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So Long Mike Defee: Remembering the now-former Big 12 referee

Like all of us coming out of quarantine, when Big 12 football returns, it will be with a little less muscle mass.

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Big 12 umpire Robert Richeson and referee Mike Defee approach midfield - Getty Images - John E Moore III
Getty Images - John E Moore III

There are no set of biceps better known in the Big 12 than that of the Big 12’s most recognized, and criticized, referee Mike Defee.

Alas, Big 12 fans will no longer be able to gaze upon his well maintained arm-muscles as the now former Big 12 zebra is now headed to the NFL. After more than a decade with the conference, Defee will now move to the NFL’s officiating office to help coach up referees. He will reunite with former Big 12 officiating supervisor Walt Anderson in his new role.

Defee first joined the Big 12 conference in 2006 as a back judge before being promoted to a Big 12 referee in 2010.

During his time in the Big 12, Defee had some interesting moments. Aside from upsetting just about every Big 12 fanbase with calls they didn’t agree with (what referee hasn’t?), he had a few BIG moments worth noting.

“Beef Ref”

Mike Defee reached peak infamy during when he was a referee for the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship that saw No. 2 Clemson upset No. 1 Alabama 35-31.

It was at this time that the rest of the college football nation learned what all Big 12 fans had known for some time; Mike Defee does NOT skip bicep day.

His arms actually had a short-lived Twitter account that, while it stopped posting back in 2017, is still funny on the revisit.

And if you’re interested, you can actually check out Defee’s work-out regimen to get those beefy biceps for yourself!

The Conspiracy Theory

Speaking of the 2017 National Championship Game.

There’s actually a conspiracy theory surrounding that game and Defee (that’s completely false and ridiculous) started by an Alabama fan (the losing team. Go figure).

Basically, there is a man by the name of Mike Defee who is a Clemson fan, with a daughter that the conspiracy theorist believed went to Clemson.

As you can plainly see, Mike Defee the Clemson fan on the left, and Mike Defee the Big 12 referee, are not the same person.

Fans are fun, aren’t they?

He’s Quotable

— “I tell people all of the time, ‘You haven’t lived until you’ve been booed by 100,000 people at one time.'”

— “It is a very complicated game. You don’t just show up and put your uniform on.”

— “My name’s Mike Defee. I’m your referee.”

The Ball Swat

The Red River Penalties

Defee has upset just about every Big 12 fanbase for one reason or another. But no decision was more ridiculous than the one he will always be remembered for.

This past October, 30 minutes before the kick-off of the Red River Shoot Out, Sooners and Longhorns players were face to face with each other around midfield. Defee decided that the situation reached a point that he had no other option but to issue an unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to EVERY SINGLE PLAYER on BOTH teams.

Needless to say, fans of both schools, and a lot of people who work around the Big 12, weren’t all that impressed by the decision. But hey, reffing ain’t easy.

All this is to say, I think we will all miss Mike Defee. We may not have agreed with every call, but he was still one of the better — and more recognizable — refs the Big 12 had.


If you have an Athletic subscription, I would suggest checking out Chris Vannini’s “exit interview” with Defee. It’s a nice peak behind the curtain into who “Beef Ref” really is.

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