Once a week, SEC Digital Media Director Eric SanInocencio will share insights on the inner-workings of the conference office.
Tuscaloosa, Ala. -- Anybody can be a referee in the SEC right? Well, for four area media members, that thought was realized Saturday as they stood on the sidelines of Alabama's "A-Day" to shadow conference officials.
Shadow them literally, meaning for the course of six hours they in effect were SEC officials calling a nationally televised Spring jamboree. Jim Dunaway, Mike Dubberly, Brian Reynolds and Clay Travis participated in the first ever SEC Media Officiating Clinic this past Saturday, donning the stripes as the Alabama Crimson Tide scrimmaged against each other in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Hosted by the SEC's new Coordinator of Officials, Steve Shaw, the newly welcomed sideline aficionados took part in a day-long walk in the life of a conference official. Complete with new outfits, positional breakdowns, and field time in front of 92,000 strong, this group got a behind the scenes look at an the inner-workings of an official in the SEC. The SEC Digital Network was on hand, watching four people who are used to applying pressure on the radio and in the newspaper put on the spot as they learned the craft from officials with years of experience on the big stage.
"The goal of the media clinic was not to make the media guys proficient officials in one day," said Shaw. "It was set to give them a strong overview of what it was like to be a football referee in terms of pre-game preparation and execution on the field."
The fun began at 9:30 am, as today's "zebras" filed in to a small theater in an outer section of Bryant-Denny. Uniforms ready, the four shook hands and made aquantinces with their co-workers, as Shaw and company introduced themselves to the masses and laid out what would be the normal official hours for working an SEC game. It was a two-part process, as Shaw would teach basics to the group as a whole, and then the four would break off into individual sessions, where they'd get further instruction from the referee they'd be shadowing during the course of the game.
School was then in session. Over the course of the following three hours, Shaw directed the group of officials and media through a litany of rule changes and basic mechanics. This "Referee 101" course delved into many different areas, covering everything from what part of the field each official was responsible for to what constitutes a new unsportsmanlike penalty. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience to find out just what exactly a trained SEC official has to be aware before they even take the field.
Reynolds agreed with us, commenting on what it was like to have to learn so much on the fly. "The official's clinic was a real eye opener as to what referees do on a weekly basis. Officials are quickly criticized and rarely praised, and getting to see what goes into the rules and the extreme scrutiny that conference puts on them and that they put on themselves was incredibly interesting. It really gave us a perspective of the game that most people don't get to see."
It wasn't all serious, as the group had lively debates and spirited chatter on how to try and remain as anonymous as possible and not upset Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who agreed to let the media officials call his scrimmage. "There aren't many things that can get you in trouble today," Shaw told his new group of media officials. "But when Coach Saban agreed to do this, he told me not to mess up his spring game. So keep your whistles in your pocket (once you blow the whistle, the play is dead)."
A majority of the classroom session revolved around what is new for 2011, with different rules either changing or undergoing a face lift for the upcoming season. The new modifications to the unsportsmanlike penalty, which include the ability to an official to revoke a touchdown, educated all in attendance for what could happen on the field this year. Shaw used accompanying videos to demonstrate, as the gallery chimed in on what to do as each play from years past flashed across the video screen.
After they "graduated" the intro to SEC officiating class, it was time to head to the field. As the moments counted down before the start of "A-Day", it was time to dress the part. The media contingent headed to the officials lockerroom, as they prepared for their individual responsibilities with the SEC official they were shadowing for the day. "I thought I would be just observing," said Dunaway. "But when they told us we would be actually on the field by ourselves in the 2nd and 4th quarters my heart started to race."
As the teams took the field, so did our new officials. They watched as both squads warmed up, getting final instruction from Shaw and company as they moments counted down to opening kick. They even got a visit from Saban, who talked with the group as they got ready to officiate "A-Day".
Minted with their "M" positions and official uniforms, it was time to get the show on the road. Alabama's spring game kicked off, as the new group took their spots along the sideline in anticipation of making their first call. The first quarter was one of learning, as each media member followed behind an SEC official, watching technique and getting a feel for the flow of the game.
"Going in, I already had a good idea how difficult it is to officiate football" Dubberly mentioned afterward. "However, actually getting the chance to experience the intricacies and full-speed challenges of the job, it certainly gives me an enlightening perspective on how well these guys execute their craft. "
Once the clock turned to the second stanza, it was game time. For the four who agreed to take this journey, 92,000 fans watched as they took control in their respective positions. Calls were made, fumbles marked and the ball spotted as the group took Shaw's instruction from the classroom and applied it on the field. For Dunaway, a special call will always resonate from this experience. "I made a bang, bang call on a Trent Richardson catch on the sideline, I ruled it a catch. I caught some grief from the coaches, Tom Luginbill of ESPN, but when they took us up to the booth for our replay system Q and A, they used that play, it was a catch...what a rush!"
As the rest of the game came to an end, the group's day on the sidelines was over as well. Dubberly along with the others enjoyed the field time and took a few steps along a path that is often heavily scrutinized by media and fans. Most importantly, they are glad they won't be remembered for anything special they did at Bryant-Denny. "I was just pleased I didn't do anything stupid to draw the wrath of 92,316 fans, not to mention the ire of one, Nick Saban."
All in all, Shaw labeled the outing as a success, even if the four media members might not have futures as SEC officials. "Our media team overall did a nice job in the spring game," Shaw said. "From a technical standpoint they may have not graded out well as an SEC official, and we have some very interesting video from the game, but they did nail a few very tight calls.
"My two favorite take away comments after the game from the media team was – “you officials really are good guys after all” (not sure what they were expecting) and even though they expected the speed of the game to be fast and the pace difficult to manage, they were “shocked and a bit overwhelmed with all the duties that an official had to perform on each play."
So, anybody can be an SEC official, right?
Read Brian Reynolds take on the day here.