The Southeastern Conference is the Rolls-Royce of college football leagues, with the last three national champions, two teams in the running for this season’s title and huge TV contracts.
Boom times for sure. But troubled ones, too.
The league has been dealing with seemingly endless questions stemming from a string of controversial officiating calls in close games involving highly ranked teams. That followed a preseason run-in with national media outlets over a new SEC policy.
The in-season issues forced commissioner Mike Slive to make the unusual moves of publicly announcing the suspension of an officiating crew, increasing the penalties for coaches who criticize officials and fining Florida coach Urban Meyer $30,000 for less-than-inflammatory â€” though critical â€” remarks after the new policy was in place.
“Has it been difficult? Yes. Has it been painful? Yes,” Slive said this week in an interview with The Associated Press in his downtown office. “But this league has been a great league for 76 years. There have been different issues at different times. I fully understand the disappointment the fans feel when something happens that impacts their team.
“My job is to try to keep some perspective, to work for the best interest of the conference, at least as I see it. I’ve done that for eight years, and I’ll do that as long as I’m here.”
While No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Alabama have been vying for a national championship this season, the guys in the black and white-striped uniforms who have been drawing far more attention to the SEC than Slive would like.
Three coaches have been reprimanded for public complaints, and Meyer’s comments cost him the equivalent of about two days’ pay.
The latest controversy arose when officials ruled that LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson did not have possession of the ball inbounds on a play that might have been an interception. The instant replay official didn’t find the “indisputable video evidence” needed to overturn the call.
Public relations issues started before the season, when the SEC imposed a new media policy to protect rights for its new SEC Digital Network. The league released new guidelines after a protest from four leading media organizations.
“In the final analysis, most everyone got what they were looking for, with some exceptions,” Slive said.
That was a minor inconvenience compared to the officiating problems.
Slive said he, coordinator of officials Rogers Redding and others would meet after the season and assess the causes of officiating mistakes “and make sure that we have the best officiating in the country.”
The SEC suspended a crew that called two personal foul penalties in separate games that were not supported by video evidence, including one that helped Florida on a touchdown drive late in a 23-20 victory over Arkansas.
“We have a confluence of issues that we haven’t seen before,” Slive said.
“In the context of this conversation, it may sound incongruous but we do have as good officiating as there is in the country,” he said. “The difficulty is there’s a tendency to extrapolate from some highly visible calls to denigrate the entire officiating program. We have hardworking, honest, dedicated and loyal officials who want nothing but the very best for the Southeastern Conference.”
David Parry certainly agrees. Now the national coordinator of College Football Officiating, he is a former NFL official who supervised officials in the Big Ten.
“It goes in cycles a little bit,” Parry said. “This has been a tough-luck year for the SEC. They have some of the finest officials in the world. All their games are evaluated, all their calls are cross-checked. My guess is at the end of the year they’ll look at their data and say they had a pretty darn good year in spite of two or three calls.
“That’s the irony of this business. You can get 99 out of 100 right, which is a terrific percentage, but if you miss that one and it’s very late in game and has a profound affect on the game, that’s what people remember.”
The responses were memorable, too.
The normally diplomatic Slive has had to wield a big stick to silence miffed coaches. When Tennessee’s outspoken coach Lane Kiffin was publicly dismissive of his second reprimand, the league boss hammered out a sharply worded letter of warning four days before announcing that the league would skip reprimands and go straight to fines or suspensions.
“Since it is clear from your public comments that you believe this letter `mean(s) nothing,’ let me be equally as clear to you,” Slive wrote to Kiffin in the Oct. 26 letter obtained from the University of Tennessee. “The next time you, or a member of your staff, make public comments of this nature, you will be suspended from all coaching duties for one or more games, and the institution may be subjected to a substantial fine.”
Slive said he hasn’t necessarily heard more frequently than usual from SEC coaches this season. But, he added, “Some of the conversations this year were much more pointed.”
Kiffin demurred when asked Wednesday if he worried that all the negative attention was tarnishing the SEC’s image.
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it,” he said. “We’re not allowed to say anything about it. I don’t have anything for you. Sorry.”
Alabama’s two most prominent athletics officials weren’t reticent on how Slive and the SEC have dealt with the recent spate of issues.
“I think the commissioner has handled this very well, and I think Rogers Redding does an outstanding job in handling the officials in this conference,” athletic director Mal Moore said. “It’s a very competitive conference, and I think the officials do an outstanding job.
“I feel very strongly that we have a great organization that supports officials and a strong commissioner that leads this conference.”
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, also an outspoken advocate of SEC officials, agreed.
“I think Mike has done a wonderful job,” Saban said. “This league is thriving, not only from an exposure standpoint … of what the league is all about, what it stands for and what’s been accomplished, but also financially and every other way.”