Wednesday October 7th, 2009

There are three things I can count on with near-weekly consistency every time I open my in-box on Monday mornings: 1) fans complaining about where their team is ranked, 2) fluffy school press releases, like "Vols Staying Positive Ahead of Key Matchup with Georgia," and 3) fans complaining about the refs.

If there's one thing I've learned from my readers over the years, it's that every close loss in football has been a direct result of incompetent referees who "screwed" them. Case in point: Washington fans were furious this week that officials didn't review Notre Dame's late-game two-point conversion. Many included a link to this super-slow-mo video, where the narrator shows how the runner was "clearly" down before reaching the goal line.

I defy any non-partisan viewer to locate the ball in that mass scrum of bodies.

For all these reasons, I generally gloss over most of your Monday morning officiating gripes. Sorry about that. However, last weekend's LSU-Georgia game provided the latest and, arguably, most egregious example of the one NCAA rule that never fails to drive me bonkers.

Apparently, many of you feel the same way.

Hi, Stewart, I'm not a fan of Georgia or LSU, but the calls for excessive celebration on both schools were ridiculous. Moments like A.J. Green's catch and the fans/team going wild afterward are the reasons I watch college football. Neither team gained an unfair advantage that warranted a penalty. -- Andrew, Sidney, Ohio

Stewart: Have the refs gone mad? I know the NCAA is very concerned about sportsmanship (and rightfully so), but how can they stand by and watch the refs impact a game the way that they did in the Georgia/LSU final minutes? -- Nicolas Janvier, New York City

Like so many of you, I couldn't believe the call. While I don't think you can claim (as many Georgia fans have) that the celebration flag cost the Dawgs the game (they still had ample opportunities to stop LSU), you'll never find anything "excessive" about Green's celebration, no matter how many times you watch that video. To me, one of the most riveting aspects of college football is the dramatic emotional swings. If you're going to throw a flag at someone simply for expressing perfectly understandable (and non-threatening) emotions, you might as well have these kids play the games in a hermetically sealed vacuum.

That being said, I actually feel bad for the ref in question (whose judgment was officially refuted Monday by SEC coordinator of officials, Rogers Redding), because he and his cohorts have been dealt a near-impossible task.

It's been well-chronicled that the NCAA is putting extra emphasis on sportsmanship issues, and with good reason. As we've seen repeatedly, even the slightest gesture or instance of trash-talking can escalate quickly into something more dangerous. Technically speaking, "excessive celebration" is not an actual foul; it's one of about 20 actions listed in the rulebook as "unsportsmanlike conduct" and defined as a "delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player [or players] attempts to focus attention upon himself [or themselves]."

On Tuesday, I spoke with the NCAA's national coordinator of officials, David Parry, who said that refs from various conferences were sent to two "combines" this summer, in Dallas and in Greenville, S.C., where they were shown a video of 25 plays that would warrant an unsportsmanlike flag. "The basic philosophy is to not allow someone to upstage the game or taunt the opponent with their actions," he said. "That's why you usually see [officials] running as quickly possible to get to the guy who just scored to get the ball from him."

Parry, like Redding, saw nothing from the replays of Green's celebration that fell into those categories. "Unfortunately in this case, the fellow was a little too strict, and unfortunately it had a huge bearing in the game," he said.

While I commend the rules committee for taking the sportsmanship issues so seriously, I think it needs to revisit the celebration aspect. Certainly, there are clear instances of taunting -- like when a visiting player scores a touchdown, then starts gesturing at the home crowd -- that merit a flag. But when a guy makes a huge go-ahead touchdown catch with a minute left in front of 100,000 screaming people, his teammates mob him and he jumps around a little bit, that's not unsportsmanlike; that's human.

Last Saturday, a ref who's presumably had it beaten into his brain to watch out for the slightest sign of foul play was forced to make a split-second decision as to whether the giddy Green was "calling attention to himself," as the crew claimed in their postgame statement. My response: Who cares? Unless a kid is clearly taunting or showing up an opposing player or team, or tries to put on an overly elaborate show, let him have his fun. That's what this sport is supposed to be.

Stewart, now that Cal failed to score a single touchdown in two full games after opening the season with one of the highest scoring offenses, wouldn't you say this has less to do with players and more to do with coaching? Cal certainly has had a consistent stream of head-turning talent in recent years, so maybe the tendency to overrate Cal is really a matter of Tedford not really being an offensive guru? -- Hans, Danville, Calif.

Jeff Tedford has certainly lost his reputation as a quarterback guru. After such a long string of accomplished protégés, including Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers at Cal, the Bears have gone three years without a formidable passing game. Kevin Riley showed signs early in the season that he'd turned the corner, but these past two weeks, with Oregon and USC loading the box and shutting down Jahvid Best, Riley has completed less than 40 percent of his passes and failed to reach the 200-yard mark either week.

