Mike Slive backed himself into a corner last week. The SEC commissioner decreed that any public criticism of officials by a coach would draw a fine, a suspension or both.
So when Florida coach Urban Meyer answered a reporter's question this week by suggesting that the official who watched Georgia linebacker Nick Williams deliver an echo-of-the-whistle hit on Gators quarterback Tim Tebow after a play might have considered removing the flag from his pocket, Slive had no choice but to penalize Meyer. So Friday, Slive popped Meyer for a cool $30,000 for saying this: "I don't want to step out of line, [but] there should have been a penalty, in my opinion. Obviously it should have been. You have to protect quarterbacks. That's the whole purpose. It's right in front of the referee."
The relative tameness of the comment didn't matter. Slive made clear last week that any criticism would get penalized. Slive stiffened the penalty for grousing about the zebras after Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin all blasted officials within a two-week span. All three coaches had legitimate complaints, but the league prefers those complaints be handled internally. Which is great, when the complaints actually are addressed. How often are they addressed? Until a few weeks ago, when the league announced a crew's suspension, we didn't really know.
Matt Hinton, Yahoo!'s Dr. Saturday, wrote an excellent piece Thursday positing that Slive actually triggered the SEC's "descent into ref-related absurdity" by announcing the three-week suspension of the crew that butchered calls in the LSU-Georgia and Arkansas-Florida games. While I agree that Slive left himself no other choice but to fine Meyer, I disagree that the public shaming of underperforming officials caused all this.
When the SEC agreed to $3 billion worth of contracts (over 15 years) with ESPN and CBS earlier this year, there was a run on Reynolds Wrap for the purposes of designing headgear. Fans of other conferences assumed the SEC put in the fix to keep its elite teams in the national title hunt. Add those to the already irrational SEC fans, many of whom believe their conference rival's coach meets with Slive weekly to plot the downfall of [insert team here], and you have a bunch of eagle-eyed YouTubers who will take every opportunity to prove a vast SEC conspiracy. Suddenly, routine officiating mistakes turned into black helicopters.
If Slive is going to publicly muzzle his coaches, he has to publicly admonish officials who make mistakes, or the SEC will have a serious credibility problem. Now that the coaches know Slive means business, here's hoping the SEC doesn't go back to disciplining its officials in a vacuum.
Of course, some good may come out of this. If the officiating continues to lag and coaches can't hold their tongues, the fines may help fund the cure for cancer. Meyer's 30 large will help fund a McWhorter post-graduate scholarship, which helps deserving former SEC athletes attend graduate school.