Joe Cox is coaching quarterbacks these days at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C., instead of playing the position.
Four years ago, Cox threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to A.J. Green against No. 4 LSU in Sanford Stadium. What would have been the signature win in Cox‚Äôs Georgia career became a 20-13 loss after an excessive celebration penalty against Green helped set up a late score by the Tigers.
‚ÄúI think it could have changed the game, but who knows?‚Äù Cox said of a call the Southeastern Conference determined two days later was incorrect. ‚ÄúIt definitely wasn‚Äôt good for it to happen the way it did and then have all the what ifs for the rest of my life. ‚Ä¶ To have the air pop out of it the way that it did, it just completely deflated us.‚Äù
As sixth-ranked LSU comes to Athens for the first time since that 2009 game to play No. 9 Georgia, unsportsmanlike calls like the ones made on Alabama tailback T.J. Yeldon and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel remain high-profile, but officials may be allowing more leeway than they did the last time the teams played in Sanford Stadium.
Officials nationwide a couple of years ago talked about being consistent in calling such fouls, according to SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw.
‚ÄúWe really evolved to a pretty good place on unsportsmanlike conduct,‚Äù Shaw said. ‚ÄúWe recognize it‚Äôs a game of high emotions and played by student-athletes that are young men and women. They‚Äôre going to be excited, they‚Äôre going to be elated when they do things. You have to take that in.‚Äù
Kansas State receiver Adrian Hilburn also was called for excessive celebration for a salute to the fans after scoring a late touchdown in a 36-34 bowl loss to Syracuse in 2010.
Officials were instructed to not be overly technical in applying the rules, Shaw said.
‚ÄúAllow brief, and the key word is spontaneous, bursts of energy but any act that‚Äôs prolonged, self-congratulatory, makes a mockery of the game, those are the types of things we don‚Äôt want,‚Äù Shaw said. ‚ÄúThen on top of that, anything that is taunting to an opponent, we really have a zero tolerance.‚Äù
Shaw said based on those guidelines, the Green penalty now ‚Äúwould be more of a talk-to then an unsportsmanlike foul. Make no mistake. Our guys are trying to communicate with these players. Our preference would be we could stop it before it goes over that line.‚Äù
After a 16-yard touchdown pass from Cox with 1:09 to play put Georgia ahead 13-12, Green was flagged for making a gesture to the crowd that the officiating crew said called attention to himself, violating rule 9-2-1-d. Green said at the time: ‚ÄúAll I did was just shake my head and throw my hands up and everybody just came around me.‚Äù
The penalty pushed the ensuing kickoff to the 15-yard line. LSU got a 40-yard return and two plays later, Charles Scott scored on a 33-yard touchdown run.
‚ÄúThey certainly were running out of clock and would have had a lot farther to go to get into field goal range,‚Äù Georgia coach Mark Richt said then. ‚ÄúIt was a shame, it was a shame.‚Äù
The SEC later determined video did not ‚Äúsupport the call.‚Äù Rogers Redding, the SEC coordinator of officials then, at the time called it ‚Äúa teachable moment for us to let officials know to remind them of the rule and remind them of their responsibility to make good judgments.‚Äù
The game also included an excessive celebration penalty on Scott after his touchdown run and on Georgia tight end Orson Charles after a catch when he waved a hand to the crowd and pumped his arm in the air.
A big change on unsportsmanlike calls came in 2011. Calls that happen in the field of play are penalized like any other live-ball foul.
LSU punter Brad Wing had a 52-yard touchdown off a fake punt brought back for excessive celebration for holding the ball out towards a defender.
‚ÄúAfter that, I think players recognized they didn‚Äôt want to give their touchdown up, so they just cleaned it up,‚Äù Shaw said.
Football players are less demonstrative since the live-ball penalty change, according to Redding, now the national coordinator of officials. There were three such calls in Division I football in 2011, ‚Äúshowing the new rules do have an impact on player behavior,‚Äù Redding said via email. ‚ÄúA positive spin-off is that we have seen fewer unsportsmanlike conduct falls of all kinds since that rule took effect.‚Äù
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo goes over the rules with his players each year.
‚ÄúThe bottom line is you‚Äôve got to celebrate with your teammates,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúYou see things on TV, you wonder why that guy didn‚Äôt get a flag or a guy makes a sack and does something that an offensive guy will do on a touchdown and doesn‚Äôt get flagged, but at the end of the day, it‚Äôs a team game, it‚Äôs not an individual game.‚Äù
Alabama‚Äôs Yeldon made a throat slash gesture after a ‚Äúmoney‚Äù signal following a touchdown against Texas A&M. Texas A&M‚Äôs Manziel was called for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice after he turned back to make a gesture after jawing with defenders after a touchdown pass.
Shaw said SEC officials are now letting some things go that they wouldn‚Äôt have four years ago. Like a player giving a quick first down signal after a catch.
‚ÄúI think now we‚Äôre in a good spot,‚Äù Shaw said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not looking for some ticky-tack thing. When we call it, it may be gray in somebody‚Äôs mind, but it‚Äôs typically over the line beyond a brief spontaneous reaction or burst of energy.‚Äù