IRVING, Texas — Walt Anderson stood in front of 330 football officials last Saturday, guys (and at least one gal) who are judge and jury on autumn Saturdays. Serious responsibility.
But Anderson, the Big 12's director of officiating, had a new directive for the officials in his charge and those from other assorted leagues down to the small-college level.
Officials are about to become even more beasts of burden.
The NCAA's new targeting clause — ejection for anyone who commits the penalty — carries quite the stigma for a player and is the latest declaration that those in power are trying to change the sport. Some even say save the sport.
“They've got to get it out of the game,” Anderson said of the headhunting that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd but dismay from all other corners. “The game today is under attack, not like it's been in a long time. This seriousness of head injuries, the focus on concussions, is here to stay.”
Seriousness. That's the word to describe the mood of Anderson and instructors at the DFW Marriott North last week. And the word to describe NCAA rule makers, who put serious teeth into the targeting penalty, which has been on the books in its present form since 2005.
Even the media has been commissioned to help.
Ed Stewart, the Big 12's associate commissioner for football, told invited media that we have a responsibility, too.
“You guys are influencers of public opinion,” Stewart said. “I strongly encourage you, if there's one thing you walk away from this clinic with, have as firm a grasp of targeting as you can. It'll be critical in this first year with the elevation of the penalty, that we could have as informed of a national dialogue as possible.”
OK. So here you go. The Oklahoman today is trying to brace college football fans for what's coming.
A player near and dear to your heart, be he in orange or crimson or some alien color, will be ejected from the game and, should it occur in the second half, be disqualified for the first half of the next game.
There is no appeal, beyond immediate replay review. If Aaron Colvin is flagged for striking the head of a Horned Frog in the second half of the Oct. 5 OU-TCU game, Colvin is out of the first half of OU-Texas. If Shaun Lewis leads with the crown of his head in sacking Baylor's Bryce Petty in the second half on Nov. 23, Lewis will miss the first half of Bedlam.
A split-second decision, by both player and official, will have profound effect.
Van Malone, OSU's cornerbacks coach, played four years in the NFL. He was fined a couple of times for illegal hits and doesn't try to claim innocence now.
“I was out of control,” Malone said. “I left my feet. I was leading with my head.”
Those are a couple of the chief indicators of targeting, defined as initiating contact with the crown of the helmet and/or initiating contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.
Now Malone must teach his Cowboys not to play that way.
“As a coach, I've always been very aggressive,” Malone said. “I was aggressive as a player. I try to train my players to be aggressive.”
But Malone now must also teach safety and prudence to work in conjunction with that aggression.
“The blowup hits, I left my feet, led with my head, it's not a good tackle,” Malone said. “We talk about getting low, lowering your center of gravity. That's proper tackling. It'll continue to be a point of emphasis for us.”
But we're talking about bang-bang plays. Split-second decisions. Can even the best instruction, the best drilling, counter instinct?
“That's the worry,” said Brigham Young quarterback coach Jason Beck. “You lose a guy on a bang-bang play. That's why it's so important to emphasize it and break the habits of the player. Drill that in there so they can be smart about it.”
But so much of football is impulse. So much of football is first-nature. Ready, fire, aim. Start thinking too much on the football field, start treading lightly, and the last thing a defender has to worry about is targeting the ball carrier. There won't be a ball carrier close enough to hit.
“Our guys can't decide whether they're going to class or not,” Malone said with a laugh. “They can't make decisions in a split-second.”
But Malone said players can take steps to encourage officials not to throw a flag for targeting.
“After a big hit, you can't stand over a guy, can't bring attention to yourself,” Malone said. “Your attitude, your body language, ‘I was trying to hurt that guy. I wanted that to happen.'”
It's that kind of mentality that Walt Anderson wants to eradicate.
“Football is a contact sport,” Anderson said. “You're going to contact the head. There are going to be helmet-to-helmet contact plays that are not going to be a foul.
“It's this headhunter type mentality, intentional acts, that they come up with a phrase and settled upon ‘targeting.' Something you're aiming at, intending to hit, as opposed to accidentally hit the bull's-eye.”
Not everyone hails the new enforcement as a panacea for headhunting.
UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore retired from football before the 2012 season, even though he was team captain. Repeated concussions prompted Larimore to leave the game, and now he's a crusader for improved safety conditions.
“Ejecting players for split-second decisions is ridiculous,” Larimore said. “The speed of the game has increased. It's a violent sport. You're hitting all year. Now you tell a defender, you can't play the ball.
“The new targeting rule is well-intentioned, but it's yet to be seen if it will have any positive impact on head issues.”
Larimore said concussions and long-term health problems are much more a product of repeated hits, more so than any one big hit.
The solution, Larimore said, is not stiffer on-field penalties. It's cultural. Change the culture.
For instance, Larimore said, players are reluctant to tell coaches or medical personnel when they've been dinged. Reluctant to come out of a game or a practice even if they don't feel right.
Coaches, Larimore said, don't always put a player's safety first. Don't believe it? Go back to the targeting issue. The onus is always on the defenders to not hit a vulnerable receiver. Why is the receiver vulnerable in the first place?
“You have coordinators putting receivers in positions where they are defenseless,” Larimore said.
“The reality is, football's not a safe sport. It's about reaching a level of shared responsibility, everyone stepping up, trying to change the game in a positive way.”
In 1905, 18 players died playing college football. President Teddy Roosevelt summoned campus leaders to the White House to forge change. The resulting rules produced the modern game.
A century later, no one is dying on the field, but as more and more data emerges concerning head injuries, as more former players get punch-drunk or commit suicide, the same fix-the-game-or-else theme is bubbling.
“We'll either change it within the system, or someone from without the system will change it,” Anderson told his officials. “That's the charge we've got.
“The game is under attack. The (conference) commissioners are aware of this. The coaches. The administrators. We've now been given a directive by the rules committee. That's to send a message, this is serious. We need to get this out of the game.”
Officials didn't make the rules. But they're commissioned to enforce them.
Replay review will help a little — it can overturn a disqualification, though not the accompanying 15-yard penalty — but the pressure is huge on officials. A 15-yard penalty is one thing. Aaron Colvin missing half the Texas game is quite another.
One official suggested to me that the NCAA might not even have the stomach for the new policy and could bail on it in midseason, if the pressure mounts.
That's why the focus on targeting was so heavy last weekend. In years past, officials famously were told that if it's close on targeting, throw the flag. Now, Anderson cautions against that. Says that officials must get as refined on targeting as they are on holding or pass interference.
“We want to give you reasons that you can be certain,” Anderson said. “We're going to start today getting better with this. Make sure the rules are not unfairly administered to players. It's our responsibility.”
So Anderson urged his officials to get in the right position. Don't be on the move at the point of contact, because movement impedes vision. Question each other. Don't be afraid to pick up a flag.
“Circle the wagons even if we're wrong? We can't do that anymore,” Anderson said.
“How do we go from enforcing the intent of the rule to making sure we're not making mistakes on the other?” Anderson asked. “And it's difficult. We understand we're going to make mistakes. But it's our challenge, and we're up to it.”
But get ready, fans. One of your players is headed for disqualification.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
Berry Tramel spent last weekend at the College Football Officiating clinic in Irving, Texas, and is writing a three-part series:
Thursday: Experimental eight-man crews.
Friday: The passion of Big 12 officials.