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September 29, 2008

Regional officiating crews could be on way

Fans soon may have a new target for their officiating gripes.

Coaches, fans and media are going to be critical of officials as long as they're on the field, and officials know that. But the NCAA wants to make sure officials aren't criticized for being tied to a conference or accused of favoring one league over another.

This season, officials are being united in unprecedented ways, with the hopes that calls in California look the same as they do in Florida or Texas.

All officials are under a new NCAA oversight structure established in December; the hope is for consistent officiating throughout the country. Three leagues currently are experimenting with "mixed crews" with officials from three conferences.

"I have never felt better about where we are and what we're doing," said Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. "There is a higher authority that we've never had before. Coaches are very happy about that."

The NCAA and Collegiate Commissioners Association established College Football Officiating, LLC, headed by Dave Parry, who also is the national coordinator of college football officiating and the Big Ten coordinator of football officials. The goal is consistency from conference to conference. Parry sent out DVDs containing points of emphasis and manuals to officials throughout the country, and coaches received the same videos.

The Big 12, Mountain West and WAC have assembled two crews with officials from each conference who work games in those three leagues. Before the season, officials from multiple conferences attended joint clinics. Replay officials from all 11 major conferences met together as well.

"Everyone was under the same roof hearing the same sermon," Parry said.

Is it working? Parry and Teaff say the changes will be evaluated at the end of the season in totality, but Teaff said the changes were "necessary."

Through the first month of the season, Parry said he has received one "very mild response" from a coach regarding a disputed call.

Though officials make the right call an overwhelming majority of the time, controversial calls obviously become lightning rods for the whole profession. Conference affiliation is one of the first targets, so much so that it may become a thing of the past.

"We're already moving in that direction," said Jon Bible, a Big 12 official who also is the director of the National Association of Division I-A Football Officials. "I don't think anything is inevitable, but I think that's the way we're headed.

"I don't think we'd be having all these experiments with blended crews and what-not if that wasn't on the horizon."

Through the first month of the season, conference affiliations for officials have come into play.

There are always people that say, 'Which crew is working the game?' There's a feeling they will bend over backward to help the home team or bend over backward to help the visiting team so it doesn't appear they're bending over backward to help the home team.
— Dave Parry, head of College Football Officiating, LLC.
On Saturday, Nebraska was trailing 28-23 late in the fourth quarter when ACC officials flagged a late hit by Huskers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after the Huskers stopped Virginia Tech from converting a third-and-4. Nebraska defensive end Pierre Allen tackled Hokies quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a 2-yard gain, but Suh rolled over Taylor on the sideline after the play. That drew a 15-yard penalty. Coach Bo Pelini protested, eventually drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. A 2-yard gain turned into a 30-yard gain and a first down on an eventual touchdown drive for Virginia Tech

Pelini took responsibility for arguing the call but clearly disagreed with the late hit. "What do you think? You all saw it," Pelini told the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald after the game.

After a 21-17 Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee in January, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema vowed to never again play a game officiated by a WAC crew – though the game actually was officiated by a Mountain West crew. A WAC crew, though, irked Bielema in Wisconsin's 13-10 win at Fresno State earlier this month. After the Badgers' win, the WAC office admitted its officials erred by overturning a Fresno State fumble at a critical juncture in the third quarter.

In the second week of the season, Florida gained momentum late in the third quarter when replay officials overturned a decision and ruled that Gators wide receiver Carl Moore landed in-bounds on a long pass play that put Florida at Miami's 5. Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon later questioned the call and also noted that it was made by an SEC official.

Last week, Georgia coach Mark Richt looked incredulous on the sideline when officials from the Pac-10 called his team for a 15-yard leaping penalty on an Arizona State field-goal attempt and a 15-yard tripping penalty on a Bulldogs run in the third quarter. Plus, on Georgia's next-to-last possession in the fourth quarter, officials missed that Arizona State had 12 players on defense on a third-and-goal stop.

The most controversial ruling of the season – an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Washington quarterback Jake Locker against BYU – was made by refs from the Pac-10, the Huskies' conference.

"Commentators were very critical of the sportsmanship call," Parry said. "But in fairness to the officials making the call, (unsportsmanlike conduct) was a point of emphasis (before the game). That tape had been out to lots of people."

Still, the call drew attention to Pac-10 officials. The next logical step might be the elimination of conference officials altogether.

College basketball has had what amounts to regional officials since the 1980s. Conferences hire officials, who are independent contractors, for regular-season games, but because of the volume of games – there are 341 teams playing Division I basketball – it is common for crews to officiate games in several conferences during a week.

Parry said there has been discussion for several years to regionalize football officials similar to the basketball model so that conference labels aren't an issue.

"There are always people that say, 'Which crew is working the game?' " he said. "There's a feeling they will bend over backward to help the home team or bend over backward to help the visiting team so it doesn't appear they're bending over backward to help the home team."

Replacing conference officials with regional ones could be a feasible solution. Travel costs would be similar, though pay likely would have to be uniform throughout the conferences. Individual leagues handle the payment of officials in football and basketball, with the higher-profile conferences able to pay more.

Money, though, might not be as much of an issue as pride.

"There's a sentiment of the old guard that we're giving up a little bit of the pride that we used to have when we belonged to a particular conference," Parry said. "The younger officials like the notion that, 'If I'm at the top of the class I will work 12-14 weeks and I will work the high-profile, important games.' "

This year, football already has attempted to create a more consistent product from coast to coast. Are regional officials the next step?

"It's certainly going to be discussed," Parry said. "I don't want to say there's a movement, but there's more discussion on the various options out there to do anything to make officiating better and to make it less controversial."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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