Classroom hones on-field skills
Officials embrace notion you’re only as good as your next call
Not every question has a simple answer, a black and white response that covers all the bases. Sometimes, there’s more to it. Take the job of a football official. He’s only looking at one part of the field, one set of players in his specified area. He’ll ingest all the information he sees, process it in his mind and make a decision as to whether or not there was a foul.
No matter the stage -- in the Big House at Michigan with more than 100,000 fans in attendance or at a Division III contest on a nasty cold late November afternoon with a few hundred devoted fans squeezing together for warmth in the stands -- and despite sometimes downtrodden public opinion, officials are actually looking to make the right call in every situation.
Fans may have a tough time buying it, but the guys in stripes are human and unlike those spectators on the bleachers or at home, officials have to make a split-second decision without the aid of slow-motion replays on every snap of the ball. Is the correct call made every time? No.
It’s a fact officials don’t like having to admit, and they don’t take it lightly either. Instead, the good ones try to get better from each situation and probably spend more time studying the rules of the game than fans spend watching our favorite teams. The bad ones? Well, they’ll be gone soon enough if the bad calls continue.
The hard part is that sometimes the rules change, and change often. To keep up, officials around the country are meeting this time of year, catching up on the new rules and those being phased out. In late July, one of those meetings included the Atlantic Coast and Big South conferences along with Conference USA as they came together for a preseason officiating clinic. About 150 officials from the three leagues were in attendance and allowed a behind-the-scenes look at the way their preparation starts.
‘Work collectively for a degree of consistency’
Rules changes are technically only allowed every two years but, “player safety still leads the way in game changes,” ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads said during the opening session.
Like teams hitting the field for the first time during fall camp, officials also need time to prep for the grind of a 15-week season. With the same end result in mind as FBS leagues around the country, Rhoads and his counterpart at Conference USA, Gerald Austin, hold the joint clinic as a way to help build trust between those seven-man units they will send out to games and to pinpoint the areas of emphasis for the upcoming season.
Officials are basically the third team on the field. While not always as physically gifted as their college-aged counterparts, the men and -- in at least two cases for those in attendance at the clinic -- women who impart penalties are as much working as a unit as Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee aim to be on the same page for Southern California. If Barkley doesn’t know where Woods or Lee will be, then he won’t get them the ball, the Trojans will be hindered in their chances at moving down the field and opportunities to find the optimal end result are diminished. Same thing happens when one official is off-kilter from the other six. The preparation is paramount and it starts with the preseason.
|Q&A: GERALD AUSTIN|
Gerald Austin spent 27 years officiating in the NFL after nine seasons working the field in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was the referee for two Super Bowls and the alternate ref for two more, giving him a total of five assignments to the NFL championship. Since 2001 he has been the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA. In that role, he gave NCAA.com unlimited access behind the scenes for his league’s annual preseason officiating clinic in July.
NCAA.com: What leads someone into becoming an official nowadays, especially when you miss one play and everyone at home scrutinizes it so much?
Austin: Studies they’ve done on officiating, officials have a sense that they know what’s going on and that they know they’re right. And you better have some video to prove me wrong. You can’t tell me I’m wrong, you gotta prove it, you gotta show it, prove me I’m wrong. But now, also, when I’m proven wrong, I have to be willing to see ‘What did I do that I should have done differently?’ so that I’m not wrong again on a play of that nature.
NCAA.com: Is that what makes best officials, the willingness to learn from mistakes and others?
Austin: Yes. You can’t go into denial. People say, ‘Have you ever missed a call?’ I tell them no, but I know I did. I know the calls that I’ve missed. ... I had one in college, I was a side judge. We had a pass coming out of the backfield, player’s coming out of the backfield, I see the safety coming over, he’s diving in, I know he’s just going to knock him right out of bounds. Safety hits him, I’m blowing my whistle so I can stop the clock, mark it where he went out of bounds, he tiptoes down the sideline into the end zone. It’s one of those plays, you know?
I think, ‘God, where can I hide?’ So we have to bring it back to the 11-yard line, where I blew it dead. On the next play, they fumble the ball and the defense recovers. There’s my [moment] again. You’re just hoping ‘Oh well, they’ll overcome my mistake, they’ll overcome my mistake.’ It didn’t happen; however, that team won the game. Score may have been closer, but they won the game.
