GUILBEAU: Sankey realizes SEC officiating needs improvement

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey is not quite yet the dynamic, progressive, my-way leader that his predecessors Mike Slive and Roy Kramer were. At the moment, he may be just too nice. But he may get there.

He clearly has a scholarly approach, and he makes a lot more sense than do the passion-filled, brain-empty fan bases – particularly that of LSU – who love to criticize him when a game or their season does not quite go the way they wanted. Transfer of blame is right next to tailgating amid most fan bases – particularly that of LSU in the past season and recent years.

In the end, the only real complaint LSU has about 2018 was one play in the Texas A&M game. The incomplete pass ruling in the first overtime should have been ruled a fumble by Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger and should have ended the game with the Tigers winning, 34-31, on a 50-yard field goal by LSU’s Cole Tracy after the first series of overtime. Sternberger caught the ball and tucked it away just before a vicious and legal hit by safety Grant Delpit that caused a fumble so instantaneously that the officials thought it must have been an incomplete pass because it happened so fast. It was clearly a fumble. LSU cornerback Greedy Williams recovered it. Game over – should have been.

The pass interference call against Williams in the last overtime on a two-point conversion was also a horrible call as there was very little contact, and the pass was vertically not catchable. Horizontally not catchable should be harder to call as one does not know how close a receiver could have gotten to the ball without contact. A vertically not catchable ball as high as this one was would have been impossible to catch with no defender within 20 yards. So, there should have been no call, and LSU and A&M should have proceeded to the eighth overtime at 72-72. I think the referees in this case were just tired and didn’t care anymore, which happens when you’re tired. But if officials call Sternberger’s fumble a fumble, we wouldn’t have gotten to the bad interference call on Williams.

The other critical calls before overtime were all close, but in the end, correct. The last play of regulation got off on time. LSU coaches, other staff and fans misunderstood the three-second rule as they continue to misunderstand the targeting rule, which was called correctly in the Mississippi State game and got LSU star linebacker Devin White suspended for the first half against Alabama in the next game.

Here is the three-second rule: “If the game clock is stopped and will start on the referee’s signal with three or more seconds remaining in the quarter, the offense may reasonably expect to throw the ball directly to the ground (spike) and have enough time for another play. With two seconds or one second on the game clock, there is enough time for only one play (which would be the spike).”

There were three seconds to play before A&M’s spike. And quarterback Kellen Mond spiked it as quick as possible. The scoreboard clock mistakenly ran off. A&M legally got the last play that would be a touchdown and send the game into overtime at 31-31 after the extra point.

Sankey did not mention any calls in the LSU-A&M game as blown. Maybe he should have. He was at the game. He saw the blown fumble and bad interference calls above. But that would be too honest even for him. He did at least discuss the possibility of bad calls made at a press conference on Nov. 30 before the SEC Championship Game. He did take up for SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw, who needs to take a long look again at the two above calls during his off-season. But Sankey did not just dismiss all criticism as many in power do.

“Steve and I and members of our staff, and even engaging officials, will take a deep dive into our officiating program and look at every aspect to make sure we meet the right standards and practices,” Sankey said.

Thank you. That’s at least a start and almost an admission of mistakes. I like the deep dive part because they need to dive deep into the LSU-A&M overtimes.

Sankey also made some very smart comments about the seven overtimes in that game.

“That raises the question of, ‘Do we need to go that long?’ In a way, we were fortunate that the seven-overtime game came on a week when neither team played the next week,” he said. “But playing essentially an additional half hour of football in an incredibly strenuous environment should cause us to ask questions. ‘Are there better ways to administer ties at the end of regulation?’ If that game had occurred at a different time of year – let’s say in the heat and humidity in September – the physical part of that game is even greater than we saw naturally occurring on a much cooler night.”

Sankey was talking about the physical stress on players, but he needs to keep in mind the stress and heat on the officials, who are older and not as in good shape. Because as the LSU-A&M game wore on, they were seeing things that were not there.

Sankey also suggested a different starting point for overtime than the 25-yard line, which has been the case since overtime began in 1996.

“Is it about placement of the ball? Is it about going for two right away? Should the ball go back farther than the 25 to begin? Do we require two-point conversions on every attempt? Should there be a limit? We haven’t talked about ties in a while, and yet we still have some in our record books,” he said. “Are there certain points when we say a tie is a sufficient stopping point for this game rather than extending so long? It’s worth asking the questions yet again.”

