s uncle was Dana X. Bible, the College Football Hall of Fame head coach at Texas A&M, LSU, Nebraska and Texas during the first half of the 20th century.
Once each member of the crew assembled into the room, Moore began by telling the group that they would review the “training tape” from the previous week.
Before he rolled the training tape, Moore played a video for the crew, emphasizing his point from the previous week about how the crew must avoid the temptation to follow the ball or their specific assignment so much that they miss the bigger picture.
He showed a selective attention test that has become known as the “invisible gorilla.” He asked each member to count how many times six young adults passed a pair of basketballs in the video. The impetus is that the viewer concentrates so much on the counting the passes that he completely misses the gorilla that walks through the middle of the screen.
“We cans sometimes get tunnelvision,” Moore told the crew following his lesson.
The 23-minute “training tape” was narrated by Shaw and featured a number of plays and explanations from the previous weeks. Some plays were examples of good calls and some were examples of missed calls.
“Be prepared to take control,” Shaw instructed the viewers. “Be the calm in a sea of chaos.”
The same video is viewed by each official on each crew and involves plays from a wide variety of SEC games from the previous week.
Shaw discussed the bad weather issues of the previous week, reviewed a number of plays and pointed out to the crew which official is the best one to see the play and make the call in each situation.
He closed the “training tape” with a charge to each official.
“Let’s begin working to deliver our personal best,” Shaw said. “Remember to give everything you have on every play.”
Jayroe is responsible for administering the crew test which each member has had since the previous Tuesday. The test involves a selection of scenarios and each official is to provide a determination following each scenario. Each official went around the room and answered one of the questions, explaining his answer to the crew. Jayroe provided confirmation that each answer was correct.
Following the test, Moore went around the room to allow each official to say some closing words.
“There are a lot of people who would trade places with us,” Jayroe said. “Steve has entrusted us with this. Let’s have a good game.”
9:15 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
The crew, fully dressed for the game, re-convened in Quick’s room on the ninth floor of the hotel. Once each member had arrived, the group piled into the elevator and headed to the lobby.
At 9:29 a.m., we were greeted in front of the hotel by a Vanderbilt University Community Service Officer who had brought a cargo van to transport the crew to the stadium. It was a brief three-minute drive as the van pulled underneath the stadium near the official’s locker room.
Upon entering the locker room in the bowels of Vanderbilt Stadium, we were greeted by C.M. Newton, former athletics director at the University of Kentucky, who was serving as the SEC game representative.
A tray of fruit and a cooler full of water and sodas was spread out in the locker room for the officials, who began getting prepared for the game.
Conley and Josselyn quickly got to work on the footballs submitted by each team for use during the game. They measured the air pressure in the balls, re-inflated a few of the balls and marked them as approved for use.
Moore, Bible, Ford and I ventured to the 100-minute meeting, a gathering led by the game’s referee that consists of meet management personnel from both the home and visiting institutions, the SEC representative, the home and visiting sports information directors, and representatives from various departments and operational functions from the host institution to go over game protocol.
“Last week, we were chasing bad weather and tornadoes,” Moore said, referencing the pair of games the previous weekend that were delayed by inclement weather situations. “This week, we have beautiful weather and there are no weather issues that we are aware of.”
A representative from the police department discussed security and how teams and officials would exit the field. Moore asked a representative of Vanderbilt’s marketing department if there were any pregame or halftime presentations that would affect the timing format of the game.
The SEC Network producer Steve Melton was on hand to discuss the television timeout format and the 11:21 a.m. CT kickoff time.
9:49 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
ESPN’s College Gameday was playing on the small television in the corner of the official’s locker room as Moore and I returned to the locker room from the 100-minute meeting.
Officials were mentally preparing for the upcoming game each in their own way. Some were watching College Gameday, others were reading the gameday programs that had been furnished to the locker room, still others were stretching and Williams was asleep, sitting straight up in his locker.
“He can sleep anywhere,” said Moore, making sure to get my attention.
Being underneath the stadium in the officials’ locker room is an interesting dynamic. You can hear the bands and the entire atmosphere going on around the stadium without seeing any of it.
Moore and Quick soon left the locker room to go meet with each team’s head coach.
Petrisko was in his locker putting on some compression stockings. Josselyn stops Petrisko and has him show off the scar on one of his legs.
Pestrisko was injured in a game at LSU a few years ago and had to have a rod inserted into his leg that remains today. He has a sizeable battle scar in his left leg and has developed compartment syndrome.
“They came close to taking my leg,” said the muscular Petrisko.
As Petrisko walked across the room to begin stretching, he joked “The kids stay the same age and we just keep getting older. It’s not fair.”
Moore and Quick return to the locker room and report the numbers of the captains to their fellow officials, sharing details of their meetings with each head coach.
