On Friday we learned of the passing of Doug Rhoads, who retired as ACC coordinator of football officiating at the end of the 2014 season. After one year as an ESPN rules analyst it was discovered that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer.
The disease worked with heartbreaking speed. Rhoads died at the age 71, mere weeks after his diagnosis.
Football-wise, Rhoads will be remembered as a groundbreaker in how college football is officiated. He pushed training and evaluation processes into the digital age. He streamlined the oft bogged down communication lines between coaches and officials. He embraced video as an ally, establishing websites so that officials could review film almost overnight, clips that used to be available only during crew meetings the Friday nights before games. He also oversaw the building of a video command center at the ACC headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Rhoads also didn't shy away from dealing with the media, a new concept for conference coordinators, and his annual rules lessons at ACC media days became a must-attend. Not only for an explanation of each season's rulebook tweaks, but also to watch him spar with the occasionally overaggressive bloggers complaining about a call that they believed cost their team a big game. Without fail, Rhoads would end up explaining the rule or play that had the writer so tweaked in a manner that would leave the once-angry media member not only satisfied with the explanation, but walking away with Rhoads' cell phone number and email address, feeling like he'd made a friend.
How does a man learn that kind of people skills?
Well, his day job certainly helped. He spent more than 25 years as an FBI special agent. So did his military background. Then there was his moonlighting gig as an ACC on-field official, primarily a back judge, for nearly 30 years, working 275 games spanning back to 1977. That's a lot of time being screamed at by angry coaches and even angrier fans. Rhoads also worked 10 bowl games, most of those gigs coming during the pre-bowl bloating era, when postseason assignments were a lot more difficult to earn.
One of his favorite stories to tell was after he'd thrown a flag for unsportsmanlike penalty after a touchdown by Clemson in Death Valley. The player scored and, on Military Appreciation Day, dropped the ball and gave a salute to the crowd. It didn't go over well and he received a seething letter from a man identifying himself as Clemson fan and a veteran, appalled at the flag. However, the fan backed up after Rhoads told him of his own tour of duty in Vietnam. "I didn't want to flag the kid, but the celebration stuff was the hot-button issue and the rule is what the rule is, no matter the intent."
Rhoads and the letter writer became friends.
Unfortunately, Rhoads also learned to keep an even keel the hardest way possible. He lost his son, Randy, in an accident when the kid was a college student off on spring break. "If you can live through losing a son," he once told me, "then being called an idiot by a football coach because you might have missed a pass interference call? That's a damn cake walk."
I once spent the afternoon with Randy. It was Oct. 25, 1986, Maryland vs. Duke. I was one week away from being 16. He was younger. We were there to see our dads officiate a football game. You see, my father, Jerry McGee, and Doug Rhoads worked the same backfield on Saturday afternoons in the ACC for years. On this day at Wallace Wade Stadium I had a photographer's sideline pass, snapping pics with a camera Santa Claus had brought me a few years earlier. I'm still not sure what kind of pass Randy had.
"Can you do me a favor and make sure he doesn't get killed?" Randy's dad walked over and said to me during a TV timeout. "And you can you please take a picture of him for me?"
Maryland rolled big early. The Duke fans - well, the ones who actually showed up - were not happy with the men in stripes. Randy didn't like what they were screaming at our fathers. I told him, as if I was some grizzled old veteran, "Don't sweat it, kid. This is just how it is. Just remember that your dad could arrest them all right now if he wanted to."
I don't remember seeing Randy again. I do remember that I couldn't remember if I'd ever sent Mr. Rhoads the photo he'd asked me take. I remember the day I heard the news that Randy was gone. And I remember being reminded about the photo, so I put it in the mail.
Years later my father returned to officiate in the ACC after having left to join the brand new Big East football conference. He and Doug Rhoads worked together again and we all chatted together on sidelines again. Eventually Rhoads moved off the field to become the ACC officiating coordinator. In 2008 my father had announced he would hang up his whistle at year's end. It was Rhoads who called him that December to say congratulations, his final game would be the BCS Championship.
After that game, as Florida celebrated on the field, I ran into the locker room with Dad. Rhoads was there to tell the crew they'd done a great job. He hugged me, told me I should be proud of my father, and then said, "Hey, you remember that photo you took for me?"
A couple of years later I decided to leverage my contacts within the officiating world to find another angle with which to analyze big upcoming games. I wrote a monthly column for ESPN Insider quoting refs anonymously about tendencies they had seen in teams when they watched film preparing for games. It was a big hit. A lot of officials offered their help.
Then, the following winter, my phone rang. It was Rhoads.
"Hey Ryan, I just left our annual conference coordinators meetings and you need to know we just talked about you for at least an hour." Then he went into full Doug Rhoads disarming mode, serious yet soothing. "I told them I've known you since you were a kid and you mean well. You actually make us look pretty smart. And did you know that I was a journalism major in college? I was. I'm impressed with the angle you took here ..."
"But," I interrupted, "the officials won't be talking to me anymore."
"Nope," he said. "They won't. We're writing that up formally. But don't worry. No one's mad ... anymore. You can keep calling me as always and I'll be happy to explain whatever I can to you. But you have to promise to turn around and explain it to any dummies with you in the press box."
From then until the last time that talked to him, just after the close of the 2015 season, he never missed a chance to give me a hard time about that call ("You should be proud. It takes someone truly special to force a rules change.") But he also never hesitated to answer any and every question, on or off the record.
I would like to think that I was the only one he did that for. But he did it for everyone.
I sat with him and other officials at our preseason ESPN college football meetings in August. I was really excited to have him on board as a rules analyst. During their panel Q&A session in front of the very large room, Rhoads got into a short, heated discussion with Al Groh, former longtime ACC coach (UNC, Wake Forest, Virginia, Georgia Tech) and now an ESPN analyst, all on hot microphones. When the session ended and he sat back down next to me, Rhoads leaned in and whispered, "You're probably the only guy in this room who knows this is about the 100th time Al and I have had a disagreement in front of a big crowd."
Then he winked.
"It's pretty cool having a history like we do, isn't it?"
Yes sir, Mr. Rhoads, it is. It was. I just wish we could have had more of it.
Say hey to Randy for me.