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Referee Mike Defee explains pregame unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in Oklahoma-Texas game

A scuffle between the two teams before the game resulted in an unusual decision by the referee.

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DALLAS — A scuffle between the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners in the tunnel during pregame warmups escalated into another, larger altercation between the two teams at midfield as they prepared to leave the field at the Cotton Bowl.

In the midst of the scrum, a flag went up from Big 12 referee Mike Defee — starting at the one-hour mark before the game kicks off, officials have the discretion to call a penalty in such situations.

Defee exercised it for the first time in his career, he explained after the game in a rare pool interview for a referee.

“They both came together and started jawing and started pushing,” Defee said. “I’m not sure there weren’t punches thrown. I got hit a couple of times. My head linesman got hit. It was just clear cut because I had warned both coaches prior to the start of the game about how we were going to manage pregame and that we wanted to get this game started without incident. Both sides were dually warned.”

With emotions running high before the annual rivalry game, the warnings didn’t help, leaving Defee to wonder if there are other solutions for such intense atmospheres since the eight officials don’t have enough numbers to keep two teams separate in those situations.

“At the end of the day, these kinds of venues probably ought to have ropes that would create clear separation. It’s a tough situation. This is a great venue. The problem is that you’ve got two teams that come out very close to one another. The timing of that is problematic,” Defee said.

“Everything worked out really well up until 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.”

As a result of the altercation, Defee assigned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to every player on both teams. A further unsportsmanlike penalty by any of the players on either team would have resulted in an automatic ejection.

Defee only increased his own visibility during the coin toss as the captains for Oklahoma and Texas met at midfield. In an unusual display, Defee opted for what in context was an extended monologue about the rivalry that included a demand for clean play.

“I guess disappointment to a certain extent,” Defee said of his mindset at the time. “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. We can’t control that as officials.

“The primary responsibility of the officials is two-fold outside of just playing the rules. One is player safety and two is the integrity of the game. What happened out there is an embarrassment to everyone. It shouldn’t happen. At the end of the day, that’s why we did what we did and issued a warning.”

The decision set up the potential that the officials could insert themselves into the game with a questionable decision in a critical moment. Fortunately, that didn’t happen — Texas senior defensive end Malcolm Roach was ejected due to a targeting penalty, but on review, the call was confirmed and looked like the right decision. It is difficult for defenders in situations like those, as Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb made the unusual decision of sliding, a rare move for a skill position player, but it wasn’t a surprising call with how the rules are currently written.

So the pregame penalty by Defee ultimately didn’t have an impact, as both teams avoided any displays of unsportsmanlike conduct once the game started.

“I think there was a little bit of stuff in the first half, but I’d say the second half was really well played from a discipline standpoint,” Defee said.

As a result, the pregame altercation and the penalty flag thrown by Defee will become only a minor footnote to the 115th edition of the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry.