OU football: Referee Mike Defee just what OU-Texas needed
Mike Defee is a great American. I didn’t know that before Saturday.
I knew Defee was a great referee. I knew Defee was the pride of the Big 12. In the College Football Playoff era, the Big 12 hasn’t placed a football team in the national championship game, but it has placed an officiating crew there. With Defee as referee.
But now I know Defee is more than a good official. He’s a man of conviction who is willing to step into the fire when things get heated.
You heard Defee on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl. The OU-Texas referee already had admonished both Oklahoma and Texas football teams for their pregame rumble, penalizing everyone in uniform with an unsportsmanlike conduct tag and warning that any further untoward action would result in automatic disqualification.
Then at midfield for the coin toss, Defee laid down the law. He told the Sooner and Longhorn captains that they were playing in the “greatest rivalry in college football … we’re going to play this game with sportsmanship. Are we clear?”
Are we clear. You don’t hear that kind of straight talk much anymore. College students really don’t hear it. Right then and there, I started marching in Mike Defee’s band. Think Wyatt Earp, cleaning up the streets of Dodge. I wish he was principal of my granddaughter’s middle school. I wish he was president, telling both sides of the aisle that this is the greatest country in the world and we’re going to serve it with dignity. Are we clear?
CeeDee Lamb was the star of OU’s 34-27 victory. Defee was the hero.
Defee personalized OU-Texas. He was no anonymous striped shirt acting like a robot, pretending that OU-Texas was no different than a Mineral Wells-Iowa Park freshman game. Defee knew the stage he was on and wanted to remind the players that such a stage came with responsibility.
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“At the end of the day, I guess disappointment to a certain extent,” Defee told Oklahoman sports editor Ryan Sharp, the pool reporter who interviewed Defee after the game. “We've got two of the best teams in the country, let alone the Big 12 Conference. This is the 115th playing of this great game and to have that kind of thing happen is disappointing … What happened out there is an embarrassment to everyone. It shouldn't happen.”
And it didn’t happen thereafter. Once the game started, the Sooners and Longhorns mostly minded their manners. Perhaps the fear of God had been instilled by the referee who has been known for his bulging biceps.
Defee became an internet sensation when he refereed the 2016 national title game between Alabama and Clemson. His massive arms threatened to upstage the great game, won 35-31 by Clemson over an Alabama team quarterbacked by Jalen Hurts.
But Defee already was well-known here in the Southwest, where he’s been the Big 12’s go-to referee for a decade.
Defee, 57, grew up in Nederland, Texas, just south of Beaumont near the Gulf Coast. Defee didn’t play football past 10th grade. He’s a self-described late bloomer. Defee took up weightlifting in his 20s and eventually was able to bench press 400 pounds. He started officiating in 1995, became a Southland Conference ref in 2001 and joined the Big 12 in 2006.
Defee was a finalist for an NFL officiating job in 2011 but wasn’t selected, apparently because the NFL is run by a bunch of idiots. So Defee, the manager of Newtron Beaumont, a major contractor in the region, has become a Big 12 icon.
The Big 12 respectfully declined my request to talk to Defee this week. He’s got half a season to call, and both the Sooners and the Longhorns figure to be on his schedule. Heck, another OU-Texas game is possible, in the Big 12 title game, and Defee would be the best man to referee that one.
But in 2012, Defee told the Beaumont Enterprise that “the Texas-OU game is unlike any I've worked. I've been involved with the national championship, Sugar Bowl, three Big 12 championship games. And none of them compare to the Texas-Oklahoma game. It's the most unique experience.”
Which is why Defee is the best man to officiate such a game. He doesn’t run from the responsibility. He didn’t even run from the postgame interview. When officiating questions arise outside of judgment calls, a pool reporter is allowed to interview the referee and stick to the one subject. I was the pool reporter for the OSU-Central Michigan fiasco a few years ago, and you generally get curtailed answers and little insight.
But Defee talked straight and was enlightening in the Cotton Bowl ramp on Saturday.
“There's only eight of us,” Defee said. “We do the very best that we can in terms of separating players. It's a tough situation. This is a great venue.
“Everything worked out really well up until the time the two teams punted and then they came together and started mouthing and eyeballing each other. It just turned into an unfortunate mess in a very good rivalry game. It's completely unnecessary.”
There goes Wyatt Earp, telling it like it is.
Lincoln Riley said his staff and Texas’ staff probably need to coordinate their pregame routine. Defee suggested a game like OU-Texas might need ropes to keep the combatants apart.
But what OU-Texas needed most is what it had. A referee who understands the stakes and understands the environment and knows that discipline goes a long way.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.