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Todd Skaggs, College Football Referee

January 5, 2012

Todd Skaggs, College Football Referee

First, can you let readers know how you became a referee  and what still attracts you to the profession?
In 2003, I moved closer to Louisville, KY for a new job and I thought it would be a good way to get to know some people, stay active and enjoy the passion I had for football. I was hooked the first time I stepped on the field.

Referees have a saying that “there’s no such thing as a perfect game, but we can strive for excellence.” I am challenged and motivated each play, each game, each season by the opportunity to get better, push myself to new heights and enjoy the game I came to love as a kid and love even more now as a football official.

You’ve written a book about the profession and also have a blog. Can you let readers know about these and what inspired you to author both and what they cover?

A few years ago I became interested in officiating college football and taking my officiating career to the next level. I found that information on advancement, expectations and the application process was not readily available. So I had this grand idea of going to Division I and NFL officials as well as college conference supervisors and asking them about their careers, for advice on advancement and what was expected of officials at the higher levels.

Then I did something even more crazy. I started asking them to interview. One by one, they said yes and the basis of a book was born. I also decided that as long as I was proceeding down the path to become a college football official, I’d blog about what I learned. I always liked writing and expressing myself in print. The blog seemed like a great way to share information with other aspiring football officials like me. The interviews soon became podcasts, parts of the interviews became blog posts and before I knew it…the blog was getting over 5,000 unique visitors each month!

My book, Forward Progress, is now for sale on my site and Amazon and has been shipped to eleven different countries. If you’d asked me where this was headed three years ago, I doubt I would have been able to visualize its current success.

As a college referee, what have been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had over your career and what made them so (any experiences with Pittsburgh teams)?

I recall my first game vividly. It was a Catholic league game on Sunday. I was working the head linesman position and both sets of fans were behind me due to the placement of the bleachers on the field. I was extremely nervous as one might imagine. My wife was in the stands watching. In the first quarter, one of the interior lineman on my side committed a false start. Pretty easy call. I reached down to throw my first flag ever and launched it skyward.

Now they don’t teach you HOW to throw the flag in your training class, just WHEN to throw it. My flag went up, up and away. My wife said she didn’t think it would ever land. But it did. In the front row of the bleachers! After reporting my foul to the Referee, I had to run over to the stands where a young fan handed my flag back with a grin on his face.

I’ll share something from my rookie college season also. I was hired as a supplemental official in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC) and was fortunate to receive a six game schedule my first year. Because my status and college schedule wasn’t known until late in the summer, I also kept a full high school officiating schedule. That meant six times that season I was scheduled for a varsity contest on Friday night in Louisville, KY and for a college game on Saturday somewhere in West Virginia usually at 1 pm.

On average, I had a six hour drive between the locations. So I’d finish the varsity game around 10 pm and hit the road for West Virginia. Adrenalin would keep me going until 1 or 2 am, then I’d have to find a place to stay. I’d work the game Saturday and around 5 pm, start the drive home. Now most people would say I was crazy, and they might be right. But I’ll tell you that every late night drive I kept telling myself that I had to pay my dues and make sacrifices in order to have the opportunity to work college football. There is no substitute for snaps and my Explorer has over 75,000 miles over the last 3 years to prove it.

I actually wrote a chapter in my book called “Only One Will” where I theorize why only the best officials rise to the top and make it to the NCAA Division I and NFL levels. Many, many try. Few succeed. I believe that 99 out of 100 officials won’t do all the things necessary to truly excel and dedicate themselves to becoming the best. Only One Will. 99 Won’t.

What is also amazing to me, is that there are approximately twenty NFL officials on staff and estimates of around 40,000 total officials in the US. The pyramid is very narrow at the top. But even more importantly, each of those 120 started on a pee wee field somewhere in Anytown, USA. They ALL started off as 99’s, but somewhere along the path made a decision to be a 1. It’s a conscious effort a person has to make and it has implications and impact that extends far past football officiating. Only One Will. Will it be you?

What are the things coaches and players do that most annoy and frustrate referees?

Officials find it comical that fans often don’t know the rules or get rules confused between high school, college and pro. We continue to be amazed at how gifted the athletes are. I’ve learned not to doubt what they can do on the field.

What are your thoughts about whether referees should be full-time in college and the NFL? What are the pros and cons, from your perspective?

It’s a misconception that football officiating is a part-time avocation. Professional and college football officials put in full  time hours preparing for weekly games, rules study, physical fitness and travel. The dedication and commitment to being the best are seldom seen by outsiders but I can guarantee you won’t find a more passionate, knowledgeable and driven group of people who care deeply about each other and the game of football.

Officials often describe this as a fraternity, but I’ll take it a step further. It’s a large, extended family.

I’m sure you and your peers have paid close attention to the NFL rule changes on hitting and using helmets. What are your thoughts on how those rule changes have been implemented by the NFL and the challenges it’s created for NFL referees?

I’m a proponent of player safety and continue to be impressed with the accuracy of the calls made by officials at full speed (without the luxury of slow motion replay).

What are your thoughts on the discrepancy many fans see in how skill positions are treated versus other positions? For example, defensive linemen who are still allowed to be cut-blocked?

I am not aware of any discrepancies. While there are legal forms of low blocking, clipping or cut blocking in restricted and clearly defined areas; blocks that can injure players or occur where players can’t protect themselves remain illegal.

Any concerns those same NFL rules will find their way to the college level?

None. Careful thought and consideration are given to rules at all levels and I have complete confidence in our leadership.

So many rules require subjective/judgement calls on referees. How frustrating is it for you that every close call now is seen over and over on tv replays and that fans have such a difficult time accepting that human error in these calls is just part of the game at times?

Human error is a part of every organized sport. There are three teams that take the field each game. The opposing teams and the third team called the officiating crew. You won’t find anyone on the field that wants nothing more than to work a game where they go unnoticed. Statistics will support that replay upholds the majority of the calls or rulings in question.

Officials just want to get the calls correct and protect the integrity of the game.

Should we be relying more on technology to help referees get every call correct?. Why/why not?

There are an average of 180 plays in a typical game of football. Maybe 5 key plays come into question. A baseball player can get into Cooperstown by hitting only one out of three over his career. You won’t last long in officiating getting one out of every three calls correct. I’d say we do just fine under the current conditions.

If you had your way, what changes would you make to collegiate and NFL games as a referee to make your jobs easier?

Put 22 guys in stripes on the field so we only have to watch one player each play. We’d get those calls right then!

What do you think would surprise readers most about professional referees?

We take our avocation very seriously. People only see the three hours on TV on the weekends. We only get attention when it appears we’ve erred in some fashion. In officiating there are two kinds of referees: those who are humble and those who will be humbled. The game has a way of bringing you back down to earth and putting everything into perspective. It’s largely why we will always be in search of that “perfect game.”

Any last thoughts for readers?

Sports officiating (I referee football, basketball and lacrosse) is such a fantastic way for  anyone of any age to stay connected to sports. There is a universal demand in all areas for new sports officials. I encourage any former athlete, fan or coach who truly want to immerse themselves in becoming a student of their respective game to experience the game from the perspective of an official. It truly is the most fun you can have on the field or court.

They will have to drag me off the field one day. I just can’t imagine my life without the opportunity to don the stripes.

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