Evolution Q&A: NCAA officiating director sees targeting changes

NCAA national coordinator of officials Rogers Redding has been a referee and coordinator of referees for decades. For the past three years, he has been in his current job while also serving as the secretary/editor for the NCAA Football Rules Committee.

Redding has been involved in player health and safety rules, from delivering them on the field to explaining case law to conference commissioners on how it can best be implemented. He annually publishes a study guide for NCAA officials and previously was a physics professor and administrator at North Texas, Northern Kentucky, Air Force and Colorado.

The Birmingham, Ala., resident talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley last week about what led him to the NCAA, the controversy over the NCAA's targeting rule and what player safety rules might be ahead for college football.

How would you explain your job with the NCAA? It seems like it can be a lot of herding cats.

Herding cats is attractive compared to this, I sometimes say. ... I run the college football officiating. That's a limited liability corporation that was started by the NCAA and the Collegiate Commissioners Association, which was (founded by) the Division I conference commissioners about five years ago as a way of getting the conferences on the same page along with rules interpretations. I work directly with the coordinator of officials in the different conferences and the Division I conferences in particular. We do a website where we post video of play situations, check study aids and mechanics issues. We're at the point now where essentially every college football official in the country is a member of this organization. Even down at the D-II and D-III level. It's a little uneven at those levels, but certainly all of the Division I conference are involved in this. ... My job really is to work with the coordinators to try bring some better consistency to how the game is officiated and managed. Now the other hat that I wear -- that is different but related -- is that I'm the secretary and editor of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, which means I edit the rule book and I'm the one that makes the play interpretations -- or the case law so to speak -- when the rule book is silent or ambiguous on some play situations. I'm the one that is supposed to issue the play interpretations and I serve as the person who actually writes the rule book once the committee decides on what the rules are going to be.

You have extensive experience as an on-field referee. What led you to an oversight job such as this?

I had refereed in the old Southwest Conference for a number of years and then I was a referee in the Southeastern Conference for the last 10 years of my on-the-field career. At the same time, my real job was in higher education. I was a college professor and administrator. When I was thinking about retiring from higher education for family reasons -- we needed to get closer to our grandkids -- the SEC offered me the opportunity to become coordinator for the conference (in 2006). ... Then along about that same time, I became the rules editor for the NCAA, but stayed with the SEC job. That rules editor job was not a full-time job. In the meantime, the NCAA and the commissioners had formed this officiating organization that I described. Dave Perry of the Big 12 held the job for two years. Then he retired from that, and in 2011 I became the national coordinator of officials. I'm in my third year now in the national coordinator job.

How much do you get involved in rules changes, including player safety rules? The NCAA is such a large organization, it would seem that rules changes take a bit longer to get passed.

The NCAA has a rules committee and I serve as an ex officio member and a continuing member. The rules committee is mainly made of head coaches. There is a conference commissioner on there. I think there's athletic director on there. But the voting majority are head football coaches equally divided among FBS, FCS, and Division II and Division III schools. ... My role is really is to provide some guidance and leadership to that group around what's feasible from an officiating standpoint and what's possible in terms of rules. The committee makes the rules and my job is take what they do and write the rulebook in a way that can be read and officiated. The committee makes the decision, but they really do rely on me for some guidance around the process. We have a two-year process for creating the rule book. The current rule book, for example, is for 2013-14, which means 2014 is allegedly an off-year for making rules changes. However, the committee is always empowered and is responsible for making any changes specifically related to player safety. In this so-called off-year, the committee can make player-safety related changes.

The changes in football rules at all levels have been aimed at protecting the head. How has that changed your job?

