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October 26, 2009I blame it all on Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs.
After all, it is they, I believe, who angered Zebrus, the Greek God of Refs so much that teams in the Southeastern Conference are still paying for the Dawgs' celebration in Jacksonville in 2007.
Many believed that penance had been paid when yellow flags rained down and the Dawgs drowned in a sea of points a year after the sin, but we now know that it was just the beginning.
Since the moment A.J. Green was called for excessive celebration in the final minutes of the LSU game, suspicious eyes have been on SEC officials. The call was so bad that the league office admitted the botched call a few days later. Not that the admission reversed a call that it could be argued cost Georgia the game by giving the Tigers 15 fewer yards to cover in the final minutes of the game.
Regardless, another event that took place after the game kicked off a conversation that at first seemed like something out of a conspiracy novel. When college football commentator Tim Brando suggested that there was more to the situation than just a bad call, a topic that otherwise would have been relegated to fan blogs and message boards suddenly entered the mainstream.
In case you missed it, here is what Brando said on the CBS's college football post game show: "There are more of these calls in the Southeastern Conference than any other league in America, and I am going to that because it is up to the discretion and judgment of the official that I think now that the politics of the community and of the area are going to be called into question. You don't want this to happen, because if we take this conversation where we could, it is not going to bode well for the Southeastern Conference."
At the time, many believed Brando was alluding to some kind of racial issue involving the dynamics of the relationship between referees, who are largely older white guys, and players, who are largely young black guys, when he included the phrase "politics of the community and of the area". Considering the history of racial issues in the American South, the assumption that Brando was talking about race did not seem that farfetched, especially when other explanations are offered.
Chief among them is this quote from Brando: "Rogers Redding, who is in charge of the SEC officials, had better tell his officials you 'had better cease and desist on calling them so quickly."
What does that mean?
Was Brando insinuating that the penalty was pre-ordained but executed in a manner that would raise suspicion?
Whatever he meant by all of that, Redding quickly put out the fire by saying two days later that video evidence did not support calling the penalty and that it was a bad call.
Case closed. Fire extinguished. Nothing to see here folks; move along.
But while "so quickly" resonated in the minds of college football observers, another event occurred two weeks after the Georgia-LSU game that brought bad calls back to center stage.
With the No. 1 team in the country on the ropes in their own house, second year head coach Bobby Petrino was about to provide the "signature win" that would usher him in as an SEC coach, but then things began to go wrong.
The two biggies were first a pass interference call that gave Florida a first down at the Arkansas 21 yard line, and then on the following play a personal foul was called on the Razorbacks that put the Gators at first and goal from the ten.
While bad calls are one thing, and it is not like the problem is exclusive to the SEC, a penalty flag thrown by a referee who later admits he did not even see the play and only caught it out of the corner of his eye is quite another.
Florida scored on the next play to tie the game at 20. They later added a field goal to win the game. Another chapter for the conspiracy theorists was in the books.
Petrino was livid and blasted the officials publicly after the game. The SEC responded by saying "there was no evidence on the video to support the personal foul penalty" and suspended the officiating crew, which was the same crew that had botched the call against Green in the Georgia-LSU game, and then served Petrino a reprimand for violating league policies that prohibit "coaches, players and support personnel" from publicly criticizing referees.
What Petrino said to warrant the reprimand had another effect, and that was to provide even more fodder for the canons of conspiracy, and that was the notion that SEC was protecting its cash cows.
After sharing his thoughts on how one of the plays should have been called, Petrino said: "Unfortunately, in Florida, they don't call it that way."
What does that mean?
Is he saying that the level of enforcement of rules varies by virtue of where the game is played or who is playing?
As was the case with Redding's admission of the bad call in the UGA-LSU game that did away with Brando comments, the SEC's successfully muzzled Petrino from elaborating.
But there is more.
Last Saturday, in games featuring Florida and Alabama, there were questionable calls late that benefitted the two unbeaten teams that sat atop both major polls in the number one and number two spots.
After their game with the Gators, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said that officials had blown a call midway through the fourth quarter and called for disciplinary action against the crew by the league office.
