Candid Coaches: Real talk on referees, college football rules that need changing

Following in the footsteps of our college basketball brethren here at CBS Sports, college football writers Dennis Dodd, Chip Patterson and Barrett Sallee spoke with one-fifth of the 130 active coaches leading FBS teams entering the 2017 season. They asked for honest opinions on everything from NCAA rules to social issues to their peers in the profession. We will be sharing their candid thoughts over a two-week period leading into the season.

Officiating in college football is always a hot topic of conversation -- whether it's a pass interference call early in a game on what appears to be an uncatchable pass or a difficult spot on fourth down that could cost a team a chance at competing for a conference championship. Referees are criticized more consistently than perhaps even coaches and quarterbacks these days, yet coaches themselves usually hold their tongues about officiating decisions after games for fear of getting fined. With the condition of anonymity, we wondered how open they would be about the perceived issues both with referees and college football rules in general.

From 1-5, how good are college referees at their job?

Answer Responses

5 (Good)

9 percent

4 (Above average)

60 percent

3 (Average)

22 percent

2 (Below average) 9 percent
1 (Poor) 0 percent

What on-field rule needs to be changed?

Answer Responses

Pass interfernece / holding

56 percent

High-low (chop) blocks

13 percent

Managing tempo / spotting the ball 13 percent
Made-up calls / overofficiating 9 percent
Other (including targeting) 9 percent

Explain yourselves

  • Coach who rated officials above average (4): "When you coach a small college, there's no video, no replay, no TV. When we got to TV, we had three cameras; now we have 7-10 camera games. Everybody in America has a better view of the game than the officials."
  • Coach on the best officials: "I think the best referees by far are in the Big Ten. And the Big Ten doesn't totally appeal to me because I think it's kind of boring. They've had the best referees for a long time. No matter where we're at, I'd rather have Big Ten refs."
  • On the excessive celebration penalty: "The only [rule] I never understood very much was celebration -- if it was spontaneous. As long as nobody is humiliating an opponent. There ought to be a little more flexibility. We ask our kids to play with enthusiasm, with exuberance and with emotion and for the game to be fun. Sometimes, the rules, we see them through 60-year-old white guy glasses."
  • On targeting: "I would change kids being kicked out for targeting. I would still have the penalty. I don't like that you have to sit out the next game if it happens in the second half. We only have 12 games. Let them sit out five minutes, penalty box."
  • On a different officiating change: "I would definitely change the umpire's position -- right in the middle of the linebackers. I've seen a safety go around the umpire, and the ball goes the other way and goes for a touchdown."
Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Breaking it down

Color me shocked because I did not expect 91 percent of our coaches -- giving their honest, anonymous opinions of college officials -- to grade them at average or better. Furthermore, 69 percent at "above average" or higher-flat out floors me.


For starters, eruptions from coaches on the sidelines seem to happen way more now than they did a decade ago -- so much so that a new rule will be in place in 2017 that allows officials to call an immediate 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on any coach who enters the field "to question, protest or otherwise demonstrate disagreement with an officiating decision." 

Our survey clearly illustrates that the officials aren't the primary problem, it's the rules themselves. 

Whether it be the haphazard manner in which pass interference is called, the uncertainty about what specifically constitutes targeting or issues associated with tempo-based offenses that force officials to diagnose plays a little too quickly ... the expanding rule book combined with lack of proper communication between officials and coaches seem to be the primary problems.

So how does it get fixed?

Further education in the offseason would be a good start. Aside from that, I'm not sure there's much that can be done. 

Player safety is a major focus in football, which means that more rules -- specifically safety-related additions -- will continue to add layers to complicate matters for coaches. 

Could replay be expanded to include pass interference calls? Absolutely. The bang-bang, and often ambiguous, call that comes downfield is the biggest gripe of the coaches. It's a call that's reviewable in the Canadian Football League and has cut down on plays specifically designed to draw flags and give offenses automatic first downs.

But more layers to replay would slow down games even more than their current speed, which would cause more issues to the length of game argument that has been festering this offseason.

There is no solution. Referees are flawed, rules are evolving and emotions sometimes take over in the heat of the moment. 

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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