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Steve Shaw: For the Love of the Game

November 8, 2011
By John Battle of Sports and Family Magazine

Steve Shaw: "For the Love of the Game"

The 1976-77’ Alabama state basketball tournament had come down to its own version of the sweet sixteen, and Berry High School, of Birmingham, Al., had swept its way into the finals on the grit of Nat Bryan, Larry Wilson, John Powers, Eric McGee, Dante Graham, Rusty Newman, Pat Bell, Bruce Swindal, Bart Kraut, Jimmy Dikis, and - Steve Shaw – a group of football players who just happened to play basketball. The game underway would determine who would continue to play for the championship. 

With just two minutes and thirty seconds left in the first half, Berry held its opponent at bay as the advantage could not be had by either team as they were equally matched.

As the opponent scored to take the momentary lead, the five Berry players hustled down the court as the forward passed the ball to Shaw. With his defender blanketing him, hands and feet seemingly moving in rhythm all at once, trying to disrupt the engaged Shaw as he dribbled the basketball from side to side, then slightly forward to test the weak spots, Shaw made a slight move to his right.  His opponent went with the fake, and just for a split second Shaw’s left flank was open. With one motion, Shaw did a behind- the- back bounce pass to a charging Larry Wilson who in full stride scored with a lay-up.

So it was for the Berry basketball team.  What seemed to those in the stands as a simple pass was in fact what made this team so special – to be in such union that each member instinctively knew the movements of the other.  Called the sixth sense - it’s true in the military, in business, and it was certainly true for Wilson and Shaw – what appears simplistic is the result from the investment of hours of laborious practice, producing an instinct that defies explanation. And it paid off as each was in their proper place at the proper time to achieve a common goal.

Those traits define Steve Shaw.

This past January, 2011, Commissioner Mike Slive announced that SEC Referee Steve Shaw was named SEC Coordinator of Football Officials, replacing Rogers Redding, who has served in that position since 2006. Redding has been tapped for the position of college football’s national coordinator by the board of managers for the College Football Officiating, LLC.

Shaw is a veteran of SEC football officiating with more than 15 years of service and his appointment had the unanimous support of the conference’s athletic directors.

Commissioner Slive says of Shaw, “Steve is considered one of the finest officials in the nation.  We are pleased to have someone of Steve’s extensive experience and knowledge to coordinate the conference’s football officiating.”

His officiating career began after his graduation from the University of Alabama, in the pee-wee leagues. He then worked his way to officiating high school games for 14 years, and then landed in the Gulf South Conference for an additional six years.

Upon graduation from Alabama, Shaw went to work for AT&T (formerly Bell South) and has spent over 30 years serving in several positions to include Marketing and Sales.

Additionally, Shaw just completed a six-year term of the Board of Directors for the St. Vincent’s Hospital Foundation and serves as Vice-Chairman of the Region’s Tradition – a PGA Champions event that has donated more than $10 million to local charities. For his fundraising efforts, Shaw has been recognized with citations from the Alabama chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the United Way of Central Alabama.

As a board member of the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), Shaw uses his high school basketball experience to teach perseverance to high school students. His message is simple: to stay at something and work at it to succeed.

“When we were the eighth and ninth grade, we got pummeled by everybody,” he relates.  Their ninth grade team maybe won four or five games. “But we all stuck together,” he continues. “And in our junior year we set a record for most wins ever for the school.” In their senior year, “Though probably a weaker team,” he relates, “we broke that record.”

He credits their success to Coaches Larry Harbin and Gerald Gann, “Who were incredible coaches but more so, they were people coaches,” Shaw explains.

After college, Shaw had set his sights on becoming a coach himself.

His football coach, Bob Finely, sat him down between his junior and senior year one day as they were working out one summer night, and gave him some advice.

“When you go to college,” Coach Finley began, “you need to get a degree in math or science as opposed to physical education.  If you have a P.E. degree, and that’s all you can teach, then we are full here [at Berry] with P.E. teachers.  But if you can teach math or science, you can go anywhere you want.  And, on the outside chance you decide not to coach, you have something to fall back on.”

