• 37°

Mississippi woman first to officiate major college football game

By stepping on the field Saturday night, Sarah Thomas will likely turn a few heads. By blowing her whistle, she’ll make history.

The veteran Mississippi high school official will become the first woman ever to work a game in the former NCAA Division I-A, now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, when she works as line judge in the Jacksonville State-Memphis game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

A pharmaceutical saleswoman by day, Thomas earned a spot as one of 21 alternate officials who will work one or two non-conference games involving Conference USA teams this season.

“She came highly recommended by two NFL scouts,” said Gerry Austin, a longtime NFL referee and the conference’s coordinator of officials. “She has a good presence and demeanor. I feel like she has the ability and courage to make a call, and the guts to not make one, too.”

In 2002, Annice Canady became the first woman ever to officiate a lower-tier Division I-AA football game.

Conference USA says Thomas would be the first woman ever to officiate a game at college football’s highest level. The College Football Hall of Fame also has no record of a woman official in a Division I-A game.

NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent said the organization does not keep such records since all officials are coordinated by the conferences, but Jeff Stern, senior editor of Referee magazine, agrees that Thomas would be a first, to the best of his knowledge.

Even before the first whistle blows, Thomas has made an impact. When she was accepted as a C-USA official, Austin said he received applications from four other women. He had never received any before that.

Austin said there will be a lot of pressure on her to succeed.

“I think it’s like any other time you are the first one,” he said. “If she does a good job, I think she will have a very positive effect. If she messes up, some people might say females aren’t ready.”

She may be making history Saturday, but she won’t be talking about it. Conference policy prohibits any officials from granting interviews until after the season, Austin said. Thomas did not return calls Wednesday to her home in Walnut Grove, Miss.

Thomas has worked Mississippi high school games for 11 years. She has officiated two state championship games and the 2005 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic — events that are assigned to the best officials.

She worked Tulane’s spring game, and soon after she was accepted by the conference as an alternate.

“She always wanted to be on a bigger stage,” said Harold Cooper, supervisor of the Middle Mississippi Football Officials Association. “She’s a hard worker, and she will continue to improve.”

Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said he doesn’t have any concerns about the officiating this weekend. After all, this won’t be the first time Crowe and Jacksonville State will break ground for women in football.

In 2001, Jacksonville State’ Ashley Martin became the first woman to play and score in Division I-AA football, kicking three extra points in the Gamecocks’ 72-10 win over Cumberland.

“Being a good official has nothing to do with gender,” Crowe said. “I might watch my language a little bit, but I have no concerns over how good she is. She’s probably better than most guys.”

At first, Conference USA officials were hesitant to reveal her identity. Austin said the league made plans to list Thomas as “S.B. Thomas” to avoid extra attention, and he also consulted coaches in the conference before she was approved.

“Not one coach had a problem,” Austin said. “So long as she was qualified, that’s all they cared about.”

Now Austin hopes for nothing out of the ordinary.

“I pray nothing crazy happens in the game,” Austin said. “An official can have a good game, and one play can wreck it. No matter how good you are. I want her to succeed. For female officials, there’s a lot at stake.”