ACC football coaches may not be plowing new ground, but late last month a pair veered into a deep ditch rarely visited in league history. The divergence made a minor ripple alongside a rant against an NFL game official courtesy of Josh Norman, that old Carolina Panthers favorite, and a more measured, respectful protest by his former teammate, Cam Newton.
Issues of sportsmanship were lost anyway in the larger landscape of an acrimonious presidential campaign, mercifully about to end after a seeming eternity. Whining from some coach or athlete following a mid-season football game hardly stood out amidst a coarsened public discourse that plumbed new depths of vulgarity and disrespect, mostly launched from one side of the political spectrum.
Given that broader picture, how sorry could you feel for a pampered football field marshal like Jimbo Fisher, the 51-year-old Florida State coach who lamented an official’s ruling when a potential victory over third-ranked Clemson slipped away at Tallahassee?
No reasonable person expects perfection from part-time game officials who also labor as law enforcement officers, bankers, architects and the like. But not everyone is entirely reasonable when watching their team in action, especially coaches contending with inconsistent adolescents who supposedly don’t do what they’re told.
Fisher fixated on a flag thrown for an illegal block below the waist. The rule at issue was enacted as a safety measure several years ago for hits outside the tackle box. The whistle negated an FSU touchdown in a tight game, leading Fisher to blow up on the sideline and to later mischaracterize the call, in the process ignoring both the league’s sportsmanship policy and its protocol for second-guessing refs.
“It was ridiculous,” he said of the penalty. “I will tell you what: You hold coaches accountable, you hold players accountable, hold the damn officials accountable. It is garbage, and then to call another penalty on the sideline is even more garbage. It’s cowardly, gutless and wrong. They can take it, fine it, do whatever they want to do with that.”
Challenge accepted. The ACC levied a $20,000 fine, one of its largest ever, in response to Fisher’s tirade. Unfortunately the coach doesn’t pay the penalty, Florida State does.
By the way, officials are held accountable, although only rarely in public.
It’s understandable a big-timer like John J. Fisher Jr. was upset by a crucial penalty given the range of “performance incentive compensation” he has on the line.
FSU began the year ranked fourth in The Associated Press poll. A top-five finish nets Fisher a $200,000 bonus, one of 14 separate rewards he can earn – not counting an annual $100,000 “contract year completion benefit.” Florida State entered the Clemson game ranked 12th. A win would have vaulted FSU’s squad into the top 10, good for a $100,000 Fisher bonus if the squad stayed there until season’s end. (Revealingly, the smallest bonuses in Fisher’s contract are for team academic achievements.)
These bonuses, big money to most of us, may seem like loose change to Fisher compared to his $5.25 million annual salary, placing him among the 10 highest-paid FBS coaches. Having a first name/nickname ending in “O” seems a lucrative accoutrement for ACC coaches – Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney makes $4.42 million and Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall $3.28 million, with more for each in potential bonuses. (Syracuse doesn’t reveal the salary of Dino Babers, its new coach.)
In all, 85 of 128 FBS coaches earn $1 million or more. According to USA Today, at least 36 make at least $3 million annually, including Louisville’s Bobby Petrino ($3.88 million plus bonuses) and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente ($3.2 million and bonuses).
Around here, besides bonuses Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield gets $525,000, Charlotte’s Brad Lambert earns $600,000, Duke’s David Cutcliffe comes in at $2.3 million, Scottie Montgomery of ECU gets $1 million, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora is paid a shade under $2 million, Dave Doeren of N.C. State commands $2.2 million, and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson garners $2.1 million.
Meanwhile, nine of 14 SEC coaches (64 percent) make more than $4 million, compensation equaled in the ACC only by Fisher and Sweeney.
To their credit, ACC leaders quickly demonstrated even highly paid personnel aren’t free to shower game officials with verbal abuse. The same can’t be said of the NFL, which offered resounding silence after the Redskins’ Norman lengthily excoriated a specific side judge, saying the man “sucked” and the officiating in general was “terrible.”
This after the cornerback drew five penalties in a tied game with Cincinnati, giving him an NFL-worst 13 on the year, three of them declined. The hint there might be a few undesirable edges to his own game didn’t stop Norman from venting, echoing FSU’s Fisher in calling for the official “to be watched and reprimanded.”
The day Norman let loose, the ACC announced reprimands for Fisher and Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, who incurred a $5,000 fine. The second-year Pitt coach ripped officials in more traditional fashion following a 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech, essentially ending the Panthers’ chances of winning the Coastal Division title. Narduzzi pronounced himself “irked” and “puzzled,” vocabulary insufficiently subtle to mask his message.
There’s nothing new about ACC football coaches getting publicly fined, suspended and reprimanded. It just doesn’t happen often, or perhaps often enough.
Maryland’s Bobby Ross and Clemson’s Danny Ford both were banished from the sidelines for a matchup between their respective schools in 1986. Ross had grabbed an official’s shoulder following a loss and Ford charged onto the field to profanely berate officials. Steve Spurrier was suspended and banished from Wallace Wade Stadium for the 1988 finale against North Carolina after decrying a holding penalty the previous week as “the worst call in the history of Duke football.” Spurrier still secretly coached the Blue Devils, sending plays to assistant Carl Franks via the school’s golf club director.
Football coaches aren’t the only transgressors, or officials’ performances the only sore point. Florida State women’s soccer coach Mark Krikorian ran afoul of ACC sportsmanship and integrity standards by punking the 2010 conference tournament. Krikorian left his starters home so they could rest for NCAA competition, earning a suspension and reprimand from “highly disappointed” ACC commissioner John Swofford. FSU also incurred $40,000 in penalties and a reprimand for its athletic director.
The conference’s most notorious, punishable moment occurred at the 1995 ACC basketball tournament, when a pair of coaches nearly came to blows at midcourt in the Greensboro Coliseum.
Clemson’s Rick Barnes entered the league anxious to prove his program would not back down from anyone. That meant visibly defying the ACC’s powers. So when North Carolina coach Dean Smith took exception to physical play by Tigers forward Iker Iturbe, and came onto the court pointing and shouting “Iturbe! Iturbe!,” Barnes went ballistic.
Arms raised as if to exchange blows, the 64-year-old Smith and Barnes, 23 years his junior, animatedly confronted each other at the scorer’s table. Nearly two decades later, a more mellow Barnes privately expressed regret over the incident.
Then-commissioner Gene Corrigan later summoned the coaches to his home for a dressing-down. Each man was fined $2,500, a first for ACC basketball coaches. Smith archly thumbed his nose at the league when told to give the money to a local charity. He announced his fine would go a favorite cause – “to fight beer advertising on televised ACC basketball games.”