ORLANDO, Fla. — If the Florida Gators win the national title this year, the championship should come with an asterisk:
And the championship trophy should have a bronzed image of a blindfolded Southeastern Conference ref pulling a late flag out of his pocket and calling a phantom personal foul penalty on Arkansas.
And the inscription below the trophy should have my favorite limerick about college football officiating:
"There once was a ref whose vision,
Was cause for abuse and derision,
He remarked in surprise,
'Why pick on my eyes?
It's my conference that dictates my decision.'"
I'm not saying SEC officials are protecting their cash cow known as the Florida Gators, but I believe the SEC officiating crew that called the UF-Arkansas game Saturday was made up of Line Judge Mr. Two-Bits, Field Judge Albert the Alligator and Side Judge Bob Tebow.
Yes, I'm kidding, but only partly. Anybody who has read this column for any length of time knows I believe college football officiating is the biggest scam this side of the BCS. I'm not saying conference football officials blatantly cheat (although sometimes I wonder), but I am saying it's human nature that they are going to err on the side of their paycheck.
The SEC has admitted that the refs working the UF-Arkansas game were wrong on a crucial personal-foul penalty called against Arkansas DT Malcolm Sheppard on the Gators' game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. There was also an equally awful pass-interference call against the Hogs in the fourth quarter, but the SEC wouldn't comment on that one.
Now, of course, the conspiracy theorists are out in full force, wondering if SEC refs are trying to protect the Gators. Their reasoning: If Florida and Alabama stay unbeaten, the SEC Championship Game will draw monster ratings. And monster ratings eventually translate into monster revenue.
These are the kinds of scandalous perceptions you create when you allow major conferences to employ their own refs. I've written this before and I will keep writing it until this travesty ends:
Why is college football the only college sport that has "conference officials" who traditionally work for only one league? College baseball umps and college basketball refs aren't employed exclusively by one conference. They are in regional officiating organizations that are utilized by multiple conferences.
But college football is different in that it is the only sport where the big conferences control all the money. And when you control all the money, you want control over the officials, too. Let's face it, one flag here or there can determine who gets a $20 million bowl bid and plays for a national championship.
Sorry, but I've seen too many times in the past where major conference officials have made blatantly bad calls in favor of the league that signs their paycheck.
Remember the "Swindle in the Swamp" a few years ago when ACC officials absolutely hand-delivered Florida State a victory over the Gators?
Or what about last year's UCF-USF game when Big East refs perpetrated a series of questionable calls that helped their boys beat the Knights?
And every longtime UCF fan will tell you about the 1999 game when the Knights were driving for the winning score against Georgia, but were taken out of field-goal range when an SEC official called a phantom penalty for, um, offensive pass interference.
Former Marshall coach Bob Pruett told me bluntly a few years ago: "The big schools want their own officials to protect their teams, and most of the mid-majors have to agree to it because they need the money."
UCF Coach George O'Leary says now he shies away from scheduling road games against major conference foes unless he can bring his own Conference USA officials.
"There's a reason you want your officials with you when you go play away," O'Leary said.
Dick Pace, an Orlando resident and a retired SEC official, told me once that he actually drew up a detailed plan in which he advocated officials be assigned to NCAA regions instead of hired by conferences.
"I presented the plan to former NCAA commissioner Cedric Dempsey," Pace said. "He said he liked it but said the conference commissioners would never go for it because they wouldn't want to give up their power. The major conferences want to be in charge of their own officials."
And so now we take you to a meeting of SEC refs, where they are discussing upcoming assignments. Let's listen in, shall we:
"Two bits, four bits, six bits — proclaim!
"We need the Gators in the championship game!"