KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Walt Anderson's phone blew up just seconds after the infamous flag flew in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Proper call? Everyone from fellow refs to Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe wanted to know.
Anderson was sitting on his sofa in Sugar Land, Texas, watching as Kansas State's Adrian Hilburn scored a touchdown reception with 1:13 left in the game, bringing the Wildcats within 36-34.
Hilburn stopped in the Yankee Stadium end zone, quickly saluted the KSU fans and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Thus the ‘Cats' 2-point conversion came from the 17-yard line, and of course it failed.
Correct call? Maybe. Good call? No way. Not by anyone with a clue nor by the NCAA football rules committee.
You'll be pleased to know that college football's behavior police have taken a chill pill. The message for football officials in 2011 is simple.
“The rules committee realized the pendulum had swung too far,” Anderson, the Big 12's coordinator of officiating, told his crews during a College Football Officiating clinic Saturday. “We ended up becoming the focal point of ‘C'mon, man' (on ESPN). If it's going to get us on ‘C'mon, man,' we don't want to make that call.”
There still will be some c'mon, man calls this season. A new NCAA rule makes excessive celebration a spot foul, which means if you taunt or showboat before the ball has reached the end zone, it's a live-ball penalty. No touchdown.
But that's perfectly OK. The NCAA's original intent was justified. Rid the sport of knuckleheaded acts. No pointing at opponents. No holding the ball in the direction of foes. No spiking the ball (that means you, Kenny Stills). No high-stepping (especially facing a 34-6 deficit, Ryan Broyles). No running parallel to the goal line just for fun, before entering the end zone (what were you thinking, Justin Blackmon?)
Heck, Blackmon's play from the Alamo Bowl is part of the NCAA instructional video for officials. Blackmon was not penalized on the play, but Rogers Redding, the sport's national coordinator, said Blackmon deserved not just one penalty, but two, since after entering the end zone, he went to the stands and performed for the crowd. Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a single game means automatic ejection.
Riding herd on those kinds of actions is perfectly reasonable. But penalizing players for spontaneous, quick actions of exuberance? That doesn't help the game.
“Let the spontaneous stuff go,” Anderson told his officials. “One quick finger up? Leave that stuff alone.
Stick the ball at ‘em? Bang ‘em. Go punch the goal post? Absolutely? The other stuff? Let's stay away.”
The K-State play “doesn't rise to the level of unsportsmanlike. Let's get back to doing this with common sense.”
The NCAA started heavily enforcing taunting and showmanship several years ago. A noble cause. But the policing went too far. And was too capricious.
“It's been so inconsistent so many years,” said Ken Rivera, the Mountain West Conference coordinator of officiating.
Rivera said the tipping point was not the Pinstripe Bowl, but the 2008 Washington-BYU game. Remember that one? UW quarterback Jake Locker scored on a 3-yard run with two seconds left in the game, drawing the Huskies within 28-27. Locker flipped the ball into the air in celebration, drawing a 15-yard penalty. BYU then blocked Washington's extra point.
“Most coordinators thought they should not have made that call,” Rivera said. “We swung the pendulum ... officials started looking for things. The pendulum has swung back. Don't inject yourself into the game.
“In the past, the feeling was, when in doubt, call it. Now, it's just the opposite. When in doubt, don't call it.”
Wow. Isn't that refreshing? Absolute common sense on an emotional issue.
Anderson wants his officials to even be wary of the new spot-foul rule. Don't guess on where the ball is when the penalty occurs. Unless it's absolutely clear that the excessive celebration came before the ball reached the goal line, give the team the touchdown.
“When there's a question, make it a dead ball,” said David Warden of Henryetta, assistant coordinator of officiating for the Big 12.
Common sense is the prevailing theme. Anderson hammered home that message all day long.
If there's a question about a flagrant foul vs. fighting, make it a flagrant foul. “We want the fights to be the thrilla in Manila,” Anderson said.
If an open runner lifts the ball in celebration as he approaches the goal line, then leave the flag in your pocket. If a player flips the ball over his shoulder in glee, let it go. A first-down signal by a receiver who just made a nifty catch? Be lenient.
“What we're looking for are acts that are clearly delayed and not part of a spontaneous enthusiasm by the player,” Anderson said.
Some things are always a penalty. The throat slash. Tossing the ball at an opponent. Pointing the ball at an opponent.
But whereas in recent years all celebration was deemed excessive, college football now seems committed to making distinctions.
Anderson recalled a Texas A&M game on Armistice Day, with a ton of soldiers in the stands. A player scored a touchdown, saluted the troops and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“We've got the U.S. Army there, and we flag his ass,” Anderson said. “On Nov. 11 to boot.
“That's where the rules committee acknowledged setting you guys up. It just wasn't a good common-sense rule.”
College football has taken an excellent step. Excessive celebration is still on the books, and the penalty could be more severe than ever. But in a sport known for its spirit, there's still a little room for enjoying the fruits of autumn glory.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.