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.'”
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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.