Shaw has a math degree from Alabama, and if anyone asks why his answer is, “Because Coach said so.”

In his senior year he begrudgingly went to career day; though not especially interested in it as he had his mind made up to coach.  But he received a job offer in Birmingham with Bell South (now AT&T). His now modified plan was to work a couple of years with Bell South, save some money, and then move into coaching.

It didn’t happen.

While in Birmingham, he was invited to work with the Birmingham Football Officials Association (BFOA), by Tim Sanders, a local high school coach.  Shaw says he wanted to stay connected to football while figuring out his coaching career.

That first year he worked pee-wee and junior varsity football and it was love at the first whistle – he soon forgot about coaching.

Another lesson Shaw teaches young kids – to always do your best because you never know who is watching you. Shaw’s lesson occurred during one such pee-wee game as the three officials were working the game - Shaw was the Referee simply because he had done it once.

“So we’re energetic, really into the game, and then the first half ends, “ he relates.  “We [the three officials] are sitting on the bench of one of the teams and I notice this guy coming towards us out of the stands.  I immediately recognize him as Dick Burleson.”*

Burleson had a nephew playing on one of the teams, and after a minute of small talk he pulled Shaw to the side.

“Hey, I’ve been watching you, I like the way you work.  You hustle, you’re into it, you’ve got good mechanics…,” Burleson compliments.

Dick Burleson would become Shaw’s mentor in officiating. 

“It’s a reminder to me,” explains Shaw, “that no matter what you’re doing, give it your best. Good things will happen as a result.” 

Burleson was instrumental in not only to Shaw’s move into the Gulf South then the SEC, but also served Shaw as a field coach in giving instructions.

Very soon, good things would happen for Steve Shaw.

As a first year varsity high school official, one rarely gets on the field.  They may have the task of running the clock or just observing – but never actually officiating.

Sometimes though, the never does occur.

The first week of Shaw’s first season as a high school official, someone doing the math was not a math major - they came up short one official - and somebody was going to have to be pulled from the first year officials to cover.  The rookies were taken to a scrimmage game at Vestavia High School and rotated to see who would be chosen – it was Shaw.

The Referee in that game was Tim Abel, who later became a Referee in the SEC, and who would be a principal in Shaw’s career.

Shaw relates that making the jump from high school to college was the hardest process. Not only in the application and evaluation process, but there are literally hundreds of applicants for maybe one or two positions. Though once in a college conference, it is easier to be evaluated if the desire is there to move into other conferences.

A few months before his first year in the Gulf South, two Referees, Tim Abel (one in the same from the Vestavia High School scrimmage game) and Robert Rougeau, were selected to work in the SEC.  With two Referee positions now open, Shaw was awarded one of the spots.

Wanting to referee both high school and in the Gulf South Conference, Shaw’s supervisor, Billy Abel (no relation to Tim) said to him, “You can still work high school games if you want, but you cannot referee the high school games.”   Responding to Shaw’s questioning of why not, he explained, “The first time you do a Friday night enforcement on Saturday – you’re gone:  You will lose all your credibility.”

He officiated six years in the Gulf South and spent two of those as a supplemental official for the SEC, working scrimmages and spring games.  If he had an off weekend with the Gulf South, he would then work as an alternate official with the SEC.

The year Shaw moved to the SEC, Bobby Gaston, Shaw’s SEC supervisor, wanted to bring him on board as a back judge or side judge to get him experience in the conference.    That concerned Shaw for he had built his career as a Referee.

Then one early summer night, Gaston called Shaw and told him that Jimmy Harper, an icon in SEC officiating, was retiring and he was replacing him with Shaw.

The years of preparation, hard work, and determination had paid off for Steve Shaw – he was now a White Cap: a SEC Referee.

Shaw says with a hint of amusement, “That first year we worked just about every home coming game to be played.” Home coming games were deemed to be a more relaxed atmosphere for new officials.  And it worked to their favor as these new SEC officials began to adjust to the rigors of SEC play.

He is often asked, in a myriad of ways, why he wanted to be an official. “You do it for the love of the game,” says Shaw. “But what keeps you in is the camaraderie and the friendship between the officials: When there are 102,000 fans and seven of you, you get close very quickly.”

