Photo by Phil Mosier

It’s been quite some time since Bobby Gaston refereed Southeastern Conference football games, but he’s still making judgment calls.

At 98, the longtime former head linesman (1955-1981) for conference games and overall officiating coordinator for SEC football (1988-2007) still cheers from the stands for his beloved Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, devours TV football and plays golf every chance he gets. 

He retired from an officiating career that saw him judging a quarter century of regular-season contests, 19 bowl games and five national championships. As officials’ chief, he ushered several key innovations in refereeing into SEC conference play.

And he’s noticeably proud to have been a part of the striped-shirt brigade.

“It’s like a brotherhood, a family,” said Gaston. “It’s a very tight-knit group and they teach each other.”

But that by no means equates to perfection.

During a recent chat at the Settindown Creek at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Gaston’s tone was genial, but his message was straightforward and occasionally critical as he weighed in on the state of the college football game and the quality of officiating.

On the plus side, he notes the evolution from a running-based, grind-it-out style of offense to much more passing. “Offense-wise, the game is a little faster and a little better,” Gaston said. “Consequently you’ll see a better brand of football, and not the pounding, pounding, pounding like you used to.”

But he decries the player showboating that has become more common in recent years He’d far rather see players demonstrating respect for their coaches, team-mates and schools than high-stepping into the endzone.

And the recent NCAA rule change that allows players to do endorsement deals gets very short shrift from Gaston. “I think we’re headed the wrong way,” he said. “I wish it would be college football instead of professional college football. Kids don’t know how to handle money at that age.”

Officiating crews that have doubled in size, instant replay, sideline clocks, on-field antics, hail-Mary passes, even plastic helmets; none of that was on the radar when Gaston played for the Yellow Jackets his freshman and sophomore years before heading off to serve in World War II.

He absorbed fundamental life lessons from coach Bobby Dodd-yes, that one, who the stadium is named for-that still resonate: Be a gentleman on the field at all times. Step up to the plate when a task needs doing. If you make a commitment, stick to it.

Gaston learned that last principle the hard way.

Tech’s football program had sprung for tutoring for players. Gaston felt he was doing well enough in one class that he could skip out. Dodd called the youthful player on the carpet, sternly reminding him that the school had paid a fair penny for the sessions and that he would attend, no questions asked.

“Coach Dodd was right on the money,” said Gaston. 

Back from the war, Gaston earned a degree in industrial management and then took ownership of two Texaco stations in Buckhead, later switching to the insurance business.

“Part of my customers were guys I had played with earlier. They had started out as high school officials and encouraged me to come and do the same thing,” he said.

After a few seasons with the Georgia Football Officials Association, he migrated to the SEC, making good use of a discerning eye and the ability to analyze and make sound calls quickly.

Some calls inevitably generated controversy.

1982 Cotton Bowl Officials Head Linesman Bobby Gaston (second in on right) John O’Neill (first on right) O’Neill became Assistant Athletic Director at Georgia Tech. Photo by Phil Mosier

Gaston was part of the crew for the Georgia-Florida game of Nov. 8, 1980, marked by quarterback Buck Belue’s iconic toss to Lindsay Scott, who ran 93 yards for a TD in the Dogs 26-21 victory.

Gaston threw a flag on the play and Georgia coach Vince Dooley came over, wondering what the penalty was for.

“I said ‘your whole team is in the end zone and they’re supposed to be on the sidelines. Consequently, we’ve got to stick you with a penalty.’ “

Dooley wanted specifics. Gaston told him they’d be penalized 15 yards on the next kickoff. The legendary Georgia coach’s response: “Don’t you think that’s a little severe?”

“Even today, if he [Dooley] walked into the room, he’d see me and say, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little severe?’” Gaston chuckled.

Another yarn centers on legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. During a regular-season game with Mississippi State, the teams were tied with just a couple of minutes left and Bryant decided to go for a field goal to win.  It was Gaston’s role-among other duties, such as supervising the chain crew-to watch the kicker and holder.

“[MSU players] hit the kicker and he was down and the first thing you know here comes the Alabama trainer and Coach Bryant coming back to the kicker, who’s on the ground stretched out.

“When [Bryant] passed me, he asked ‘No flag [for roughing the kicker], Bobby?’ and I said, ‘Turn him over. There’s one underneath him.’”

“It was the only time I ever saw Coach Bryant laugh,” Gaston adds.

Alabama got a do-over and went on to win.

Gaston’s official-coordinating gig extended far beyond pressing for accurate calls, keeping games moving and working to minimize player injuries. Gaston toughened fitness requirements for officiating crews. He brought instant-replay into the Southeast Conference. Also on his watch, the SEC compiled films that went out to game-callers after a college football weekend.

“It’s how we got our message out as to what needed to be improved,” he said. “It worked out very well. I feel like our officiating was above standard and we worked hard at being as good as we could be.”

Unfortunately, Gaston thinks the overall quality of officiating “has gone down a little bit.”  He says some officials want to be “seen” too much and that others are overzealous.

His preference is for game-calling crews to be richly stocked with former players, particularly from the college ranks, because it’s “a lot easier for them to understand what we want done on the field.” 

Gaston wants to see the plays where the defense stops offensive forward progress blown dead sooner, without the pileups that sometimes lead to player injuries. He also thinks instituting a penalty for shoving would improve the game.

Not a week goes by, he says, where he doesn’t get a chance to chew on such topics with another retired striped shirt. Sometimes a weekend of games is followed by a round-robin of calls and analysis on Monday.

Hitting the links, heading down to Bobby Dodd Stadium, watching and analyzing games, talking to old compadres, the inductee into the College Football and Georgia Sports Hall of Fame keeps a pace that would be challenging for a man half his age.

And it doesn’t look like a slowdown is in the offing, at least this season.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.