BIRMINGHAM, Ala. --- The Southeastern Conference is the Rolls-Royce of college football leagues, with the past three national champions, two teams in the running for this season's title and huge TV contracts.
Boom times for sure. But troubled ones, too.
The league has been dealing with seemingly endless questions stemming from a string of controversial officiating calls in close games involving highly ranked teams. That followed a preseason run-in with national media outlets over a new SEC policy.
The in-season issues forced commissioner Mike Slive to make the unusual moves of publicly announcing the suspension of an officiating crew, increasing the penalties for coaches who criticize officials and fining Florida coach Urban Meyer $30,000 for less-than-inflammatory -- though critical -- remarks after the new policy was in place.
"Has it been difficult? Yes. Has it been painful? Yes," Slive said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "But this league has been a great league for 76 years. There have been different issues at different times. I fully understand the disappointment the fans feel when something happens that impacts their team."
While No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Alabama have been vying for a national championship this season, the guys in the black and white-striped uniforms have been drawing more attention to the SEC than Slive would like.
Three coaches have been reprimanded for public complaints, and Meyer's comments cost him the equivalent of about two days' pay.
The latest controversy arose when officials ruled that LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson did not have possession of the ball inbounds on a play that might have been an interception. The instant replay official didn't find the "indisputable video evidence" needed to overturn the call.
Public relations issues started before the season, when the SEC imposed a new media policy to protect rights for its new SEC Digital Network. The league released new guidelines after a protest from four leading media organizations.
"In the final analysis, most everyone got what they were looking for, with some exceptions," Slive said.
That was a minor inconvenience compared to the officiating problems.
Slive said he, coordinator of officials Rogers Redding and others would meet after the season and assess the causes of officiating mistakes "and make sure that we have the best officiating in the country."
David Parry certainly agrees. Now the national coordinator of College Football Officiating, he is a former NFL official who supervised officials in the Big Ten.
"It goes in cycles a little bit," Parry said. "This has been a tough-luck year for the SEC. They have some of the finest officials in the world. All their games are evaluated, all their calls are cross-checked. My guess is at the end of the year they'll look at their data and say they had a pretty darn good year in spite of two or three calls."
The normally diplomatic Slive has had to wield a big stick to silence miffed coaches. When Tennessee's outspoken coach Lane Kiffin was publicly dismissive of his second reprimand, the league boss hammered out a sharply worded letter of warning four days before announcing that the league would skip reprimands and go straight to fines or suspensions.
"Since it is clear from your public comments that you believe this letter 'mean(s) nothing,' let me be equally as clear to you," Slive wrote to Kiffin in the Oct. 26 letter obtained from the University of Tennessee. "The next time you, or a member of your staff, make public comments of this nature, you will be suspended from all coaching duties for one or more games, and the institution may be subjected to a substantial fine."
Kiffin demurred when asked Wednesday if he was worried that all the negative attention was tarnishing the SEC's image.
"I don't know. I've never thought about it," he said. "We're not allowed to say anything about it. I don't have anything for you. Sorry."
BACKGROUND: The Southeastern Conference has been plagued by controversy this season over officiating calls in close games.
- On Oct. 21, an officiating crew was suspended after it called penalties the league said were not supported by video evidence in the LSU-Georgia game Oct. 3 and the Arkansas-Florida game Oct. 17. The SEC publicly announced the suspensions, an unprecedented move by the conference.
- On Oct. 22, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was reprimanded by SEC commissioner Mike Slive for making critical statements about officiating in the Oct. 17 Razorbacks' 23-20 loss at Florida.
- On Oct. 25, Tennessee's Lane Kiffin and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen each went off on the officiating in their Saturday games. Kiffin's Volunteers lost 12-10 at Alabama and Mullen's Bulldogs lost 29-19 to Florida.
- On Oct. 26, the SEC responded by reprimanding both Kiffin and Mullen for violating league ethics rules. The league made no public admonishment of the calls that Kiffin and Mullen complained about.
- On Oct. 30, after three SEC coaches in two weeks, received reprimands for ripping officials, the conference decided that future punishment for similar antics would be fines and suspensions.
- On Nov. 6, the SEC fined Florida coach Urban Meyer $30,000 for saying referees missed a late hit against Georgia on quarterback Tim Tebow, making him the first coach punished under the league's new policy of skipping public reprimands and going straight to fines or suspension.
- LSU coach Les Miles spoke with Slive and coordinator of officials Rogers Redding about a near-interception by Patrick Peterson late in the Tigers' 24-15 loss to Alabama. Officials ruled Peterson caught the ball out of bounds and replay officials did not overturn the call, though video showed the LSU defensive back might have had a foot down in bounds.
OF NOTE: The Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences also use public reprimands, fines and suspensions as penalties for coaches who are publicly critical of officiating.
- Georgia Tech at Duke, Noon (ESPN2)
- Clemson at N.C. State, Noon (Fox-Ch. 54)
- Furman at Georgia Southern, 2 p.m. (no TV)
- Florida at South Carolina, 3:30 p.m. (CBS-Ch. 12)
- Auburn at Georgia, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)