During the season Shaw would talk to members of his crew almost every day, including the off-season. “It’s a bond, a friendship that is forged by the process we go through,” he relates.

Shaw learned quickly how to handle odd situations; what you do, and don’t do.

During the early days of the overhead camera, one such instance put the Referee to test.

During the Georgia vs. South Carolina game, at South Carolina, on one particular kickoff, the ball hit the guy wire of the camera. “We immediately stopped the play,” Shaw says.  “And when you’re the Referee, everybody looks at you and says, ‘Okay Shaw, what are we going to do?’  And I said, ‘We’re going to have a do-over.’”  The following year a rule was instituted that the down would be replayed in such circumstances.

A frustrated coach and an ill-fated announcement was another challenge.

The rules state that a school band is not to play when a team lines up on scrimmage.

At a South Eastern Conference home game, playing against Central Florida, Shaw had explained before the game the rule to both bands. 

He thought they understood.

But to the Central Florida’s coach’s dismay, as Central Florida lined up on offense, the opposing team’s band would strike up a deafening tune.  Frustrated, he made several comments to Shaw about the distraction.  Shaw then made a public announcement for them to refrain.  They did – but the home fans took up where the band left off.

“For the next ten snaps, you couldn’t hear yourself think,” Shaw says. “Then, I looked at the Central Florida coach and I gave him that ‘Are you happy now? The band isn’t playing,’ look.”

On another occasion, a muddy football, one of Shaw’s pet peeves not to have on the field as he prides himself on efficiency and proper technique, put him to the test.

But Coach Kelly of Oregon was going to have none of it.

“Oregon loves to go fast, and we were very diligent getting in a dry football on every play,” Shaw explains.  The Oregon coach yelled, “Steve, I don’t want a dry football, I don’t care if you put it down in the mud, just put it down, cause I want to go!”

Shaw submitted. 

Then, there was the inadvertent high five that caused Coach Tommy Bowden to question Referee Shaw’s intentions - and the subject was quarterback Michael Vick.

“The athletes are incredible,” Shaw relates, “but I would tell you…we worked the 2000 Sugar Bowl which was for the National Championship – Virginia Tech and Florida State. It was Michael Vick’s coming out party.  From a game perspective, where one player made such an impact on the game, Michael Vick was it. Though Florida State won, he took that team single handedly and kept them in the ballgame.  And Florida State had probably one of the fastest defenses I had ever seen up until that time, and Michael Vick toyed with them. In fact, after the first series that night, I had to back off from my position because he would just run past me.”

Continuing, he relates, “The following year, Virginia Tech played in the Gator Bowl against Clemson and they used to have it where the Referee would echo any touchdown play up to the press box [with the gesture of his arms]. Well, Vick threw a long touchdown pass, everything settled, and I looked to the press box and lifted my arms to signal a touchdown. Meanwhile, Michael Vick had run down the field to where I was, and with my arms still raised, signaling the touch down, Michael Vick gives me a big high-five.”

Shaw was mortified.  Hoping that no one saw what just transpired, he went about his business. But television time had caused a momentary stop in play, and, as he relates it, “Coach Bowden was hollering and screaming as he had witnessed the event.  So I went over to him to try and settle him down.

“Did you high-five Michael Vick?” Coach Bowden yelled at Shaw.

“No coach” was Shaw’s reply, “but I think he tried to high-five me.”

As the game progressed, and Clemson was getting beat pretty handedly, Coach Bowden called Shaw over during a time out and said, “I want to tell you, your crew - ya’ll did a terrific job.  I appreciate the job ya’ll did today.”  Steve says that makes you feel good when the losing coach compliments you.

As to unsportsman-like calls, Shaw explains that the NCAA has drawn a line in the sand and has done a good job of keeping football a team game.  “I know that fans don’t like the rules as they are being enforced, but I want them to remember that referees don’t write the rules, coaches write the rules,” Shaw says. 

He continues, “The rules committee is a select group of coaches and they determine the rules and we just enforce them.  Especially around sportsmanship:  It is to reinforce amateur athletics and team membership.  Football is probably the greatest team game there is.”

