Beyond The Action: A Q&A With ACC Coordinator of Football Officials Doug Rhoads

Beyond the ACCtion

It is a busy week for Atlantic Coast Conference Coordinator of Football Officials Doug Rhoads, who addressed members of the media on Monday as part of the 2013 ACC Football Kickoff and will spend the remainder of the week overseeing the league’s annual officials’ clinic in Charlotte, N.C.  Steve Phillips, the ACC’s Associate Director of Communications, spoke with Rhoads at length about points of emphasis, the upcoming clinic and other aspects of football officiating heading into the 2013 season.

With the recent expansion of the ACC, there has been some discussion of scheduling issues. With the move to 14 football teams, did that create any issues for you in terms of assigning officiating crews?

Not really, because we’ve expanded as well. We’ve normally gone with 10 crews. With the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, I’ve added two more crews. Truthfully, it’s only a few weekends that we have every crew working, because of all the nonconference games. After week four or five, I always have a crew sitting at home. We have more officials than we have games.

And no big issues in terms of travel and that kind of thing?

The biggest issue for me has been changing our footprint. When I came into the league (as an official) in 1977, Georgia Tech wasn’t even in the conference yet. So we had (the states of) Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina – and that was it. Now we are more spread out. I’m looking for guys in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Kentucky and New York.

That is a larger area, but you surely had plenty of qualified officials to choose from there.

I probably had, all together, a little over 300 applications.  Of that group, there were probably over a hundred that were from other FBS conferences.  I had applicants from the MAC, the Sun Belt, the Big East, Conference USA – and I took a few from each of those conferences.

When you are reviewing that many qualified applicants, how do you narrow it down?

Well, in the ACC I have a supplemental staff of 35 officials, and those are younger guys working in FCS conferences – they work in the MEAC, the Colonial, the Southern, the Ohio Valley. I also have a few guys that work in Division II and Division III conferences. So I have a pool of guys that we are trying to develop. They work two or three games a year for me.

You still assign the crews for Army, Notre Dame and the Big South Conference as well, correct?

Yes, and that also gives me the opportunity to intermingle some of these guys in with our ACC guys. And then they get to participate in our clinic and our weekly study meetings. They get our training videos that we send out. And this is all after they have five years of high school officiating and five years at the small college level. They have to have 10 years of experience before we even consider them .

Will attendance at your officiating clinic this week be greater than ever before?

It will be. We’re doing it in conjunction with Conference USA, which has about 75 on-the-field officials. We have 85, plus all of our replay guys will be there and some of the supplementals. So we will have about 275 individuals attending the clinic, and that’s up about 25 from last year.

Have you added more replay officials for this season as well?

Yes we have. We have more games, so we have to have more guys in the replay booths as well as on the field.

When you met with the media at the ACC Football Kickoff earlier this week, you highlighted a couple of points of emphasis. I assume those will be topics you cover heavily during the clinic as well.

We’ve got a couple of rules changes – well, actually the rule has not changed at all in terms of initiating contact with the crown of the helmet or targeting a defenseless player. It’s the same rule we’ve had since 2008. What has changed is the penalty. Now it is an automatic ejection by rule for the (offending) player.

Can expand a little on how that will work?

When a player is flagged for targeting a defenseless player – when you hit him above the shoulders – that is considered targeting. When you hit someone with the crown of the helmet, it doesn’t matter where you hit him if you use the top crown portion of the helmet to deliver the blow. In either case, the official is required by rule to make an ejection.

Will those calls be reviewed?

Replay can come into it only to see if the official erred in making the ejection, but the yardage penalty will still stand, because the rule reads that when it’s in question it is a foul.

Any other big changes or modifications?

One that I think is interesting: If a player is injured in the last minute of either half, and the clock is running, the offended team has the option of a 10-second runoff. So let’s say the clock is running … 11, 10, 9 … and a player is injured so we stop it. That game could be over by rule.

Does that just apply to an injury to a player on the offensive side?

No, it doesn’t matter which team, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a legitimate injury. Now, if players from both teams are injured, we don’t invoke that 10-second runoff.

Whenever you make a rule a point of emphasis and stress it so heavily, do you ever worry about officials paying so much attention to it that they become – for lack of a better term – flag happy?

I think there is a degree of that, but we also preach – in our entire training program and in our clinics, in our videos that we send out each week and in our rules study programs – we preach that regardless of the points of emphasis, we don’t want any chicken fouls, no matter what. It’s a balancing act. Obviously, though if it deals with player safety, we have an absolute mandate and responsibility to call those fouls.

What about the other type of penalties? Are the times when an official faces a fine-line in his interpretation?

