Fiesta Bowl Insight: The Excessive Celebration Penalty Needs to Go

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst IJanuary 6, 2009

With less than 20 seconds left in the Fiesta Bowl, Texas receiver Quan Cosby caught Colt McCoy’s quick slant, spun away from his defender, and raced towards the end zone with no Buckeye in sight.

Shocked, excited, and jubilant, Cosby dove forward, arms outstretched, and landed in the end zone. He had just scored the game-winning touchdown in the final contest of his collegiate career.

Then the flag fell.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct on the offense, excessive demonstration. Fifteen-yard penalty will be enforced during the kickoff…”

Just another college referee ruining the kids’ fun. But there were only 16 seconds left, so at least the call couldn’t affect the outcome of the game.


As a result of the penalty, the Longhorns were forced to kick from their own 15-yard line. One average kickoff and one average return later, Ohio State found themselves with the ball on their own 42 with 11 seconds remaining, down by only three.

That’s plenty of time for one 20-yard pass, or two 10-yard passes, followed by a long, but entirely makeable field goal attempt.

All because Quan Cosby dove into the end zone after making the biggest play of his life.

It’s funny that the referees flagged Cosby for “excessive demonstration” not “excessive celebration,” as the penalty is commonly called. Because that’s exactly what Cosby did—he celebrated. Briefly. After making the biggest play of his life. And there was nothing excessive about it.

The NCAA rulebook defines excessive celebration "Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves)."

No part of that definition even touches on what Cosby did. His dive wasn’t delayed—it took about a half-second to execute. It wasn’t excessive—it was one motion and he did nothing else. And it certainly wasn’t prolonged or choreographed.

In fact, Cosby’s dive was the exact opposite. It was a split-second, unplanned reaction to an incredible play that changed the course of his and his teammates’ season. It was a moment if genuine excitement.

And for this, the Fiesta Bowl referees gave the other team a chance to undo everything he had accomplished.

If Ohio State had managed to kick a game-tying field goal, it wouldn’t have been the first team this season that a questionable excessive celebration penalty altered the outcome of a college football game. Just ask Washington quarterback Jake Locker.

In an early-season matchup against BYU, the Huskies found themselves down by seven with under 10 seconds remaining. That is, until Locker scampered into the end zone from three yards out, with a mere two seconds showing on the clock.

Overcome with excitement, Locker quickly flipped the ball up in the air and started jumping around with his teammates. He had scored the game-tying touchdown.

Then the flag fell.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct on the offense, excessive demonstration. Fifteen-yard penalty will be enforced during the point-after try…”

This poor call would have dire effects, as BYU went on to block the ensuing 35-yard “extra point” attempt. Locker didn’t score the game-tying touchdown after all. His team lost, 28-27.

All because Jake Locker threw the football up in the air after making what may very well have been the biggest play of his life.

There’s a problem here. It’s another case of NCAA hypocrisy.

The excessive celebration penalty is supposed to enforce good sportsmanship. It’s supposed to make sure players don’t get out of line. It’s supposed to make sure they treat their opponents with respect.

It doesn’t.

Instead, seasoned coaches like Bob Stoops leave their starters in late in games during blowouts, calling pass plays to intentionally run up the score so that their teams can fare better in the polls. Nobody throws a flag then.

In the meantime, college students like Quan Cosby and Jake Locker get penalized for having genuine moments of excitement.