Shaw relates what Coach Chan Gailey once observed that “just about every sport has a ball that each member of the team either gets to touch or kick.  Not so with football.  There are five offensive linemen, and there is a major malfunction if every one of them touches the ball. So how much of a team effort is that when these guys work their tails off but never get to touch the ball?”

Shaw explains that though the rules are written to allow players to celebrate as a team, the NCAA wants anything flagged that draws attention to one individual. “And there is a gray line as to what is a celebration versus what is a natural reaction to a score,” he says. “And that is the tough part we have to deal with.”

His favorite play to illustrate that concept was a video that players, coaches and officials had to watch that dealt with sportsmanship and emphasized team play.

It was of a Division II playoff game, and it was old time football – a wet, muddy field on a very cold day.  The ensuing team is on about the fifteen yard line, preparing to score a touchdown. The quarterback pitches the ball to the tail-back who circles around the end and scores.  Not one defender came within ten yards of him.  The camera zooms in on the tail-back who is in the end zone doing his victory dance, as to say, ‘Look at what I just did.’

Then, the camera zeroes in on the offensive tight end.  He had released out and blocked the linebacker and got the safety in it as well.  Blocking two players at the point of attack, who either one could have made the tackle; there is that tight end lying face down in the mud with two defenders on top of him. The camera then returns to the guy in the back of the end zone, still performing his, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ dance.

“And that’s wrong!” Shaw exclaims. “That guy with his face in the mud is the one who put him there, and they should celebrate together. The intent is to keep it a team game,” he quips.

Everyday Shaw is in his rule book, as his wife, Jamelle, would testify.

While diligently prepping and reading, she asks him, “What, you don’t know the rules?  Please tell me you know the rules!”

As Shaw explains, “There are small nuances to the rules that do change each year that you have to stay current.”

One such difference is on a field goal. In college and NFL, if a team decides to fake the field goal attempt, the knee of the holder can be on the ground.  But in high school, the holder has to have his knee off the ground before he can pass or hand the ball off.  

The most important character trait of any official, of anyone, to Steve Shaw is -integrity.

“Bad calls you are able to come back from, [though] it is very difficult,” he says with a tone of seriousness.  “In a way we [sports officials] have become public figures.  And you have to be careful about the things you do, on and off the field. But, there are some things you can do that will disqualify you as an official, or anything, in life.”

As an example, Shaw will never venture into a casino. “Great officials have ultimately ruined their career by an unfortunate incident on or off the field, and with the media hype it can be very unfortunate,” he says.

Each official has to pass a rigorous back ground check; nearly the same as a white house clearance, by both the NCAA and the SEC, every year.  Included are legal issues and finances: “You can’t have any negative financial situation where you might be more approachable [to bribes],” Shaw says. “And there have been officials eliminated because of their back ground check,” he concludes.

Coach Bob Finley, if he were alive, would be proud of Steve Shaw. And Shaw says of him,” he was a great Christian man; a guy who preached, lived, and demonstrated integrity every day, and would have nothing other than that from his players.  On one hand you were a little scared of him, but on the other, you didn’t want to do anything that would disappoint him.”

Steve Shaw will be missed from the field of play on Saturdays, but his leadership and his own integrity will be felt throughout the profession.


*Richard B. (Dick) Burleson was Vice President of one of the largest engineering firms in the United States, Neel-Schaffer. A native of Alabama, he was inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame. He is a graduate of Georgia Tech with a Civil Engineering degree.

Burleson rose to the Army Reserves highest rank, Major General, and is a graduate from the Army War College.  At the height of his Army career, he was Commanding General of the largest Army Reserve Command in the World, covering eight states, 40,000 troops and included over 5,000 soldiers placed on active duty during Desert Storm. General Colin Powell personally decorated General Burleson’s units. He is one of only twenty-three American to receive the Spirit of America's – Audie Murphy Patriotism Award. In addition to his engineering and military careers, Burleson was a football official in the Southeastern Conference for 25 years.

Photography by Fred Beeson


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