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April 18, 2011TUSCALOOSA | To say that an Alabama football game moves quickly on the sidelines is an understatement.
On television fans can watch the game unfold from a dozen camera angles, in high definition and in slow motion with calls replayed and analyzed by commentators in the booth.
From the sidelines, national championship caliber players dash around the field in constantly changing formations with speed that can't be matched by middle-aged officials or journalists. However, with years of experience officials know where to go, what to watch for, and in some cases, when to get out of the way.
For the A-Day game, the SEC invited journalists to shadow referees for the conference's first annual official's clinic.
SEC veterans walked Jim Dunaway, Clay Travis, Mike Dubberly and I through rule changes and the process behind calling a game, which requires officials to work with nearly as much precision as the teams they're watching.
Groups of officials are constantly running the sidelines, while keeping track of their initial responsibilities, switching to "zone coverage" as players move in crossing patterns and attempt to not be run over by players the size of Trent Richardson.
As a fan that has little football experience, the opportunity was tiring, stressful and eye opening. For professionals like Mike Washington, a 14-year veteran of the conference and former Alabama player from 1971-1974, games are not nearly as chaotic.
I have always been one who was quick to criticize officiating, which is easy to do from the vantage point of a TV. But as I told several of the referees who kept me in line through out the game, my days of criticism are over.
"I think it's good to get some of the guys to see what's really going on at ground zero," Washington said. "It's pretty easy for us because we've done it since high school and you get out there the first day, one day, and you're learning on the job, that's tough.
"I think it should be nationwide, let the guys see what goes on because we put a lot of hard work into it."
I officiated from the field judge position, assisted by the extremely patient Washington. I was charged with tracking the outside receivers to watch for pass interference and holding calls, judging field goals, and most importantly, watching the goal line and signaling for touchdowns.
"At field judge you're the deep guy. The deep guys got the deep passes," Washington said. "You've got guys up front that will get the spot, but they won't be back to get the touchdown where you're supposed to be. That's your main job, being on the goal line, the back line, the sideline.
During the first quarter we shadowed our respective referees who taught us how to make calls, where to focus and what officials primarily look for during the game.
During the second quarter we made calls ourselves under supervision, and in the fourth quarter were allowed to call game from the line judge, field judge and side judge positions.
Real officials kept the positions of back judge, umpire and referee.
And while penalties were kept to a minimum, the close call on Trent Richardson's sideline catch in the second quarter fell to Dunaway and me. As the closest viewers of the catch, we both agreed he was in bounds, a view the instant replay confirmed during our third quarter trip to the replay booth.
"This was your first day out on the field and it wasn't with junior high and high school kids like we started with," Washington said. "It was with the SEC, Alabama, a national championship team. It's tough to do that job."
Before taking the field, Steve Shaw, the head of officiating for the SEC covered rules changes, with an emphasis on personal fouls, one of the most subjective calls an official can make.
The new rules have turned personal fouls for excessive celebration into live ball fouls, meaning that a flip or a high step into the endzone can negate a touchdown. A foul after the play remains the same, but the philosophy of the rule has changed and is more accepting of 18-22 years olds who get excited when they score a touchdown.
Taunting of opponents or an extended celebration to draw attention to yourself is still unacceptable, but many of the issues are handled by the referees on a one-on-one basis with players.
Officials get to know players individually, learning their personalities and tendencies, and nearly always warn them before a celebration goes too far. A lot of officiating comes down to being proactive rather than reactive.
And while referees are dissected and criticized on message boards around the country, there is just as much scrutiny from inside the conference and commissioner Mike Slive. Like the teams officiate, referees view game film and critique themselves before and after games.
"You're going to miss calls because you're human," Washington said. "And you've got to think sometimes about the age that we are and the age that these kids are. You're trying to keep up with them, stay out of the way and keep from getting hurt and then make the right call."