January 28, 2009

Celebration: How much is too much?

Cannons thunder. Muskets are fired. Push-ups are performed.

There are a number of original yet acceptable celebrations for touchdowns in college football.

In fact, a touchdown at Kyle Field prompts Texas A&M Aggies to kiss their dates. Some do so with such enthusiasm that it borders on excessive celebration, an issue that has become quite a matter of contention in college football well, on the field at least. There, tossing the football into the air can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as an egregious affront to the ideals of sportsmanship.

Recall in September when Washington quarterback Jake Locker scored a touchdown with two seconds remaining that gave the Huskies a chance to force overtime against BYU. In his elation, Locker flipped the football into the air. A Pac-10 official flipped a yellow flag on to the field. Coaches and fans across the country except those in Provo, of course flipped out.

Why call a penalty for that? Next thing you know, some killjoy will be shutting down frat parties before the first keg is floated.

The 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Locker forced Washington to attempt a longer extra point, which was blocked, and the Huskies lost 28-27.

"The ball went about 20 feet into the air," said Walt Anderson, the Big 12 Conference's coordinator of officials. "If the ball goes three feet in the air, should it be called? Probably not. But what if it goes four feet? Where do you draw the line?"

Apparently, there is a fine line between showing emotion and showing off. The NCAA frowns on individual acts that show up an opponent, which seems a tad hypocritical considering its system for determining national championship opponents encourages teams to run up the score.

But that's another issue for another time.

Yes, there is a fine line, and the NCAA wants players to toe it in the name of sportsmanship.

Before last season, officials were instructed to make unsportsmanlike conduct calls a point of emphasis. Videos were distributed to officiating groups across the country showing acceptable and unacceptable actions. The non-contact fouls section of the NCAA rulebook clearly states that celebratory acts that bring attention to an individual or show up an opponent such as throwing the football into the air fall under unsportsmanlike conduct. But what is a natural outburst of excitement to one official is a gross example of grandstanding to another.

For that reason the rule was discussed at the recent American Football Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Tenn. It will be further discussed at the NCAA Rules Committee meetings next month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. And officials will be rehashing it over and over in meetings and clinics throughout the summer.

Coaches at the AFCA convention voted to maintain the status quo: Throw the ball and the ref throws a flag.

"If they err, I think they should err on the side of throwing the flag," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "You're supposed to hand the ball to the official. A couple [of penalties] that were called were close, but guys see that and if they care about their team, they know to mind their Ps and Qs."

But there remains a difference of opinion on how the penalty should be enforced.

"I think [the rule] is too harsh," California coach Jeff Tedford said. "There is a certain amount of emotion in the game. Kids with high character and discipline still have a certain amount of enthusiasm that's natural. I think we should give them five seconds [before making a call].

"Take what happened in the Washington game with Jake Locker. That was ridiculous. I'm not for showboating, but there is emotion and excitement in the game. It's all in the opinion of the official. I don't know how they [all] could call it the same way. It's up to [individual] interpretation and that could lead to problems."

Some excessive celebration calls are easy to make. When Georgia coach Mark Richt sent his entire team onto the field after a touchdown against Florida in 2007, that deserved a flag. So did Texas wide receiver Quan Cosby, who dived into the end zone for the winning touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

But some calls aren't so obvious. Just as Tedford pointed out, what's acceptable to one official or in one conference isn't necessarily acceptable to another ref in a different league. For their part, the officials recognize this and are taking steps to reduce the gray area on those calls.

Anderson said officials from different conferences attend clinics together. For example, officials from the Big 12, Mountain West, Conference USA and Western Athletic conferences will meet for a clinic in Dallas this summer. Officials from the Big Ten, ACC, Big East and MAC also will meet together. Further, those clinics will be held on different weeks, so coordinators from other conferences can attend.

The idea? By meeting and training together, officials from various conferences will develop a more standardized definition of what constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct.

"That's not as consistent an area as we'd like it to be," said Dave Parry, the NCAA's coordinator of officials. "To be fair, it's probably true that sometimes, in moments of a game, an official might be more tolerant."

What about the Locker incident?

"He felt he had no choice," Parry said of the official who called the penalty on Locker. "The ball went so high, maybe 20 or 25 feet. Had he not thrown the flag, he would've been criticized for looking the other way. There is a little bit of a gray area, but the general feeling among coaches is to stay tough on this to keep sportsmanship at its highest level and if we err, err on the side of sportsmanship."

Cynics might view sportsmanship as an old-fashioned concept, and an excuse for stuffy old guys to keep fun and self-expression out of the game. But sportsmanship should be honored, and steps taken to ensure it remains part of sport should be applauded. Still, there has to be a way to differentiate between a spontaneous excitement and a showboating gesture aimed to call attention to one's self.

Actually, there is. It's called common sense.

It can be a powerful tool, and it shouldn't require clinics and videotapes.

Super touchdowns

I recently was thinking how surprising it was that powerhouses Alabama, Auburn and Texas have never had a former player score a touchdown in the Super Bowl. I looked up the college affiliation of all the players who have reached the end zone in the Super Bowl and learned some interesting things.

For example, one Big Ten program has had four players score touchdowns but only one was an offensive TD. The school is Michigan. Mike Bass and Ty Law returned interceptions for touchdowns and Desmond Howard returned a kickoff for a score. Rob Lytle scored the only offensive touchdown by a Michigan player.

Here's a five-question quiz about Super Bowl touchdowns. The results and the entire list of players to score Super Bowl touchdowns will be posted Thursday.

1. What school has produced the most players to score Super Bowl touchdowns?

2. This school has had eight Super Bowl touchdowns all scored by the same player. Who is the player and where did he go to school?

3. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has scored five touchdowns in the playoffs. If he reaches the end zone Sunday, he will become the fourth player from the University of Pittsburgh to score a Super Bowl touchdown. Name the other three.

4. Who is the only player from Oklahoma to score a Super Bowl touchdown?

5. This historically black college has had two players score Super Bowl touchdowns, and they were scored in the same Super Bowl but for different teams. Name the college and the players.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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