Beyond the ACCtion: Football Officials' Clinic Caps Months of Preparation

July 28, 2012

Steve Phillips, Associate Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion for the 2012 ACC Football Officials' Clinic.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( - Football officiating in the Atlantic Coast Conference is not a full-time occupation, but in terms of time, effort and dedication, it comes close.

Approximately 250 are gathered here this weekend for the ACC's annual Football Officials' Clinic, a three-day event that caps months of film study, group sessions and physical conditioning.

"There is a fair amount of preparation," said veteran head linesman Joe Griesser, who works as a CPA near Philadelphia. "You just can't walk onto the field willy-nilly (at the start of the season) and say, `Here I am.' Everyone takes it very seriously. It takes almost year-round preparation to be able to work at a conference of this level. Once you get into the games and have to start making the calls, it is essential to have done the prep work."

Doug Rhoads, entering his sixth year as the ACC's Coordinator of Officials, concurs.

"The old days of 30, 40 years ago where it was a weekend hobby are gone," said Rhoads, who officiated for 32 years at the college level, including 29 in the ACC. "That is mainly because of the standard we hold them to. The evaluation standard is so high that to survive year after year, you have to take it seriously. You've got to be committed."

Most ACC officials began serious preparation for the 2012 season in early March, if not sooner.

"Once February comes around, I start getting myself back in shape because you have the spring scrimmages coming up," said referee Gary Patterson, an insurance agent in Columbia, S.C., and a 10-year ACC officiating veteran. "Then we start our film/rules meetings March, and that just carries on through to the week leading up to the clinic."

Patterson joins a group of other officials from the Columbia area for his film and rule studies. The group includes officials from the ACC, the Southern Conference, the South Atlantic Conference and the MEAC. Griesser gathers with a similar group in Delaware and shares input with officials from the Big East. By the time spring scrimmages begin in March and April, every ACC official is fully engaged in group sessions.

"These guys are going to meetings once a week during the spring and the early summer, getting ready for the clinic, studying the rules changes and looking at the video we provide," Rhoads said.

"The beauty of those regional meetings is that they're not all necessarily ACC guys. It's a good synergy of a bunch of different guys."

In addition to the study groups, officials watch hours of video individually and must meet a physical fitness standard before taking the field.

"Every official has a performance plan, something I copied from my FBI days," said Rhoads, a retired special agent. "It involves fitness, communication, rules knowledge, attitude - all those things you look for in any employee - although they're independent contractors, which is a clear distinction."

Film study is an integral part of the offseason prep.

"It used to be that all we had was a test question, and we'd talk about different plays we saw in different games," Patterson said. "But nowadays with film, you might have a test question, and you can pull up a video and see the exact play. With today's technology, you can pull up a play and say, `I saw this play last year in the North Carolina-Clemson game where they blocked a punt' and see how the officials put themselves in the correct position to make the call.

"It makes it easier from a veteran official's standpoint. You can learn from your mistakes and you can learn from guys who have put themselves in position to make the correct call. And for new officials, it really helps them to be able to see play after play after play of guys putting themselves in the right position to make the call."

Video has become the focal point of in-season evaluation as well. Every ACC game is recorded and viewed by a conference official, who logs each play and tags those deemed necessary for review.

The ACC's replay officials also engage in nearly year-round preparation. The replay official at each game has multiple responsibilities, also serving as the evaluator of the on-field crew.

"He's got to take the video of that game and grade them on every play," Rhoads said, "He also serves as kind of my eyes and ears at every game, to report coaches' conduct, clock issues, chain crew issues, all that goes into the management of the game."

Between the scrutiny from the conference itself and the fact every game is now televised, there is tremendous pressure to make the correct call on every play.

"You don't want to be on ESPN SportsCenter over something that you missed," Rhoads said, "I tell everyone that I was the best official in history of the game because I never missed a call. I can say that because we didn't have all that video then, and no one can prove otherwise. Today, it's a different world."

Ted Jackson, the chief ACC official for video replay, worked 43 years as an on-field official. He stepped into the replay booth in 2005 with a sense of ultimate responsibility.

"There's no margin for error on replay," Jackson said. "When you are calling a game on the field, you've got butterflies before the game starts. Once the whistle blows, they go away. You get caught up in the game and you don't think about it. But in the replay booth, they never go away. You are on edge from the time the game starts and you stay on edge. You can't let up."