It has somewhat in a sense. ... For years we had a rule against using the headgear for spearing. But one of the trends we began to see in the game was that players weren't tackling anymore; they were just throwing their bodies at each other. They began to throw their bodies at each other high, up around the head. So in 2008, the rules committee made a very pointed effort to call to attention what we know as targeting fouls. The committee used that term "target" because there's always going to be this sort of balance between play safety on one hand and football on the other hand. There's always going to be injury. But with all of the attention on concussions and all the studies the NFL is doing around concussions, and all the concern at all levels of football about head injuries in particular, many felt like we needed to strengthen the rule around targeting. And that language is intended to mean that the player is trying to do something that is intended to do more than a football play. When you think about what a target is, you're lining somebody up to shoot at them. So, the word is used to indicate that the player is doing something and we developed these rules for targeting. It's a launch as a player leaves his feet and lurches himself at a player high. He may not leave his feet, but comes up at him in an upward thrust. He may deliberately and viciously lead with an elbow or lead with his headgear in a way that is clear. So the committee felt like we needed to make this rule tougher. Like the crown-of-the-helmet hit, it's mean to protect the deliverer of the blow because of the impact on the head. The other piece of it is hitting the defenseless player in the head and neck area with the helmet or elbow or head or whatever.

How did it grow from a 15-yard penalty to an ejection?

The committee felt like we needed to call out those two special cases, different from any other kind of blows that might be delivered in the game. So we made it a 15-yard penalty but it didn't seem to have any effect. This year, the conference commissioners said, "In postgame action, we look at those films and we say, 'Man alive, not only is that a terrible play, but there's just not enough punishment involved to try to get players to change. A little 15-yard penalty is not having much impact.'" You watch these guys and they dance around like they won the World Series or something. It's kind of a prideful thing to make such a hit. So the committee felt like we really needed to change the behavior. The coordinators and commissioners approached the rules committee last year and said we needed to strengthen this rule. We need to make it where automatic disqualification from the game is a part of the rule. What they decided to do was to mimic the "fighting rule." That is to say, if it happens in the first half, then you're out for that game. If it happens in the second half, then you're out for the rest of that game and the first half of the following game.

What is it that officials are looking for on this type of infraction?

It's something that you don't have to look for. It presents itself when it happens. It's kind of obvious. The safety net was put in for the schools that use instant replay. That is to say that if instant replay clearly shows that the action was either not with the crown of the helmet or was clearly not in the head and neck area, even though the markers for targeting was there, then the player would be put back in the game, but the 15-yard penalty would stay. Now for schools that don't have instant replay, we put in an appeals process. If the foul happens in the first half of the game, then you have to live with that. If it happens in the second half of the game, then they could appeal this to me in my role as national coordinator to look at the video and say, "Yes, this is a good call. The suspension stands," or, "No, the suspension should be reversed." The individual conference makes the decision whether or not they're going to appeal every time this happens.

So the coach or the school can't directly appeal the penalty? It has to go through the conference as, say, a middle man?

The trade-off is the conference also has to live by whatever decision I have. They can't just give it to me for my opinion. The rule is specifically written that once the conference makes that appeal, then they must abide by rule whatever the decision of the appeal is. We've had more fouls than we have had appeals. Some of those occur in the first half, so there's no appeal for that. But we've had more fouls in the second half than we have had appeals. The coach wants to appeal every time. And many conferences have bit the bullet and said, "Look, this is so obviously a foul, we're not going waste the coordinator's time with appealing this thing." Other conferences take whatever the coaches say. It's a mixed bag, but it's worked out really well. I have two or three other guys who I go over these appeals with. I tell the conferences that I will get back to them with 48 hours because it's not fair to suspend a guy after he's practiced all week. They need to know that by Tuesday or Wednesday. I send the video out to these other guys. Sometimes we don't always agree, but then it's my call. But if it seems to all of us that it is clearly not a foul, then the suspension is overturned.

How do you think the targeting rule has been administered this season on the field?

I think it's been handled very well. There's been some mistakes. These things happen very fast and you've got to make a call. But part of the reason the committee was comfortable in going this direction was that the officials on the field have about five years of experience with the foul. In other words, the foul didn't change; it was the penalty that changed. The action on the field is not any different than the officials were looking for before. So I think it's worked very well. There's been some weeks where it's been very few (targeting calls). There's been some weeks where we've had more than I like. Last year, we had one in about every eight games, which means it's not a huge thing. This year, we're about one (targeting) foul in every 10 games, which is a significant improvement. The other thing that we noticed -- and this is hard to codify -- is that we're seeing changes in behavior. In other words, you see players that last year I promise you the guy would launch and try to tear the head off of you. Now he's coming in lower, he's not using his helmet, he's trying to wrap his arms around the tackle. ... The other thing we noticed is that after the player makes an illegal hit, rather than prancing around and high-fiving with their buddies, you see a couple of guys grab their helmet as if it say, "Oh my God, what have I just done?" It's like turning a battleship and one year is really not enough time to let this thing soak, but I think we've made significant progress this year. We've got to get this hit out of the game. I've been saying that college football may be at the 1905 level -- when President Teddy Roosevelt called in the school presidents because people were getting killed playing the game -- because there's so much concern about concussions that people are saying, "I don't want my son playing football." ... Football is at a crossroads and we've just got to get this hit out of the game. The Division I commissioners are very strong about this and they're willing to take the heat for it. ...I'm not 100 percent satisfied that it's going as fast as I like, but we're making progress. We've gotten a lot of attention over this a lot of people are watching how we deal with these high hits.

