Carolina coin toss highlights dilemma for game officials

Sep. 11, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

It’s tough to piece together exactly what happened at midfield in Kenan Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

This much is sure: Carolina sent out four game captains: bandit Norkeithus Otis, tight end/linebacker Jack Tabb, safety Tre Boston and wide receiver Quinshad Davis.

Davis had met with UNC head coach Larry Fedora and received instructions on how to handle the pregame coin toss and the subsequent decision.

The quartet shook hands with referee Ron Cherry and the Middle Tennessee captains.

Cherry then began a pregame procedure which is tightly scripted by the ACC.

“It’s almost like a prepared speech,” ACC coordinator of football officiating Doug Rhoads said. “It’s the same litany you go through every time. It’s proscribed right out the NCAA mechanics manual — the language we use, the options we give.”

He turned to the Middle Tennessee players and showed them the coin.

"Visiting captain, this is the head, and this is the tail,” Cherry said.

As Cherry instructed, Middle Tennessee called it in the air: tails. The coin landed, showing a quarterback’s-eye view of the center before the snap, the side of the ACC’s official flipping coin denoted as tails — a little coin toss humor by the league.

“Captain,” Cherry said, still following the script. “You have won the toss. What do you want to do? Kick, receive or defer?”

As the winners of the toss usually do, Middle Tennessee chose to defer, meaning they would make their choice, and receive the ball, to start the second half. That meant UNC got to choose.

Then things get a little fuzzy.

“It happened fast,” Tabb said. “Quinshad said something. There was a miscommunication.”

The general consensus is that Davis said, “We want to kick it that way,” indicating the west end zone.

There’s no question it was a mistake. Fedora gave Davis several contingencies, depending on whether the Heels won or lost the toss, including which end zone to defend in the event Middle Tennessee had chosen to receive the ball. Technically, Carolina had lost the toss, and it’s likely that a confused Davis chose the end zone option instead of the “if they defer” option.

That’s when Cherry broke away from the script, just as he’s been trained to do.

“Are you sure?” Cherry asked.

Davis repeated himself.

For a third time, Cherry tried to save Davis from himself. He looked to all four Carolina captains. “Be sure now,” he said. “They deferred.”

Some combination of captains agreed with Davis’ plan. Tabb claimed that Boston was the one who spoke up, saying, “kick it anyways.”

Boston denied being the one to make the decision, but he offered, “I was trying to help Quinshad with what to do. He was just fumbling with his words. The referee was confusing all of us.”

Still, the captains weren’t able to correct the decision, because, as Boston pointed out, “Quinshad was the one that got the instructions from Coach.”

The incident highlights a moral dilemma for a football official. It’s important to make sure a player understands the implications of his decision, but how much leading is too much?

Players make mistakes on the field all the time. When does asking a player if he’s sure become the equivalent of picking up a fumble and handing it back to a ballcarrier?

Rhoads wouldn’t comment on the specific situation in Chapel Hill on Saturday, but he wants his officials to make sure the players are making informed decisions.

“You want that,” Rhoads said. “You want them to get it right, and the way their coach wants it done.”

While kickoff snafus are relatively rare, Rhoads said that players need a little leeway from officials about once a game. Choosing when to accept a penalty, or, in the case of multiple flags, which penalty to accept, is the most common area of confusion for players.

“You want them to have the best information,” Rhoads said. “If there’s a penalty on a turnover, you want to make sure they understand, ‘If you want to keep the ball, you’ll need to decline that penalty.’

“I always tell officials, our mantra about these things is ‘Go slow. There is no rush. Make sure you explain it,’” Rhoads added.

That attitude even extends to ignoring penalties on occasion. Receivers and tight ends have a long list of technical rules about who can line up on the line, and who needs to take a step back.

“The first time, just tell the player, ‘You’re lining up offsides,’” Rhoads said. “The second time, you tell the coach, ‘Your number 62 is lining up in the neutral zone, or your wide man is on the line.’ All subsequent times, you penalize them. You don’t want to make calls on slight variations of technical formation things.”

Still, sometimes, despite the officials’ best efforts, it’s impossible to prevent a player from messing up. “We’re not going to make the decision for him,” Rhoads said.

And so North Carolina ended up kicking off to start both halves of Saturday’s game.

“It was a miscommunication,” Fedora said. “That’s a big thing. It won’t happen again.”

If it does, Fedora can rest assured that the ACC officials will do their best to provide a safety net.