That happened early in my college career. I was nine [years] in the ACC and 27 in the NFL, and you still remember.
NCAA.com: What’s the general misconception from fans that there are make-up calls?
Austin: If there is make-up calls, those guys are not around very long. You compound a mistake with another mistake, now you have two. There’s two downgrades right there, and you get too many downgrades and you’re gone.
And another thing that an official has to guard against is if you missed a call -- and I know I missed a call, or I’m not too sure about a call -- and I’m standing out there and I’m thinking about that call and I’m running it through my mind, you know what? I’m getting ready to miss another one.
You have to let it go, just like a batter striking out with the bases loaded. You have to let that go so the next time you come up you’re loose, relaxed, ready to do it, ready to perform. And you can’t perform when you’re thinking backward instead of forward. And the thought process, you have to be forward.
NCAA.com: Are there other misconceptions that fans have that just aren’t true when it comes to officiating?
Austin: Well, you’ll hear someone say, ‘That’s a late flag.’ No, the official may be running it through their mind. I don’t think it ever looks like a late flag, but we teach officials when you see something occur, you say to yourself, ‘It’s a foul. It’s a foul. Throw it.’ Because if you see it and throw, your percentage of being correct has just gone down. But if you can process it and convince yourself it’s a foul, then it was. It’s a foul, it’s a foul, throw it.
Sometimes you see what truly looks like a late flag, this official is processing everything that went on there in trying to make a determination of whether it was or not. And then they throw. ‘Aw, that coach is getting on him. He threw it.’ If a coordinator is sitting back on Monday and he believes that, then that official isn’t going to be there very long. Those won’t happen very much.
The misconception is that you’re not very confident, you’re going to pull for one team or the other, and if they think you missed a call that you’re going to make up for it. What it’s saying is, we’re biased toward our team and we believe everyone else is against us whether they have striped shirts or the opponents, or what have you. You’re against us. And that’s just part of the competitive nature of one team and its supporters and the other team and their supporters.
NCAA.com: Coaches pull for their team, some vocally and more colorfully than others. What do you teach officials about dealing with them, or do they just have learn on their own?
Austin: When a coach is in an officials’ ear, the thought process for years was: Ignore the coach, don’t respond to the coach and that you can’t quote silence. But when you don’t answer or respond to somebody who’s saying something to you, it’s a form of rejection. And that just ticks them off something else.
I’d rather for the official to turn around and say, ‘Coach, what’s your question and I’ll try to answer it or get an answer.’ And the coach will say, ‘You guys are just screwing us, you’re just screwing us.’ ‘Coach, I asked you a question. I got to get back to the game, but I’ll be glad to answer your question.’
What you’re trying to do is revert him back to be more objective and give you something you can answer. He’ll say ‘That guy over there has missed every call that hasn’t been made today.’ ‘Which call are you talking about?’ And he tells you, then alright I’ll go get you an answer for what he tells you. And the next opportunity you get, [you ask the other official] ‘That coach wants to know about that pass interference call you made.’ ‘Well, he pulled his arm down before the ball came back.’
You go back and tell the coach what happened, and ‘That’s not what happened, I talked to the coaches upstairs, they said that’s not happened.’ ‘Well, if it happened the way you said coach, then we missed it. But that’s what he based the call on.’ You’ve taken the air out of his complaint.
He knows the next time you’ll answer his question, he knows you’ll talk to him. You’ve started to develop a relationship with coaches -- it’s not going to be close, it’s not going to be amicable -- but you’ve got a relationship established.
NCAA.com: How important at the college level to have some similar relationship with the players, to talk and teach them instead of just throwing a flag every time?
Austin: Player may say, ‘He’s holding me.’ You may say, ‘OK, I’ll watch it, but I’ve got to see where you’re being restricted before I can call holding.’ Because the guy may be grabbing him but if the defender’s not trying to get away, we don’t have restriction.
The person that feels like they’ve been offended has to do something to show they have been offended. If that evidence is not there, then you don’t flag it.