You really think the players are changing the way they're hitting?

It's not perfect yet, but I really do believe it. I don't think it's just wishful thinking. I can show you some video where I know last year there was a launch and a missile through the air. They're coming in with a lower target and they're lowering their shoulder. They 're getting their head out of it. There are situations where we look at each other and say, "Man. Last year, that would have been a blowup." This year the guy's doing what he's supposed to do. The point I've tried to make about this whole thing is that is that the players are 100 percent in control of this thing. If they do what they're supposed to do, we will not have a problem.

Do you anticipate any changes to the targeting rule during the offseason? Some very prominent coaches have been unhappy with the 15 yard penalty sticking even if the ejection is rescinded.

I think that's the one piece of this that the rules committee is going to want to take a careful look at. We'll meet in February. I would like to let the season get out of the way and let actions cool and see where we are. That's the one piece of it that has drawn the most fire because the idea is that if there wasn't a targeting foul, why did the 15-yard penalty stick? There are two things involved in the response. One, it's a slippery slope that you go on if you're going to have instant replay overturn a penalty. You don't want the instant-replay official making decisions about holding or pass interference or offsides. That's got to be kept on the field. The other piece of it is the players might just get lucky. They do all of the things that indicate targeting -- he shoots himself through the air -- but he may have just gotten lucky that he didn't hit the head or neck area. He might have hit the high chest area. We still have the behavior we don't want. On the other hand, I take the point that this could be a change that would be assigned specifically to the one rule (for overturning the targeting penalty) and not open up Pandora's box and allow the replay booth to go willy-nilly and overturn penalties. I think we can confine to that one situation and I'm sure that's the discussion the rules committee will have next year.

From the crown of the helmet rule to the push rule on the field goals, what do you think of some of the player safety rules the NFL has added this year?

I think those are good changes. One of the unofficial parts of my job is that I sit in with the NFL Competition Committee when they meet in the spring. I always want to know what they're doing. They want to know what we're doing and we try to keep up with one another. I was in the discussions when they talked about the using the helmet by the running backs and such. I think that's a very interesting change. I don't keep up closely enough with the NFL game to know how well it's worked. I do know they spent a lot of time educating their players on it like we did with our players on the targeting rule. I think that's a really good change. These things are always evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but if the NCAA takes its rule any further, and if the NCAA is satisfied where this is headed, then we may not take that step. But's going to be really interesting to see what the NFL's experience on that is because that's something the NCAA may want to look into a little bit. ... As for (live overload and push rule on field goals), we've had a rule for a long time that a defensive player could not shove a teammate forward. We put in a rule about three years ago called the "three-on-one rule." You couldn't have three defenders on a single offensive lineman. We just legislated that right out of the game. ... We never see it.

What other player safety rules do you see college football adopting the down the road?

There's some chatter around protecting the quarterback low. The NFL has a rule about a quarterback standing in the pocket and can't be hit below the waist. That one's got some traction among several of the commissioners and the coordinators. We have several coordinators that are either active or retired NFL officials, so they keep us in good touch with what is going on down on the field in the NFL. That one, protection of the quarterback low, is one that hasn't emerged as a big problem in the college game, but there have been some examples ... in the last few years where quarterbacks have gotten hurt like that. I think that's one that going to be on our agenda in February. Other than that, obviously we'll review the targeting rule and maybe tweak it. Because of our two-year rule process, we'll talk about other things but we won't be able to make a change unless it is player-safety related.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.
Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.