Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Doing Time in the Black and Gold Slammer

When I was in college down in Texas, I worked for about four months for a dishonest small businessman named Mike. Mike hired me to manage the finances for his landscaping company, which were routinely in terrible shape. Though he couldn’t balance a checkbook to save his life, Mike dreamed about training other people how to start and run their own businesses, even taking a cut from his brothers’ landscaping companies in exchange for “mentoring” them. To my knowledge, the only things he taught them how to do were to listen to death metal and evade income taxes.

Since Mike was “living the dream”, he wanted everyone to be able to do the same. He routinely hired some of Austin’s finest to help him cut grass, including stoners, deadbeats, and ex-cons. One old boy, whom I’ll call Raul because I don’t remember his name, was fresh out of the penitentiary. Raul thought that I was impressed with his stories of crime and punishment, so he kept on telling them to me. An imposing figure, Raul claimed that he had never lost a fight in prison, and that he took up for the little guy a time or two, even coming to the rescue of one poor sap who showered with the wrong crew, so to speak.

Eventually, Raul got around to telling me about the unluckiest of offenders, those who were assaulted so often that their will to fight and survive was broken. These inmates took to wearing their boxers backward to make things easier. While I shed no tears for what happens to criminals in prison, Raul’s account provides the perfect metaphor for something near and dear to my heart.

Vandy football.

If you saw the abortion that took place in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game at Florida, then you know what I’m about to say. For everyone else, I will recap.

Down 35-21 with four minutes remaining in one of college football’s most hostile environments, the good guys marched the ball down the field and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to seven. As Vandy’s kickoff unit stood on the field ready to try the onside kick, Florida was in disarray and had only SEVEN men on the field. One referee stood in front of the ball, preventing Bryant Hahnfeldt from kicking off. Another was on Florida’s sideline, politely informing Urban Meyer that he needed a few more bodies out there. Meyer called a timeout, thankful for the game management assistance he got from the SEC’s finest.

Vandy not only recovered the onside kick, but drove the length of the field AGAIN. With 54 seconds remaining in the game, QB Jay Cutler found WR Earl Bennett in the end zone for the touchdown, prompting screams of jubilation in my household heard all the way from Birmingham to Detroit. Now down 35-34, I pleaded with coach Bobby Johnson to go for two and end it right there, since our defense did not have the gas in the tank to slug it out in overtime. Leave it all out there, like Baylor coach Guy Morriss did last year by going for two against Texas A&M and winning outright. He must have heard me, because he motioned for a timeout to think it over.

The decision wasn’t his to make.

The referee in the end zone, Rick Loumiet, called a fifteen-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Earl Bennett for excessive celebration. WHAT!?! A Vanderbilt player guilty of rubbing it in the opponent’s face, or calling attention to himself? The same Vandy players who face stiff sanctions from the coaching staff if they cuss on the practice field? The same players who draw the fewest penalties in the SEC, and nearly the fewest in the country? You’ve got to be kidding, right?

He wasn’t. Even though replays showed nothing that deserved a penalty, it was called anyway and enforced on the PAT. Johnson didn’t have the chance to go for two. We were lucky to have made the 35-yard extra point to send it into overtime. Florida failed to score in regulation and the captains for the two teams assembled at midfield for the overtime coin toss.

Jay Cutler wouldn’t look the ref in the face. I would have spit in it.

It was over right then and there.

I could fill a highlight reel with all the bad calls and no-calls that Vandy football has endured over just the years that I have followed this team. Like the Ole Miss game in Oxford in 2004, where Cutler had his helmet turned around by a Rebel defender using his face mask as a tackling handle, as a referee three feet away did nothing. Or the time two years ago where our punt return man shielded his eyes from the sun and was penalized by the ref for running with the ball after making the catch, because he believed that a fair catch was signaled. Don’t forget the dozens of late hits that Cutler has absorbed over the past four years that have gone uncalled. It’s amazing he can still walk.

You know, I thought I had seen it all when the referees allowed a Georgia touchdown pass earlier this season that clearly his the turf before the receiver trapped it. The announce team from ESPN2, Mike Gottfried and Sean McDonough, were watching the definitive replay in their booth while the SEC officials hurriedly awarded six points to the Bulldogs. SEC Supervisor of Officials Bobby Gaston apologized the following week for having blown the call, like it mattered at that point.

Now this. We ought to just wear our boxers backward and save them the trouble.

Jay Cutler demonstrated again why he’s the best quarterback in the SEC, and cemented his status as the second best quarterback in this upcoming draft behind USC passer Matt Leinart. On the road, in one of college football’s most hostile and unforgiving venues, the man looked up at a fourteen-point deficit with four minutes left to play and did not quit. Once again, he took an entire university on his back and marched down the field to score. Twice.

It wasn’t good enough.

It’s hard enough to beat eleven men. It’s impossible to beat eleven men, a crew of officials, and the guys upstairs in the replay booth. I like Vandy’s chances in a fair fight against anybody, honestly. We won’t win them all, but we won’t fold either.

Good luck getting a fair fight against an SEC powerhouse.

This kind of crap is drawing national attention to the SEC’s embarrassing quality of officiating. Analysts from ESPN.com and SI.com have already lambasted the excessive celebration penalty called on Earl Bennett. Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser from ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” devoted an entire segment of their show to it, which is unheard of for a squad like Vandy. Vandy fans aren’t the only ones tired of the little guy taking it up the ass in the SEC when they’ve earned the right to compete fairly.

Some folks will counter that had we not turned the ball over three times in regulation against Florida, that it wouldn’t matter. They are missing the point here. Those were things that WE did on the field, not the refs. Let’s not forget that top-15 program Florida was at home in front of 90,000 fans and had a 4-4 Vandy team put up 35 points on them in regulation, which is more than LSU, Georgia, Alabama, or Tennessee did. Little old Vandy, who wasn’t aware that they were supposed to bend over and pick up Florida’s soap.

You know whom I feel the worst for? Jay Cutler, who became Vanderbilt’s all-time passing leader this week and owns every other Vandy record known to man. Four years of getting the shit kicked out of him, and only ten wins to show for it. He had his chance to leave last year and go to the NFL. Shoot, his dad begged him to. There, he’d be protected by professional linemen and receive the best coaching and training possible.

Jay chose Vanderbilt. Twice.

Saturday’s game against Florida should have been the highlight of a brilliant career. For four quarters, he outplayed everyone wearing blue and orange. It won’t make up for the four years he has spent taking it prison-style from those wearing black and white.


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7:40 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

This is why I stuck to on campus jobs in college. The co-eds were more fun to look at than Raul.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous VanderbiltJoe said...

Just when I thought that you had abandoned your blog, you hit us with this gem. Great post! Keep it coming.

Conquer & Prevail

2:17 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I know this is old news by now, but I just found this post and thought it was great. By the way, the Georgia gift TD you mention? Guess who reffed that game? Good Ol' Rick.

2:36 PM  

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