The play in question was a Florida interception that was returned for a touchdown in which the Gator defender appeared to lose control of the ball before crossing the goal line. While the play was reviewed, the replay official did not see any evidence to overturn the play.
"He definitely lost control of the ball before the goal line," said Adam Gorney of GatorBait.net.
Coach Mullen agreed and fired off this salvo at league officials after the game: "That's twice now that they've blown calls on the replay with our games, resulting in big plays, and I think that's inexcusable for that official. I hope he's severely punished if he ever works another SEC game again, because I think it's completely unacceptable."
He received a nastygram from the league office shortly thereafter. Lucky for Mullen, he did not spout off after the famous goal line stand of undefeated LSU when they held Mississippi State out of the endzone in the final minute of their contest. My sources in Starkeville say that Mullen believes running back Anthony Dixon scored a touchdown on their second down play from the LSU one yard line.
The good news is that if Mullen indeed has a problem with that call, he realized that anything he said publicly would not change the record books, which is pretty much the path Mark Richt took following the celebration call on Green.
Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama Crimson Tide was doing all they could to stay undefeated while Tennessee first year head coach Lane Kiffin was taking no chances. With the ball in Alabama territory and trailing 12-10 with 35 seconds remaining on the game, Kiffin opted to run the clock down to four seconds before attempting a field goal.
What was odd is that he had his team attempt the kick on third down.
Why didn't he try to move the ball closer for an easier field goal attempt?
"I wasn't going to let the refs lose the game for us there and some magical flag appear," Kiffin said afterwards.
Did a Southeastern Conference head football coach just say that the course of action he choose was determined not only by down and distance, game clock, and the scoreboard, but also the likelihood of a bad call?
With four seconds remaining in the game, Tennessee's kick was blocked by Alabama. Terrance Cody, the Crimson Tide player who blocked the kick, removed his helmet and ran down the field.
Whether or not Cody should have been called for unsportsmanlike conduct is irrelevant, but it did generate a lot of "preferential treatment" talk on Internet message boards. When Kiffin said he ran out the clock for fear of bad calls from the refs, he ensured the game would be dragged into this conversation. He was later reprimanded by the league for his comments.
While the SEC is quick to reprimand coaches for their comments, it is not just the coaches who are saying things that make the league look bad. Why did the SEC choose to remind fans of the rules regarding noise making devices last week when they have not done so in quite some time? I may be wrong on how long it's been, but I don't remember the last time, and perception is everything.
Mississippi State is the only school in the SEC with any kind added noise history beyond booster lungs. The cowbells of Starkeville are the only example of such a thing, and while the No. 1 team in the nation prepared to travel to the Magnolia State, the league office decided it was time to remind everyone to hush and be still.
Are conspiracies any easier to come up with? Did I mention that every one of these events involved something that benefited an undefeated team?
Can we add in here now the one about how the SEC is trying to ensure that its undefeated teams remain so on their way to the BCS jackpot?
Designer championship anyone?
At the very least, how about a No. 1 vs. No. 2 SEC Championship game?
I do not believe in those types of things, but the actions of the past few weeks have left the SEC with some explaining to do. They are sitting ducks for the type of conspiracy theories mentioned here, and who knows what else someone is dreaming up out there in the wide world of sports.
Perhaps it is time that the 12 head coaches call a "coaches only" meeting and demand more accountability on officiating. Perhaps start with giving teeth to College Football Officiating for more oversight on league employees officials. After all, unless these bad calls were by design, which is something any sane person scoffs at, a bad call could be on the way for any team at any time.
The SEC needs to repair the public's perception of these issues. Zebrus should be satisfied by now; after all, this Saturday marks the two year anniversary of the celebration, which apparently, was excessive.
Post Script: Since this column ran, the AP has reported that Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, whose reprimand mentioned above was his second this year, is pouting.
"I'm not gonna get into it . . ., " the AP reports he said Tuesday. "As hard as it is for me to do, I'm not gonna do that. I'd love to."
Call the coaches only meeting guys-don't fight this battle in the press.