Obviously, Cal's defense has been exposed as well. They got almost no pressure on either Jeremiah Masoli or Matt Barkley, who promptly tore them apart. And once those teams got significantly ahead, the Bears had no choice but to pass, thus rendering Best a non-factor. But think back to Tedford's one elite-caliber team, the 2004 squad that went 10-1 in the regular season. The combo of Rodgers and J.J. Arrington made them incredibly tough to defend. Without a dependable quarterback and/or a game-breaking receiver, like DeSean Jackson, Cal has been one-dimensional. As Best goes, so, too, do the Bears.

By naming Jimbo Fisher "Head Coach in Waiting" in 2007, FSU established a precedent that's been followed by a number of other programs. Given the dysfunction that's now reigning in Tallahassee, is this a move that other teams will continue to copy? -- Holt, New York

Good question. I was always a little leery whenever I heard about yet another school following the FSU model, be it Purdue with Danny Hope, Oregon with Chip Kelly or Texas with Will Muschamp. Even Kentucky (Joker Phillips) and Maryland (James Franklin) have coaches in waiting. However, the FSU situation is far more complex than the others. For one thing, at Oregon and Purdue, the schools knew their head coaches were on their way out the door (in Joe Tiller's case, not necessarily of his own volition) when they made their arrangements. At the time Florida State president/wannabe athletic director T.K. Wetherell anointed Fisher, Bobby Bowden had yet to offer any indication when he might retire.

Which brings us to the even more dubious decision by Wetherell: putting that $5-million retention guarantee in Fisher's contract when West Virginia came after him in December 2007. Mind you, at the time, Fisher had been on the staff just one season, and an unmemorable one at that (FSU went 7-6). Was it really that important to hold off Fisher's suitors? Is he the only coach in the country capable of succeeding Bowden? No, but he's the big man's hand picked choice.

Now the school finds itself in an absolute mess where it doesn't want to force out an icon, but kind of has to this year or next, or risk wasting $5 million. In the meantime, as Andy Staples wrote Tuesday, FSU's staff is mired in dysfunction. Fisher is the purported face of the Seminoles' future, yet he sits behind associate head coaches Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato on the seniority ladder. Wetherell's handling of the situation has to go down as one of the all-time worst management decisions by a university president.

The other schools I cited have not tied themselves down to nearly this degree. For instance, Texas has set no timetable by which Mack Brown must retire. The school did double Muschamp's salary to $900,000 in an effort to retain one of its vaunted defensive coordinators for a change. However, if another school comes along and offers Muschamp a $2 million head-coaching job, I'm guessing Brown would wish him well and go find the next guy.

You will likely see a decline in such arrangements for the time being, in part because there aren't a whole lot of schools out there with aging iconic coaches facing impending retirement (The one obvious exception, Joe Paterno, has expressed no interest in such a plan.) Those who do would be wise to study the way Florida State has handled things -- and do the exact opposite.

I'm not connected to the school, but was just wondering what TCU needs to do to get real, lasting respect. I know they are currently ranked 10th, but they get punished for any little hiccup, while bigger schools get a chance to rebound. All coach Gary Patterson does is produce one of the absolute best defensive teams in football year after year, and routinely plays the "big boys," often with solid results. -- Steven Linde, Lewisville, Texas

With all due respect to Boise State, TCU is arguably the strongest non-BCS program in the country right now: four 11-win seasons in the past six years, a 12-3 record since 2002 against BCS foes and five NFL draft picks last spring. But the Horned Frogs have repeatedly fallen just short of producing the kind of transcendent season that vaulted Boise State and Utah into the national conscience.

Had the current BCS qualification rules, which went into effect in 2006, been in place just a year earlier, 10-1 TCU would have earned an automatic bid. That team stunned Oklahoma in its opener, then turned around and lost to SMU. And last year, if the Horned Frogs hadn't missed a couple of fourth-quarter field goals, they probably could have knocked off Utah (TCU ended up allowing a last-minute touchdown drive instead) and taken the Utes' spot against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Alas, TCU went to the Poinsettia Bowl.

It will be interesting to see how Jerry Hughes and Co. fares now that it's entering Mountain West play. Since going undefeated in league play and winning the conference title in '05, TCU has gone 1-5 against BYU and Utah. But BYU struggled to handle the Horned Frogs' defensive speed last year, much like they did Florida State this year, and Utah is vulnerable after losing star running back Matt Asiata for the season. The cards are right for this to be TCU's year, but fairly or unfairly, it has to run the table if it wants to gain that next level of recognition.

Last year, everyone wanted Turner Gill to be a head coach for a BCS school. Many people felt it was a sign of racism when he did not get the Auburn job or any other offers. I felt he was not qualified for a big-time job and was a one-hit wonder. His school is currently 1-4 and his record at Buffalo is 16-26. The question is did BCS schools do the right thing by passing on him? -- Jeff Hostetler, Gainesville, Fla.

There are certainly a lot of people (read: Barkley, Charles) who are looking pretty foolish right now with Gene Chizik off to a 5-0 start at Auburn. But just as it's far too early to be render a definitive verdict on Auburn's hire, it's incredibly unfair to suddenly discredit Gill as a "one-hit wonder." No program in the country (with the possible exception of Temple) was in worse shape than Buffalo when Gill took over there -- and he won a conference title last year. Whatever else happens, that will remain a remarkable accomplishment. Since last season, the Bulls graduated their four-year starting quarterback, Drew Willy, and lost career-rushing leader James Starks for the season. Buffalo is not the kind of place where the next star quarterback and running back are waiting around the corner, so it's not surprising to see Gill's team take a step back.