I think we do have the option for some discretion there. Take holding for example. You always hear that there is holding on every play, and that’s probably true. But we try to use a philosophy: If there is major restriction, if it’s a takedown and if it’s at the point of attack, and if it has competitive impact, we need to call those.

There has been so much emphasis on player safety in recent years, not only when it comes to officiating but in all areas of the game. Are studies showing that it is making a difference, at least in terms of what you are able to do at the officiating end?

I think so. I haven’t been privy to the full data concerning concussions and all that, but from all the feedback we get from the NCAA and the CFO, we have a pretty good indication it is helping.

On the opposite extreme from what we talked about earlier, have there been cases in which a rule is emphasized in preseason and it raises awareness among players and coaches, to the point it isn’t really an issue once the season starts?

I will give you a good example. A few years ago, we made such a big deal out of the unsportsmanlike penalty when a player drew attention to himself. A lot of the announcers called it “the demonstration” or “celebration” penalty, but those terms were incorrect. Those words don’t even appear in the rule. What it does say is that a player who makes any obscene gesture or does anything to call attention to himself is penalized. And last year we had the rule where we would call a score back when that happened. Well, in all of Division I football – over 800 games – there were only six situations where that occurred.

That is the impact rule changes can have. You modify the game, and players realize it’s a 15-yard penalty or a score called back, and they kind of work their way out of it. And that is what the hope is for the rules regarding player safety issues.

In addition to the clinics that train officials, I know you do a lot to try to educate coaches and players. Do you find that often leads to situations like you mentioned, where they are aware and you don’t have to make a lot of calls regarding rules that are points of emphasis?

I think that is true. And the goal of official is not to call a foul. The goal of the official is the administration of the game. Calls are incidental in comparison to the desire to administer a game and to run that game fairly. There are three groups of people that have a stake in this – there are players, there are coaches and there are officials.

There are enough mistakes to go around, and we all make them. A coach runs a sweep on third-and-one and loses three yards. A player fumbles or misses a blocking assignment. And an official who gets one look at a call in real time, at full speed, is going to miss some of those. By the same token, I think all three groups work pretty hard to play within the rules, the way it is intended.

Any concerns this year as far as replay  goes, or is that still going in the right direction?

We’re heading into our ninth season of replay now, and it has become fully integrated into the game. I do like some of the recent trends. Last year we reduced our number of (game) stoppages by 50 from where we were just two years before. The percentage of calls were about the same. We stopped play 168 times and we overturned 38 calls. That’s 38 plays we don’t have to deal with on Monday because they were fixed right there during the game.

What was the average time per stoppage?

A minute and eight seconds, which is slightly below the national average. We’re not taking a lot of time, we’re stopping it less, we’re overturning about one out of five (plays that are reviewed), and it’s worked smoothly. Another point we take out of the replays is to realize that 75 percent of them are three types of plays:  Catch/no catch is the most common one, and then fumble/no fumble. The third are scoring plays. We know those are the three toughest plays to call, so we work hard on those. And that has nothing to do with calling fouls; it’s all about administering the game.

In terms of the overall length of games, does it seem as if everyone has gotten a better handle on that?

I think it’s improved. Most of that was achieved by changing the clock rules, where we wind the clock after it’s been out of bounds. A lot of people complain about TV timeouts, but those are all pre-set. Networks try very hard to get those in if there is an injury or if there is a replay. A couple of years ago, games were running pretty long. Now with the changes in the clock and the management of the game as the rules dictate, I think we move quicker.

But you have to realize there are some things we can’t adjust. Teams are running more plays. The more passing and the more scoring, the more time it takes. There is a lot that goes into it, but it’s not out of hand.  Obviously, we’d like to pick up another minute or two every game if we can.

In addition to the points of emphasis, what other things will you be stressing at the clinic this week?

We’ll be stressing better communication, speeding the game up, getting fouls reported quickly.  You don’t want to rush. You want to be deliberate and get it right. But by the same token, we’re looking at ways to condense the time. Fitness is a big part of it. Every official takes a five-step agility test and a required physical. Each of them takes a stress test every three years. So being fit, knowing the rules changes and mechanics are big the biggest thing.

Can you elaborate a little more on what you mean by ‘mechanics?’

Well, that is a huge part of it. ‘Mechanics’ just means that on a certain type of play, who are you watching and what are your responsibilities? What areas are you looking at? With 22 players out there and only seven officials, we have to be organized and know what we are doing.

The 2013 Atlantic Coast Conference football season kicks off August 29, when North Carolina travels to South Carolina, and Wake Forest plays host to Presbyterian.