In a large ballroom in downtown Charlotte,N.C., the officials are put through three days of heavy analysis, picking apart specific plays and situations that have relevance to their ability to do the job correctly. More than a dozen NFL officials, some well-known names and friends of Austin during his 27-year NFL career, join as observers and presenters, helping positively influence both young officials looking to come up through the ranks and veterans recharging for the new season.
Looking in the room, passersby may think it’s a conference for dentists or insurance salesmen. The only difference is all these men and women have another full-time job at home, one that pays the bills. Instead, everyone in the room is soaking up all that Rhoads and Austin are saying to complement 21 videos about unsportsmanlike conduct. And that’s just the first segment of the opening general session. Another 36 clips about initiating and targeting on illegal hits are then played on the big screen. A few dozen more clips are played the following morning.
Teaching points are made constantly. “There is zero tolerance for taunting,” Austin said. He let the emphasis on ‘zero’ trail off slowly for added effect while Rhoads reminded them, “We need to work collectively for a degree of consistency.” Sitting in a ballroom watching it on a screen is one thing, but “the third quarter when you’re a little sweaty down at Clemson is a little different,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads followed with a nugget that skeptical fans may not expect to hear: “Who cares who calls it, as long as we get the call right.” That point is delicate as it’s tough to make some calls without help. So in more specific words, be big enough to listen to your teammates, the six others in stripes.
It’s especially needed early in the season when the new rules are being felt out not just by the players and coaches, but the officials too. The biggest change this fall, Rhoads says, will be seen when a helmet comes off -- a player must end his participation in the play immediately and if he doesn’t, he could incur a penalty. This point sparked a 10-minute debate on Day 2, one of several times there was initially a 50-50 split among those in the room before they talked it through and came to a group consensus.
Take this situation: A ball carrier for Team A fumbles as a Team B defensive lineman loses his helmet without a foul being committed. The defensive lineman puts his helmet back on, picks up the loose ball and returns it one yard. The first question now is not where the ball should be spotted, but who’s ball is it? The new rule says that if a player loses his helmet of his own accord, he’s supposed to immediately be out of the play.
So, when the defensive lineman for Team B put his helmet back on before recovering the ball, it in effect ends the play, makes the ball dead and lets Team A retain possession. And Team B is assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty and the lineman must leave the game for the next play. Think that’s going to go over well in Death Valley on a steamy Saturday night in September if you’re the official and don’t have the rule down pat? Even as they make the call correctly, if it goes against the Tigers it may still not be well-received.
‘I thought it was a part-time job’
To keep incorrect calls -- as opposed to a fans’ viewpoint of a ‘bad’ call -- at a minimum, officials have become students of the game nowadays more than ever before. The bottom line is they are invested in getting better every week and there are plenty of ways to do it. From online testing to weekly game reviews and downloadable video clips of calls that were questioned by an observer, officials likely spend two to three times as much time preparing for a game as they do calling it, Austin says. They also work other leagues like arena and indoor football to stay sharp in the spring and summer.
“Guys have study groups in their locale. You have enough college guys around, you study with them. Sometimes it’s a mixture of college and high school. They study, and we try to provide them with videos,” Austin said. “We have a spring clinic in April. They have spring practice. Spring games, you have officials out there.”
It’s not just the officials doing the homework. Austin also puts in the extra time going to camps, evaluating officials he may want to bring up a level, attending NCAA rules meetings and meeting with coaches around the country to go over expected changes or talking about rules that could be implemented in the future.
In his own type of humor, he added with a chuckle: “I thought it was a part-time job.”
It’s anything but part-time and he knows it. So do all the officials who work for him, like Wayne Winkler who came into Conference USA in 2001 when Austin took over as the league’s top football official. Winkler is a Louisiana State Trooper by day and is entering his third year as a referee (18th overall as an official) at night and on the weekends.
One of Winkler’s favorite sayings translates well from his day job to his moonlighting gig: “You fight like you train. The more you train, the more you put into it.”
