Ref-coach relationship sticky

Ref-coach relationship sticky

October 7th, 2011 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Preps

An official dropped a flag for pass interference and then picked up the flag and waved off the penalty.

His explanation: "Uncatchable ball."

While penalties can be waved off if a pass is ruled uncatchable in NFL and college games, there is no such rule at the high school level, and this call took place in a Tennessee high school quarterfinal playoff game.

"That wasn't what made me mad," said Jason Fitzgerald, Rhea County's coach at the time. "I called the referee over and asked him about it, and he knew there was no such rule in high school. But the official that told me that lied to his referee about what he told me."

So it goes at times with coaches and referees, who often view each other as adversaries. Coaches therefore are quite careful about what they will say on the record about the relationship.

"Some of them are sticklers for how much eye black a player wears and if it has writing on it, or the color of a towel," one coach said. "It's just crazy nitpicking stuff. Our dress code is almost as bad as the NFL."

Those are things the fans rarely see. But they do see horse-collar or helmet-first tackles or other transgressions during plays.

While coaches say they understand the safety issue and rarely have a problem with a penalty flag on a horse collar -- when a ball carrier is yanked backward with the tackler's hand inside the shoulder pads -- some complain that there seems to be a different interpretation from one crew to another.

The same might be said for a tackle that leads with the head.

"The penalty for leading with the head on a tackle is mostly a judgment call, and the less of that we have the better, especially with some ego-driven officials," one coach added. "If you think about it, the only way you don't lead with your head is if you're standing straight up and down."

But what coaches complained most about were sideline warnings.

"I could talk about it forever," Fitzgerald said. "At times [officials] seem more worried about coaches in the box than what's going on out on the field. That's definitely an issue."

Said Soddy-Daisy coach Kevin Orr: "Sideline penalties are called far too often, and some of the stadiums are so small that it is nearly impossible to adhere to the rule. I have seen several plays where the side judge is looking back down the sideline while the play is going on to see if any coaches are out of the box."

One official who is a 30-year veteran disagreed that the sideline rule is over-called.

"I don't think so, although there may be some officials who are a little more sticky than others," he said.

Most veteran coaches and officials agree that the best officials are the ones rarely noticed.

"My crew doesn't ever look specifically for anything," another referee said. "If you go looking for something you'll probably find it. We'd rather the penalty find us. If you go out there and take care of your responsibilities, there will be enough to keep you busy."

It seems that the longer coaches stay in their profession, the better officials seem to get.

"They make mistakes, I guess, just like I do," said Tyner coach Wayne Turner, "and the penalties we get we usually deserve."

Turner was asked in a pregame meeting with officials if there was anything unusual.

"I told them there was one thing they needed to watch: We don't do anything to get penalties," he said with a laugh.

"I think what we're getting [in officials] is guys that want to do a good job and they have those best intentions," East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood said. "Sometimes we tend to magnify their mistakes and use them as an excuse for what happens in a game."

While Notre Dame coach Josh Sellers is hoping to propose a grading system for officials, Gatewood would like to see a closer connection between coaches and officials.

"I would like to see a better rapport. Coaches get their feelings hurt at a game and lash out, but better relationships could be developed if coaches and officials could sit down and talk," Gatewood said. "I've had referees ask for a copy of the film and I love that -- to see them sit down and critique themselves -- but I'd also like to ask them about things that we're getting called on, especially things that are pivotal to the game."

Sellers says there is a need for accountability with the officials and he would like to see a rating system put in place that coaches could use in concert with the TSSAA, judging each official on a scale of 1 to 5 with the 1 being the best.

"If you give an official a 5 you'd have to write a letter to that official with an explanation and copy that letter to the state," he said. "With the current system some crews provide a card of who is what, but most do not and there is zero accountability for the officials."

Veteran ref Joe Smith said there is professional pride.

"What we do is enforce the rules, and they're written, whether it has to do with a major rule or fundamentals," he said. "I find that you kind of get back what you give. We try to do some preventive officiating. If an official smarts off to a coach or acts in a controlling sort of way, then that's the way that official is going to be treated."

The bottom line for coaches is that officials know the rules.

"We have some good officials and some that struggle," Fitzgerald said. "Sometimes they can't get enough quality people to help. There isn't exactly a quality pool to pull from and you wind up with inexperienced guys who haven't had enough practice in games they're not ready for."