Sankey also has some ideas concerning targeting – not any change of the rule itself, but a change of the communication or the wording of the rule as so many have it wrong, and so many – including writers – don’t seem to have even read it.

“I completely understand and fully support the basis for player health and safety being at the center of this rule,” he said. “It is a rule that is sometimes difficult to explain, and even when officiated properly is the center of controversy. We need to change the terminology around the review process, and the word ‘targeting’ implies something bold and, I think, intentional and blatant. Yet the rule is written to pick up more. It picks up either blows delivered or blows received at the head level.”

Exactly. By definition, one can be guilty of “Targeting” without targeting. Maybe the penalty should be called, “Head Hit.” The word “targeting” sounds sinister, dirty and cheap. This has confused many – even good writers – with regard to what the actual penalty is. LSU coach Ed Orgeron, for example, and others said that Devin White should not have been called with the penalty because he is not a dirty player, and it wasn’t a vicious hit. He isn’t, and it wasn’t. But neither has to be true for the penalty to be called, according to the rule, which may be mistitled, but is clear as day if you read it. Here it is:

“No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder,” the rule says. “This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting. When in question, it is a foul.”

That means “Head Hit” can be called whether the player did it on purpose or by accident. Note the word “crown” is not in the rule. Many with LSU kept saying that White’s helmet crown never hit State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. It didn’t. And it doesn’t’ have to for the penalty.

And that last part is key.

“What is forgotten in the rule is the rule says, ‘When in doubt, it is a foul,’” Sankey said. “That is a clear part of the rule and really non-debatable. So when you have those who do debate the merits of a call, and it’s 50-50, but rule, that’s a targeting penalty.”

Thank you. I have been saying and writing since I first read the rule on the night White “head hit” Fitzgerald.

“That’s part of the difficulty we have in communication,” Sankey said. “Is there a way to make it more understandable? Is there a better way to communicate around the terminology of the rule?

Maybe. But maybe not, because so many still have either not read a very clear and concise rule or just don’t care to read it because they’re so made their player got called for it.

LSU fans and media still angry over the White call should realize that LSU caught a break when Grant Delpit was not called for targeting against Alabama two weeks later. That was 50-50, which means “that’s a targeting penalty,” as Sankey said. But LSU got away with one.

In the end, though, Sankey knows his conference can do better at officiating.

“The intensity of the year reminds us of the continuing need to update the game,” he said.

He also made this significant admission.

“In this environment, we have to communicate differently,” he said. “We need to see how we might be more transparent.”

That is a move in the right direction.

1. Alabama (13-0, 8-0). 2. Georgia (11-2, 7-1). 3. Florida (9-3, 5-3). 4. LSU (9-3, 5-3). 5. Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3). 6. Kentucky (9-3, 5-3). 7. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4). 8. Missouri (8-4, 4-4). 9. Auburn (7-5, 3-5). 10. South Carolina (7-5, 4-4). 11. Vanderbilt (6-6, 3-5). 12. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6). 13. Ole Miss (5-7, 1-7). 14. Arkansas (2-10, 0-8).

1 Comment

  1. Regarding the Targeting Rule, what must change is the wording of the rule. The intent of the rule, player health and safety, is and should remain central to the rule of all sports.

    Current wording reads: “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area…”, and “This foul REQUIRES that there be at least one indicator of targeting.”

    So, BY DEFINITION and contrary to your assertion and Mr. Sankey’s defense, one CANNOT be guilty of “Targeting” without targeting…it is a requirement. And, yes, targeting implies intent. You shoot at a target…you intend to hit a target. The wording of the rule begs controversy because it is subjective, and the refs must judge player intent.

    Also, the rule REQUIRES more than just targeting. It requires both targeting and forcible contact. As for the anger of LSU fans and media after the Devin White ejection, on the play in question, White led with his hands to the chest (did not target head or neck) and made NO forcible contact to the head or neck…there may have been incidental contact, but that is also debatable.

    As the rule is written, it may be concise, but it is NOT very clear, as the writer claims; and it is not that difficult to explain, as Mr. Sankey claims. It is the SEC’s interpretation of the rule that is hard to explain. The SEC should amend the targeting/head hit rule to make the actual language of the rule objective and understandable, keeping the game safe for the players and a bit less frustrating for the refs, coaches, players, fans, media…..and the SEC home office.

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