Gus Morris is the name I would pick for a college football official. It is simple and certain, just like the South. Morris looks how I would pick a 57-year-old college football official in the twilight of his career to look: 6-foot-3ish, barrel-chested, handsome weathered face, short salt-and-pepper hair but still running sprints and flipping tires like the young ones.
And Morris’ house is where I would pick a college football official’s to be: tucked down a gravel road at the end of a cul de sac in west Forsyth County, far away from the vitriol on the internet message boards and in the stands on Saturdays in the fall.
That is where I find Morris on a recent Wednesday afternoon. He’s in between work at his auto shop, PRISM Automotive Services, and a workout with his private trainer at Forsyth Central High School. Morris is usually in motion in the fall, between working at PRISM, sweating it with his trainer and driving or flying off to some cathedral of college football. The college football season begins August 26. Life is about to speed up again.
He’s talked about this weekend job for the last 12 years or so at Rotary Clubs and the like. They love to hear 25 years’ worth of stories about the most memorable players and coaches, the best calls and worst ones, the big games and yawners. But what Morris will tell them is that the job doesn’t begin and end with the season.
“People think we just show up,” Morris said. “They don’t understand everything that goes on. It’s almost 12 months out of the year.”
Morris might have thought that, too, years ago. Born and raised in Atlanta, he loved football growing up. He played it at The Marist School in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, then at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduation, he took a job with UPS but eventually moved back to Atlanta to work on a master’s degree. He stopped after a year to raise a family.
One day, a friend visited him at work, and Morris noticed a black-and-white stripe shirt in his friend’s truck. He was on his way to a high school football official’s association meeting, and he invited Morris along.
“It was the right association, it was the right leadership, it was the right guidance, it was the right teaching, it was the right critique and encouragement and everything else,” Morris said.
The first assignment was a middle school football game at Marietta High School, and Morris soon realized his experience as a football player was hardly an advantage in being a good official. The game looked much different without a facemask on.
But Morris also felt something during that first assignment. He’d made just $17, but he didn’t care.
“I thought, man, I think I can do this,” Morris said. “That was fun.”
Morris worked his first high school football game a year a half later when another official was out with an injury – Stone Mountain against Southwest DeKalb at then-Panthersville Stadium. After another year or two, members of his officials association encouraged him to consider trying to get to the college level.
“At that point, I almost owed it to them to at least try it,” Morris said.
So he joined the College Football Officials Association (CFOA) in 1988, working his way up from the bottom. The first games weren’t glamourous: Central Florida, Georgia Southwestern, Samford, Western Kentucky. The highlight was a trip to Huntington, West Virginia in his second year to work Georgia Southern at Marshall on ESPN. He got paid $200. The travel cost $450.
“It was an opportunity,” Morris said, “and I had to try to make the most of it.”
Two years later, the SEC’s coordinator of officials asked Morris to submit an application. He got an interview, but he was told he wasn’t ready.
“He was right,” Morris said. “You’re dealing with a lot more than just the players on the field. You’re dealing with everything – the enormity of the stadium, the crowd, the coaches, just everything.”
Morris bided his time in the CFOA while also getting a few chances to work the clock at SEC games.
Then, in April of 1992, Morris got a letter from the SEC, one he keeps framed in his office at PRISM to remember the day he became an active official in college football’s top conference.
“There are some days in your life that you will always remember, and that was one of them,” Morris said. “I thought, I’ve kind of arrived.”
His first game was Samford at Auburn on Sept. 12, 1992, at Jordan-Hare Stadium, a 1 p.m. game in front of almost 66,000 fans. Morris remembers the heat, but also the satisfaction after Auburn’s 55-0 victory.
“It was finally an opportunity for me to show what I had learned and what I was capable of doing,” Morris said.
Over the course of the 24 years since, Morris has officiated at every conference-member’s stadium. He’s worked 23 postseason games, including last season’s Alamo Bowl, memorable for Texas Christian’s comeback victory against Oregon in triple overtime. He’s worked four SEC Championship games.
He remembers his first Georgia-Florida game, the one he grew up watching as a kid.
He remembers his first Iron Bowl, the famed rivalry between Alabama and Auburn, when Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings hinted to Morris on the sideline that he would retire, and then did so at the post-game press conference.
He remembers the Egg Bowls, the hostile rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, especially the one in 1998 where a fight broke out between players and coaches an hour before kickoff.
To last this long as an SEC official, Morris found it takes remarkable endurance and austerity. An official’s physical fitness is factored into his annual assessment, Morris said, including a timed mile and a half run and agility drills, so three mornings a week he runs with his dog, Reagan, a 7-month-old Vizsla, to the Cumming square and back. Three afternoons a week, he works out with his private trainer.
Clarity makes for better officiating, and Morris finds his through routine. During the season, he leaves early Friday afternoons for his assigned game, so he packs the night before, and always in the same sequence: shoes, socks, belt, shirts, pants and hat in one bag, then equipment in another. He always leaves the bag open on the floor, then goes through it again before he leaves Friday.
“You need to establish a routine and stick to it,” Morris said. “If you can do that, then you’re going to have a better chance of success.”
Throughout the year there are tests he must pass, videos he must watch, new rules he must digest and then be able to apply in a matter of seconds during a game.
Officiating doesn’t pay the bills. Five days a week he’s up at 5 a.m. working at PRISM, the company he started in 2000.
But it fills Morris with something much deeper that makes the tumultuous schedule and grueling preparation worth it all.
“Officiating was probably one of the first things that I could really look back and say, I’m really good at this,” Morris said. “I wasn’t an outstanding student. I’ve got a degree from college, and I enjoyed college. I’m not a great reader. There are things people are adequate at but we’re not experts, and football officiating was really the first thing that I could say, I’m good at this, and I can do it better than most people can do it.”