Officials get in town a day before the game, usually Friday nights, and spend two to three hours together going over rules, talking about the teams they’re going to see the next day, fine-tuning the way things worked within the group the previous week. As soon as they return to the hotel after the game, an evaluator is waiting. After watching from the press box, they go over any questionable plays, missed calls and the good ones too from that days’ game with all of the officiating crew. It’s another perspective to learn from, which is what it all boils down to.
“And then another person -- in our league it is retired NFL officials -- evaluates every play. They evaluate the play, evaluate the call, and that’s what we use as a learning tool,” Winkler said. “We don’t want people getting caught up in the numbers [of penalties] -- that was incorrect, that was correct. It’s a learning tool.”
That’s just what goes on on the weekend. Between Monday and Friday, there’s still more preparation. It’s when the nitty gritty gets done. Online quizzes from the College Football Officiating website, checking out videos of individual plays that were evaluated or questioned -- sometimes even re-watching a whole game two or three times -- all of it adds to the level of preparedness, which can never be high enough. The level of time devoted away from the field is something the casual fan -- or even the ‘fan’atical observer -- would be surprised to see.
“It doesn’t just happen,” Winkler said of learning the rules. “We don’t just show up Saturday morning, arrive at the stadium and it just happens.”
Instead, officials are always watching games. They’re fans, too. Austin and Winkler said they wouldn’t be doing that job if they weren’t football fans. The only difference is they can’t be one during the game.
‘We don’t get paid by the flag’
When the ball is snapped, where do you look? If you’re like about 99.9 percent of all fans, you watch where the ball is going. You want to see South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore bulldoze his way through Florida’s defensive line for another first down or watch Wisconsin’s Montee Ball plunge in for another touchdown against Nebraska. Keeping your eyes glued on Geno Smith is the only way to watch a West Virginia game, especially this year in the passer-friendly Big 12.
Officials see a different game than you and I. Winkler will be on the road with his crew 12 to 14 weeks a year, working with basically the same seven or eight people the whole time. There isn’t much time for watching football, but when he does take the time to sit down and enjoy a game -- an occasional Sunday contest with his wife to see the New Orleans Saints -- he’s still in referee mode.
“Sometimes I get back from a ballgame and on Sunday I tell myself I’m just going to be a fan, go watch a game, but it’s hard to do that,” Winkler said. “I’m looking at it differently than the average fan does because I’m kind of looking at where I would be. It is different, and it’s an absolute thrill. I’ve always loved this game. I found a way to be a part of it.
“And to interact with the kids, with the players, that’s the fun of it. Watching them play, they’re having fun. They understand our role. Players are starting to understand that role because we are making an effort to do that. We’re not out here to get you. If I come in and tell you, ‘Let him go, let him go,’ if you tug him, I’m trying to help you out. We don’t get paid by the flag. The best game I work is the one that has the fewest flags in it. That means I’m doing my job keeping you from doing something you’re not supposed to do.”
Austin is the same way. He said he’ll look at the line play initially. Is the defense dominating the offensive line? If so, “we’re probably going to get some holding calls because the offense can’t hold them,” he said. They’re all cut from the same mold. And that’s not a bad thing considering they have a job few people want. Still, it’s a part of the game they love.
“I think you have to be a football fan to be an official. When you see a player and execute a play, you have a great appreciation for their ability to execute,” Austin said. “But you’ve been trained that you’re like a radar gun: You see that car going 70 in a 55, bang. You’re going to get it. Other than that, you are just there managing the traffic.
“That’s the job of officiating, to manage. You manage the ballgame, don’t look for calls to make, but when something occurs that you have to make the decision, [then] make the decision. Don’t back away from it.”
‘You have to trust him to do his job’
Studying isn’t everything. Sometimes it takes interpersonal relationships to make the difference on the field. Austin knows a thing or two about it after four decades in the officiating game. He also spent 40 years as associate superintendant of a school district in his day job, learning about how people work -- and sometimes don’t work -- together.
Austin, like Rhoads, sees it as his job to give his officials a wide array of tools at their disposal to help them learn and properly implement the rules. On his end, he tries to make the best decisions possible on putting crews together. Like the schools in the wide-spread Conference USA, Austin’s crew comes from across the country. Most are on the East coast. Some are in the South. One even makes his weekday home in California. And each has a different personality.