Thanks in large part to their work during the offseason and at the preseason clinic, ACC replay officials haven't missed many.

"We've got a real good percentage, thank goodness," Jackson said. "The tough part is, when you go into the replay booth as a former official, you're used to calling the game on the field. You can't do that in a replay booth. If I see a play where a runner fumbles, and I think the ball was loose before his knee hit the ground, it doesn't really matter what I think. I've got to have video evidence to reverse the call. On the field you call it like you see it. You can't do that in the replay booth. You've got to have video evidence to change it."

In the seven seasons since replay became a part of ACC football, Jackson has seen a change for the better.

"The big play that used to be missed and everybody talked about it on Sunday and Monday - that no longer occurs," Jackson said.

Much of replay officials' offseason work and most of Thursday's clinic emphasis centered on replay review. Friday's session emphasized the other half of the job - evaluating and grading the on-field crews.

"We view the entire game on a DVD, and that's when we do our evaluation," Jackson said. "We start at the beginning and look at every play. If there is anything that's missed - a call, a no-call, a judgment on an out-of-bounds, a play at the goal line ... we grade it. It takes about six to eight hours to grade a game and then go onto a website and enter our grading information."

Consistency in the evaluations is a constant goal.

"We all want to grade the same when we get home," Jackson said. "You don't want to have one guy who is real lenient and another guy who is real tough. We all want to grade the same on the same play."

Speakers at this year's clinic include Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and Clemson defensive line coach Dan Brooks. Liaison coaches from each of the ACC's 12 schools are also on hand to observe and to meet with Rhoads and ACC Senior Associate Commissioner Michael Kelly.

"Each year I have somebody from the offensive side of the ball and somebody from the defensive side of the ball speak," Rhoads said. "It exposes our officials to a little bit of coach speak and what is going on in the game as far as coaching and teaching. The coaches take back something of value, too. They realize that officials are very human.

"Every time I meet with a coach or coaching staff, I learn something. Our clinic isn't all about, `Oh the rule says they can't do this or that or whatever.' The coaches not only deserve to participate, they have an absolute right to participate. There's nothing secretive or magical about what we do."

ABC/ESPN senior coordinating producer Ed Placey and Raycom coordinating producer Rob Reichley will also address clinic attendees over the course of the weekend.

"The TV folks are an absolute partner with us in replay," Rhoads said. "Every replay we look at comes from the network that is there. We like to understand why they have the number of cameras that they do, why they have the camera angles that they do. We both want to know how we can get better. They want to know what we are looking for; we want to know what they can give us."

As ACC officials gather for this weekend's clinic, which also includes their colleagues from Conference USA and the Big South, there is a sense of camaraderie with the start of a new season just over a month away.

"The clinic is sort of a fraternity," Griesser said. "We do it with Conference USA, and there are a lot of guys I know from the Philadelphia area. It is great to re-connect with them. It's been several years since I've worked with them, but when we get together it's like we could get right back out there and work a game."

Points of emphasis as officials eye next month's preseason scrimmages include targeting, hitting of defenseless players and blocking below the waist.

"Targeting is pretty clear-cut," Griesser said. "When a defender comes in and makes the hit with the crown of his helmet, you can pretty much read his intent. Hitting a defenseless player is a little tougher. That can encompass many things. In the confines of a football game where everyone is hitting everyone, you have to be focused on making the right call, and you really have to be judicious."

Like the players themselves, ACC officials will attempt to sharpen their skills during the preseason scrimmages - most officials will work at least a half-dozen during August - but Rhoads points out that some aspects of the job can't be simulated.

"What a lot of people don't realize about officiating is that it's not primarily about knowing the rules in the sense of calling fouls," Rhoads said. "Most of where we have difficulty and problems has nothing to do with fouls. It comes in managing the game: Should the clock have started? Should it have stopped? Where's the spot of the foul? Did we mark it off right? Did we communicate with the coaches, with the players?

"It's the totality of managing the game that matters, and that can only be accomplished in real game time. Coaches will tell you that practices don't duplicate scrimmages, and scrimmages don't necessarily duplicate games - real time, real speed. It's the same for officials."

Still, the months of preparation and study can only help.

"It is like anything else, whether it's in athletics or in business or in your personal life," Patterson said. "The more prepared you are and the more you go through all the different scenarios, when a situation comes up, you can pull back in your brain, `Hey, I've seen this before.' And you know how to handle it."