'SEC'ond life: Okaloosa public servant spends weekends refereeing college football
On many a Saturday in the fall, after a busy week of overseeing projects such as stormwater system upgrades and the massive southwest Crestview bypass, Okaloosa County Public Works Director Jason Autrey dons his “zebra stripes” and white cap and hits the gridiron as a college football referee for the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
Its teams include Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Auburn and LSU.
“Name a finer conference in college football and I would be shocked to find it,” Autrey said. “It is such an honor to be working in the Southeastern Conference. It’s a great caliber of football and I have great officials to work with. It’s an honor I will never take for granted. It took a lot of work to get there.”
Autrey, 46, has served as the county’s public works director for seven years. His overall career with the county began in the summer of 2004.
And that fall, the University of Florida alumnus took his first steps on the road to refereeing in the SEC.
Autrey, who graduated from Gainesville High School in 1993 and never played organized football, recalled county co-worker and local high school football referee Bobby Johnson encouraging him to get into officiating.
After attending a local officiating meeting, Autrey started running the clock at middle school and junior varsity football games in late ‘04.
“Then I worked the umpire position,” he said. “I had a blast. That season, I got hooked. I absolutely loved it.”
His ascent to refereeing high school football contests included valuable lessons provided by the Miracle Strip Officials Association. Then, as now, the local area faced a shortage of referees, in a large part because many of them are transitory military members.
That shortage “offered me an opportunity to move up faster” than the officiating climb in a major metro area, Autrey said.
After gaining more experience and attending officiating camps around the nation, Autrey was tapped to serve as a referee for the Division II Gulf South Conference in 2011. He worked games for that conference for four years, with his stint ending before the University of West Florida Argonauts’ first year of varsity competition in 2016.
In 2014, Autrey was the referee for the Division II National Championship game in Kansas City between Colorado State University Pueblo and Minnesota State University Mankato. Before starting as a ref for the SEC last year, he served five seasons as a referee for the Division I Sunbelt Conference, including one Hawaii Bowl, a Frisco Bowl and a conference championship game.
Autrey said he now enjoys mentoring local school refs whenever possible.
“It’s always great to go back to your roots,” he said.
What is it like to be an SEC referee?
Q: What are your thoughts on being chosen in 2020 to be a referee in the SEC?
A: It’s a phenomenal opportunity. I was in the right spot at the right time, and I’m working my way up to hopefully get a post-season assignment. We (game officials) are all independent contractors. I’m not an employee of the SEC.
Q: How many SEC games does a ref work each season?
A: It depends. On average, about 11 to 12 games. Usually, it’s a 13- or 14-game season (for each team). Last year was only a 10-week season because of the pandemic, and I refereed eight games. I’ll also serve as an alternate or run the clock for some games. So far, (as of Thursday) I’ve worked five games this year (including the Sept. 4 Georgia vs. Clemson game and the Oct. 2 Arkansas vs. Georgia contest).
I’m headed to another SEC game this weekend. I don’t let people know where I’m going, other than my wife. You keep your schedule to yourself because you don’t want outside influences. ‘Fan’ is short for ‘fanatic,’ and gambling is a real thing.
Q: What has been the biggest game you’ve refereed so far?
A: The biggest game is the next one. There’s a saying I heard many years ago: ‘Just mess it up and see what happens.’ They’re all big games for the players and the fans and the schools. They have so much passion. I know it’s a cliché, but I prepare for every game the same way no matter who the opponents are. As officials, we view each game as the best game.”
Q: Any pre-game nerves, considering the huge stadium and TV audiences?
A: I’m not normally a nervous person. We (game officials) certainly get excited about a game coming up. Nerves to me are what happen when you’re not prepared. I prepare during the offseason. I prepare myself and my crew and stay in shape. You’re nervous if you haven’t studied.
Before every kickoff, we have a huddle and talk about how we’re going to work hard and have fun that day. It’s energy, when you’re standing in front of 100,000 fans. If you don’t’ feel that, you don’t have a pulse.
Q: How do you stay in shape so you can run around a 100-yard football field for a few hours on a Saturday?
A: When I started refereeing, I didn’t go to a gym. Then I realized I needed to look good out there and fit in. I go to a gym three to four days a week now. I have protein shakes and eat smart, with lots of time on the Stairmaster, stretching and some free-weight lifting. Now it’s a habit for me.
Q: Talk about your officiating crew.
A: There are eight members of a SEC crew: Referee, center judge, line judge, head line judge, umpire, field judge, side judge and back judge. It’s a very judgy group.
We usually work together every week. Sometimes one of us has to go to a wedding. I’m an alumnus of the University of Florida, so I don’t work UF games.
On the field, each of us has a certain area of responsibility. On every play, there’s a regiment of who’s watching for what. We trust each other to do the right thing. By and large, it works out very well. But when I get home on Sunday and re-watch games, I see things I didn’t see on the field.
Q: What do you like best about being a college football ref?
A: There is no doubt in my mind, the camaraderie we have. The brothership we have is unlike anything else. We understand what it’s like to go through that pressure.
Q: What do you like the least?
A: The toughest part is the strain on family. I haven’t been home on a Saturday since August and might not be until December. That’s tough on a marriage and being a father (of three daughters, one of whom is still at home). Refereeing went from being a hobby to a second job for me. I don’t do anything half-hearted. I work hard at it and I love it.
Q: Any blown calls on the field?
A: That’s a sore subject. I have never worked a perfect football game, and the moment I do I’m going to stop because I don’t think I could ever do it again.
The reality is the game is played at a high rate of speed. Sometimes I might not see it right. There are 160 to 170 plays per game on average. A “blown call” hurts. The crew sometimes doesn’t see everything. You don’t do everything perfect. You have to learn from it. Nobody feels worse about a mistake on the field more than an official does, because we put so much work into it.
Fans say some pretty mean and hurtful things. No guy I’ve worked with has ever gotten onto the field with the intention of making a mistake.
We’re graded every single week (by SEC office officials). On Saturday night, we go over game film and point out missteps, such as communication errors, and work to improve every single week. I also help evaluate film for a Division II Conference.
Q: Are there any similarities between your public works director and referee jobs?
A: I have a running joke: When (game officials) first meet, we ask each other ‘What do you do for your real job?’ They say I must be a glutton for punishment because no one likes government workers.
There is tremendous responsibility with both positions and difficult decisions and conversations have to be made in both jobs. I’ve kind of gotten used to not making everyone happy, but doing it for all the right reasons.
I tell people who I supervise, ‘I want you to think and I want you to try.' and if you do those two things you will be successful. It’s OK to try and fail. It’s never about the mistake you made, because in life you’re put on the mat plenty of times. It’s about getting back up. Don’t let a mistake define you.
Q: Any aspirations to ref in the NFL?
A: It’s a great honor to be a referee in the SEC. I’m one blown knee away from not being able to officiate, and the next game might be my last.
I’ve learned to never say never: If the NFL calls, I’ll worry about that if and when it comes up. Until then, I look forward to getting on a plane to work with my crew for a SEC game.