The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Looking Back at Another Time Sports Stood Still

56 days ago
Chuck Dunlap
Photo: Lance King | Getty Images

I was just coming off my internship with the SEC and adjusting to becoming a full-time staff member on September 11, 2001. I heard about the first plane on WJOX's local morning show in my car when it was deemed initially as both a small plane and an accident, then was watching when the second plane hit on the 19-inch Sanyo tube television that sat in the waiting area of the Communications wing of the SEC Office back then. In an instant the world and country forever changed. That was a Tuesday and less than 48 hours later, the sports world, like the rest of the country, had officially come to a grinding halt. No one knew for how long or when it would be safe and appropriate to gather again, but for a short time, we would go without sports for the greater good and allow our nation to heal. Now, nearly 20 years later, albeit for a much different greater good and kind of healing, the playing fields and arenas across the SEC and the nation are barren once again.

Football would return to America nine days after the terror attacks in 2001, when Mississippi State hosted South Carolina on ESPN on a Thursday night, in what was an incredibly surreal scene in Starkville. Various military and police helicopters constantly circled the perimeter of Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field all afternoon, with F-14s from nearby Columbus Air Force Base seen and heard on the horizon in the distance keeping a watchful eye on the airspace surrounding America's return to football in a post-9/11 world. Both teams stood arm and arm around a giant American flag that covered much of the field during pregame ceremonies just before kickoff. It was hard to find a dry eye in the house during what to me will always be the most powerful national anthem I've ever witnessed in person. I look forward to the day that the SEC and college athletics can help play a small role in returning life to normalcy for so many of our prideful and passionate fans.

So even though it was for a much shorter time period and for much different reasons, we have seen the country come to a halt and the sporting world shut down before. For several days nearly 20 years ago, there was panic, fear and empty shelves in grocery stores as the fear of the unknown took control. But we came back. Sports came back - just as it will again. While we all realize the significance and distinct difference of sports compared to life and death, the reality is that sports play a vital role in the everyday fabric of America. That has been the case for generations and will for generations to come.

There will be a time when the rivalries come back and are celebrated, but much like it was 19 years ago, we are all back on the same team again - unified as a whole. That is one reason that made our annual SEC Spring Meetings in Destin so special, which we announced late last week would be canceled this year due to the pandemic. It was a week of fellowship with our SEC family. It was a week of doing the much needed legislative and required work of the Conference, but it was also a week where it was clear we were a singular family, even if the other 51 weeks of the year there was fierce athletic competition among the outstanding institutions of the SEC.

For many of us, the frustration of what we have missed and continue to miss adds to the aggravation. From a SEC Football standpoint, spring training would be in full swing or wrapping up at most SEC institutions right now. All of which at some point over the last several weeks would have hosted a NFL Pro Day on their campus for their seniors and draft eligible players to showcase their talents outside of the NFL Combine. It has become customary to televise these SEC Pro Days on SEC Network, as well as televise all of the SEC Spring Football Games.

One such spring game I was really looking forward to this spring was Auburn, as the Tigers' spring game was slated for this Saturday, April 11. For the last three years, we have picked one spring game to have various members of the college football national media and on-air talent at ESPN/SEC Network serve as officials for a spring game. This year's version was to be on The Plains. The eight selected media members would come in on Friday afternoon and shadow the eight officials assigned to work the game the following day. From an officiating standpoint, everything is treated for spring games in the exact manner of games in the fall.

The crew comes together late Friday afternoon, goes to dinner then take part in meetings and film study into the evening. The next morning, they gather for breakfast then meet and participate in more film study and meetings prior to traveling to the stadium two hours before the game. Each media member is assigned one officiating crew member to shadow all weekend, such as a back judge for example. The 'real' game official would work the first and third quarters, while their media counterparts would work the second and fourth quarters. The normal game officials are still allowed to instruct and teach their media counterparts from the sideline while 'the scribes' are on the field calling the game. Once the game is over, both the regular officials and media officials go and immediately review any calls that required instant replay review, impacted a scoring play or turnover, etc., just as they do after each game in the fall. We first brought back this annual use of 'media officials' in 2017 at the suggestion of Commissioner Sankey. Our good friend, the late Edward Aschoff, was on that crew in Athens three years ago, and I've linked the recap of his experience that weekend at the end of this column.

These games have also featured something quite unique in that the SEC Coordinator of Football Officials serves as the head referee for the game. As you might have read in recent months, Steve Shaw has left this position at the SEC and taken over as National Coordinator of Football Officials. Longtime SEC referee John McDaid was hired to replace Shaw, and we were all very much looking forward to McDaid's first public opportunity in this role.(He is a Harvard graduate by the way, although I look forward getting back to the normalcy of SEC message board conversations alleging otherwise...).

In closing this week, while much of the focus has been on what we as fans are missing, I would implore you to also think about what the student-athletes you cheer for are missing out on as well. Particularly those who participated in winter and spring sports and were not afforded the opportunity to compete for and enjoy the experiences SEC and national championship events provide.

Now is the time for all of us, the entire SEC family, to follow public health guidelines and do our part to help bring an end as soon as possible to this historic moment in our nation's history. What we do now dictates when normalcy can return, and how soon it can. As many of our head football coaches have stated publicly in various ways recently, no one knows what is going to happen. But we have to do things correctly today to get the outcome we want in the future.

Edward Aschoff recap of his experience as a SEC Football Official

SEC hosts first football game in America after 9/11

Chuck Dunlap is a 20-year veteran of the SEC and currently serves as the Director of Communications for SEC Football. Follow him on Twitter at @SEC_Chuck