As I wrote last December, anyone who thinks race played a factor in Gill not getting a major-conference job is blindly speculating. For all we know, Gill was offered a job but turned it down. What we do know, however, is that Auburn fans desperately wanted Gill and were aghast when the school, instead, hired a guy who went 5-17 at Iowa State. That divisiveness, much more so than either candidate's resume, caused me to write that Chizik "has absolutely no chance of succeeding at Auburn."

I know that looks pretty silly right now, with the Tigers sitting at 5-0 and their fan base elated. Even before the season, Chizik did a lot of things to win over the faithful, from hiring Gus Malzahn (which has proven invaluable) to elevating recruiting. But don't forget, this is Auburn. Chizik's debut season will ultimately be judged by how he does against Alabama, and like Tommy Tuberville and Terry Bowden before him, he'll be on the hot seat every day until he wins a national title (and then again shortly thereafter). I sincerely hope he proves my initial opinion wrong, and, hopefully, Tigers fans give him the opportunity to do that. It certainly helps that he's off to a great start and -- while it's unfortunate that this is even relevant -- that Gill is not.

Where is the Mailbag Crush? Surely the Southern belle from Eastbound and Down has to drop in a line following LSU's roller-coaster victory last week, especially with the spotlight shining bright on the Tigers' looming showdown with Florida. -- Mark Gribbin, Richmond, Va.

Ask and you shall receive. I caught up with a very busy Katy Mixon on Tuesday (she had an audition and was in the midst of moving) to discuss her beloved Tigers.

Stewart: So, Katy, how do you feel about LSU's season so far?

Katy: They're pulling through! That game last week was truly of another nature because all of it went down in the fourth quarter. That one was scary. All the games have been close ever since Washington, but they pull through. They're making it happen. I'm a believer.

Stewart: Now comes the big one: No. 1 Florida.

Katy: They're an unbelievable team, and it's unfortunate that Tim Tebow got hurt. It's going to be a little bit interesting for LSU if he does play. Florida's had a week off, that's the only thing [that concerns me]. I think it's going to be an intense game. I think [the Tigers] have had a good warmup with so many interesting games. I believe that they're ready for Florida.

Stewart: So what's your prediction?

Katy: Florida is great, but LSU is greater. The Tigers will pull through. I have no doubt.

Two other notes: When Katy was originally announced as the Crush, former writer and LSU diehard Pete McEntegart, who now lives in Los Angeles, asked me to pass along the name of the bar where Bayou Bengals fans congregate on Saturday's: Mr. Pocket's in Manhattan Beach. So I did, and she was quite excited, dutifully writing down the name and address. "I love it!" she said. "I'm going to go join the party." So, you're welcome, L.A.-area Tigers fans.

Also, since we're still a long way from the next season of Eastbound and Down, you'll be happy to know that Katy taped a guest spot last week for Two and a Half Men. When she finds out the air date, I'll be sure to pass it along.

A team of scientists go under ground until the end of the season. Their mission: figure out Virginia and Maryland's football teams. Can they do it? -- Sean, Hartford, Conn.

No, they would not. And do you know who the Cavs and Terps must really flummox? Vegas. How do you set lines for these teams' games when, from week to week, you never know whether they're going to come out looking like one of the worst BCS-conference teams in the country or a team capable of beating North Carolina 16-3?

But really, Virginia and Maryland aren't all that different from the rest of their conference. On Sept. 19, Florida State beats BYU 54-28, while Boston College loses 25-7 to Clemson and Maryland loses 32-31 to Middle Tennessee State. Two weeks later, BC beats the 'Noles, and Maryland beats Clemson. Explain that.

I think you're looking at a league where A) most of the teams aren't abundantly talented, and B) aren't all that different from one another, which creates parity/mediocrity. And while Virginia Tech and Miami have looked a step above everyone else so far, I had to roll my eyes at all the e-mails I received this week regarding various BCS scenarios "assuming Virginia Tech and Miami both win out." In the topsy-turvy ACC, I wouldn't count on anybody to string together seven or eight wins in a row.

Has there been a YouTube follow-up from the Oklahoma fan in your column last week, who ranted about the beating Miami was going to take from the Sooners? It would be nice to see him eat crow, or the Sooner jersey he was so proud to wear. --Steve Mand, Danville, Va.

Indeed, our pal uploaded both an apology to Oklahoma and Miami fans before the game and a long-winded recap of his trip to Miami afterward.

I feel bad if the exposure from my column contributed to the "comments, insults and threats on my life" he mentioned in the first video, but I'm sure it would have reached enemy eyes regardless. And hey, after riling up entire fan bases by spewing mostly mindless commentary in front of a camera, it's probably only a matter of time before he has Mark May's job.

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