At the 60-minute mark, Conley, Williams and Roberson, the supervisor of officials for both the Gulf South Conference and the Great American Conference, took to the field, bringing with them the marked and approved footballs.
Moore began having his pre-game snack of banana and peanut butter when he realized that his flag was missing.
Quick had to get in one last prank before game time. He had confiscated Moore’s flag when the referee was in the restroom. Before Moore broke in to any serious panic, Quick returned the flag.
“I couldn’t put you through that,” Quick quipped.
10:36 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
Forty-five minutes prior to game time, I walked out to the field with Moore and the remainder of the officials. Just as we turned the corner from our locker room to walk down the tunnel to the field, we immediately broke into a jog as we were just steps ahead of the Vanderbilt band as it was marching onto the field.
The crew first tested its communication system with the instant replay booth and I then walked around the field with Josselyn and Moore to survey the scene.
“We’re making sure nothing within the limit lines causes any safety concerns or problems,” Josselyn explained.
Moore was slightly concerned about some television camera boxes that were just beyond the limit lines of the field. He had seen players crash into similar structures at other fields and wanted to make sure it didn’t pose a safety concern.
“It’s outside our jurisdiction if it’s not within the limit lines,” Moore said. “We have to talk to game management if we think it’s something that could be a problem.”
Moore then shook hands with the chain crew that had arrived for the game. The remainder of officials fulfilled a variety of other responsibilities. Josselyn, the back judge, conversed with several players as a preventative measure.
“I met with the deepest returners on each team to explain what they can or cannot do on punt and kickoff situations,” Josselyn said. “We want to be able to alleviate problems before they happen.”
The crew assembled along the 50-yard line as the teams completed their respective warm-ups on each half of the field.
“We’re trying to keep the teams separated, that’s our priority,” Petrisko said. “We also want to make sure that the visiting team stays off the logo to avoid any problems.”
The officials returned to the locker room with 22 minutes remaining until kickoff. The locker room was mainly quiet and each official was extremely focused. The LSU vs. Texas A&M game had kicked off on the TV that was stationed in the corner of the room. Some of the officials watched that game, some did not.
As the stadium readied for the national anthem, the officials made their way out of the locker room. Each was sure to embrace each other with a big hug before walking out the door.
“Expect the unexpected,” Moore reminded the crew.
11:16 a.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
The officials made their way to the middle of the field for the coin toss. Vanderbilt won the toss and elected to receive. This season, as Moore pointed out earlier, the SEC is using a commemorative coin for its coin tosses (representing the 14 institutions of the SEC for the first time) and the captain who wins the coin toss gets to keep the coin.
The game kicks off right at 11:21 a.m. CT and the first flag is thrown at the 14:27 mark of the first quarter. Moore indicates that it is a false start against Vanderbilt. The crew is off and running.
I stood on the sidelines during the game, watching the officials at work.
We returned to the official’s locker room with the score tied at 10-all between Auburn and Vanderbilt. The halftime show from the SEC Network was airing on the TV in the officials’ locker room.
It was a very quiet scene; the officials discussed a few plays from the opening quarter and shared a few concerns that coaches had communicated to them during the games.
The crew was instructed to put all of its belongings in a specified area so that it could be taken to their van following the game. SEC football officials do not return to the locker room following the game, they head directly to their hotel.
Auburn made a valiant effort to come back and win the game, but Vanderbilt held on for the 17-13 win at Vanderbilt Stadium.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, I waited near the corner of the field for the officials. They ran off the field, handed their communication equipment to a member of the Vanderbilt game operations staff and piled in the van for the return to the hotel. Each official was provided with a box lunch in the van for the ride back.
2:55 p.m. CT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
Following a quick shower and change of clothes, the officials met in Quick’s room to review the game. Bible and Ford had made their way back to the hotel and Ford reviewed his set of notes from the game. Josselyn took notes from Ford’s observations and would later type them up and e-mail them to his fellow crew members.
Ford had already been in touch by phone with General Dick Burleson at the SEC Command Center, who had watched the entire game on television from the SEC Office in Birmingham alongside Shaw. They discussed a variety of plays of which they had each made note.
Ford told the crew that the plays he had observed were the same ones observed by Burleson and there were no concerns from the SEC Office on the game’s officiating.
Following their meeting with Ford, the crew dispersed. Because it was still only 3 p.m. when they finished their duties, several members of the crew hit the road to head back home. Other members remained in Quick’s room to watch the games of the day and, no doubt, made a KFC run.
Before I said goodbye, the crew presented me with a gameday program that each of them had autographed and a brand-new SEC on CBS ballcap, a coveted item among SEC officials. The greatest gift of all was getting to share the weekend with them.
As I got back on the elevator to return to my hotel room, all I could think about was how I wish every SEC football fan would have the opportunity to walk a day in the shoes of an SEC officiating crew, as I did.
It would forever change your perspective.