NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Minutes before the ceremonial coin toss at the Music City Bowl, a man with a microphone sidled up to the official wearing the zebra shirt and the white hat. Hey ref, he asked. How do you pronounce your name?
Reason? It was listed two different ways on two different sheets in the press box – “Coyle” one one, “Coyte” on the other -- one of them, obviously, a typo.
The zebra seemed to clench his jaw. Obviously, he had no time for such frivolous conversation. There was a game to play. And it was written all over his tanned face.
“It’s ‘Coyte,’ ” came the terse reply.
Odd, thought Mr. Microphone, who had asked other officials the same question, in the interest of broadcast accuracy. Every one of them prior had answered either matter-of-factly or warmly, as if to indicate they appreciated the effort. Not this guy.
Little did either one of one of them, zebra or microphone man, know what lay ahead.
Within about an hour, college football fans across the country knew the referee’s name, or at least his face – which instantly became the Face That Launched a Thousand Quips on Twitter.
He might have been wearing a white hat but in the eyes of the Big Blue Nation, he made a villainous move when he ejected Benny Snell from the game, in what might have been the most bizarre sequence of events in college football this season.
Snell had been stopped by the Northwestern defense in front of the Kentucky bench – stood up, and stopped cold. And then, as the whistle was blowing, the UK tailback was bulldozed another three or four yards back by another opposing defender. No flag.
Snell was angry and as he moved to rise, White Hat leaned in and, according to TV video, appeared to attempt to help him up. Snell eschewed his aid. “My passion for this game is out the roof, I don’t need help getting up. I can do that on my own,” the player later tweeted.
White Hat apparently was offended. The flag flew but not because Snell had been nailed after the whistle. “The player got up and grabbed my arms and pushed them away and contacted me,” Coyte said, according to pool reporter Adam Sparks. “That’s a foul.” Coyte told Sparks that said Snell didn’t say anything that led to the ejection. When asked if the contact was incidental, Coyte said, “It was not.”
No? Snell initiated the contact? Shoved him on purpose? Television replays showed otherwise, touching off an avalanche of social media posts that would render a so-called “secondary” bowl the top attention-grabber in all of college sports that afternoon.
One of the most piercing comments via Twitter came from former ESPN anchor Keith Olberman, who doubles as a political pundit and has never been afraid to avoid the mincing of words:
“Referee should be banned. Lying, slandering player. And a moron who doesn’t realize there’s video.”
Strong. Probably too strong. But they contain a thread of truth. Putting the responsibility for the exchange on the player, after it was the official who initiated the action, is weak and strains credulity.
If you follow the typing on this site or the associated ramblings on radio, you’ll know your humble correspondent is sympathetic to officials, having taken a turn at the craft some years ago. And one of the more difficult skills to master can be doing the job without emotion. That, and keeping in mind the fact that nobody is there to see you work.
At that, the Man in the White Hat failed. He failed to understand that a player was upset at being drilled after contact; he failed to recognize, in the absence of the appropriate penalty called against the defender, the need for calm; and he failed to apply proper discretion to the situation.
His heinous decision still loomed large later in the game when the purple Wildcats lost their best defender – linebacker Paddy Fisher, called for targeting in what was simply a classic, textbook tackle. Even Kentucky fans in Nissan Stadium seemed surprised after the video review that led to still another bad decision and another marquee player sent to the locker room.
It was a star-crossed game, thanks to poor officiating and sad, terrible misfortune that saw Northwestern’s classy quarterback, Clayton Thorson, go down early with a serious knee injury. But it actually turned into a great game in the second half, with Kentucky falling behind and then clawing back to within a single point in the closing seconds.
Could Benny Snell have made the difference? Surely, he’s worth at least one point. Thousands of fans, who spent even more thousands to come to Nashville to watch players play, will never know.