“What you try to do is put together seven guys who can work together and can mesh together,” Austin said. “You know your personalities; who’s strong, who’s working to get better, who’s a dominant personality. You don’t want too many of those on the same crew.”
Finding that right mix for each crew – one that will work any of the six possible league games during conference play -- isn’t an exact science. Once it’s set, Austin typically only keeps a crew together for two or three years before switching the officials up again. He’ll see who gelled with another and then possibly add them to a group who already have a pattern of working well together.
“That’s to avoid complacency. Sometimes you get too comfortable in your work setting. If a work setting gets adjusted, and they haven’t changed your job, but the work setting gets adjusted, then they get a little more adrenaline flowing again. I just believe in that. Art McNally taught me that,” Austin said.
Throughout his career, Austin gleaned bits of knowledge from McNally, one of the great names in officiating. He picked up things like having an appreciation for the game but understanding his role within the big picture, and knowing that nothing beats being prepared.
“I felt like when I walked out of the locker room and through the tunnel, I believed there was not a situation that would occur in a ballgame that my crew and myself, that we could not handle,” Austin said. “I felt like we could handle any situation that would arise.”
It’s the same confidence he tries to instill in his officials, and as the commissioners in the other BCS conferences do the same for their staffs. That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road.
Austin said there were “some situations that came up, I’m not too sure how we handled them, but I always believed that [we could handle them].”
Building that camaraderie early goes a long way for the ones on the field.
“You have to develop that trust between the crewmate so that if he’s coming in to help you with something that you trust his opinion is solid,” Winkler said. “When you trust him you’re willing to say, ‘OK, I’ll pick that flag up.’ You have to trust him to do his job.”
‘When we make mistakes, it bothers us’
Michael Jordan knows the reason his success came about was because he built off his failures. He famously celebrated his more than 9,000 missed shots during his NBA career by going on to win six world championships.
Officials have to have the same mentality. They don’t truly blow many calls, but they do from time to time. When it happens, they all say it’s important for them to move on. Austin compares missing a call to a baseball player striking out with the bases loaded. He talks to his crews -- at the clinic in July as well as throughout the year -- about putting it behind them as soon as it happens, and then learning from it later.
Winkler has heard the message loud and clear.
“Yeah, when we make mistakes, it bothers us. And although during the season you will sometimes see the high-profile mistakes because of video and media coverage -- which is good, it holds us accountable -- but we probably make more mistakes than fans think we do,” Winkler said.
Then he chuckled and added with a sly smile, “We probably don’t make as many as sometimes they think we do either.”
But taking advantage of the chance to grow from it is the key. He added that the little mistakes are the ones that eat at him -- and most good officials -- the most. They want to see their mistakes and add it to the knowledge base so it doesn’t happen again.
Times like the gathering in Charlotte last month to prepare for the season are exactly what Winkler is talking about. The discourse, questioning and give-and-take between participants was enough to show any skeptic that, on the whole, officials take their responsibilities as seriously as anyone else takes their job. And they know the rules better than someone watching at home may believe.
They get into the games much as anyone at his local watering hole. As the video clips rolled along on the first day, it was almost surreal to hear the ‘ohhhs’ and ‘ahhhs’ coming from the crowd. It’s not expected from the guys who make the calls and lay the law. But they’re fans too when someone makes a good, legal play. Knowing the difference between being a spectator and when to step back into officiating role separates them from us.
“In a respective, you are a fan. When you’re talking about the big hits, the legal hits, when you’re on the field, you might not go ‘ohhh' or 'ahhh’ where you can hear it, but you’re doing it in your mind. And you know a good play when you see it, and you know when someone steps up and makes a good play, so as far as being a fan of the game in that respect, yes,” Winkler said. “But you don’t want to become too much of a fan that you become a cheerleader because then you lose focus and next thing you know something happens, and you miss because you’re spectating.
“That’s what I sometimes tell the younger officials when they’re coming up is ‘If you want to spectate, buy a ticket.’ Enjoy the game and recognize in your mind those great plays but don’t get caught up in them because you’re not only as good as your last call, you’re only as good as your next call.”