Exactly three hours before the 2:38 p.m. kickoff of the Michigan State-Illinois game last Saturday, the seven game officials arrived at the cramped dressing room deep within Memorial Stadium in Champaign. In one corner, field judge Bob Colburn opened a note from his wife, Sondra, that she had secretly stuck into the bag containing his uniform: "Have a great game. Don't make any dumb calls."
Nobody could have put it better. Rarely has college football officiating experienced such a barrage of criticism. Midway through the 1990 season, the public perception is that the officiating has been awful, a succession of inept decisions made by guys who wouldn't know how to call home, much less call pass interference. Indeed, some of this fall's foul-ups are already shoo-ins for the Refereeing Hall of Shame.
With two seconds remaining in the Colorado-Missouri game on Oct. 6, referee J.C. Louderback and his crew inadvertently allowed the Buffaloes a fifth down, which Colorado used to score the winning touchdown on a one-yard run. "We erred," says Louderback. Says John McClintock, the Big Eight's supervisor of officials, "There are mistakes that are inexcusable. This is one. But an honest mistake may be forgivable. This is one." The conference suspended the crew for one game.
On that same Saturday, a Big Ten crew headed by referee John Nealon missed an Illinois forward lateral after the Illini had blocked an Ohio State field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. Illinois, which was leading 24-20 at the time, put the game out of reach by scoring a touchdown on the play, making the final score 31-20. A week later, the same crew failed to call pass interference on Michigan State cornerback Eddie Brown after Brown had clearly tripped Michigan flanker Desmond Howard on a two-point conversion attempt with six seconds remaining. As he was falling, Howard dropped quarterback Elvis Grbac's pass in the end zone and the Spartans got a tainted 28-27 victory.
While only a few blown calls this season have affected the outcome of major games, officials from nearly every conference are taking heat. Says Bobby Gaston, the SEC's supervisor of officials, "These things do seem to come in bunches."
Says Dave Parry, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, "I think the problem is that errors by officials are not accepted as generously as errors by players or coaches. I once heard that fans only expect two things at a game: perfect seats and perfect officiating."
That's a tough quinella. What's more, officiating gaffes can have far-reaching consequences. The Colorado-Missouri fiasco could well affect the Orange Bowl, which awards an automatic bid to the Big Eight champion, and the Rose Bowl will almost certainly be affected by one or both of the snafus in the Big Ten, which sends its winner to Pasadena. In turn, matchups in bowls on down the pecking order will be altered as well. The bottom line is that officiating could well affect the postseason haul for a number of schools.
These are not happy days in refdom, but last week officials in the most beleaguered of all the conferences, the Big Ten, were fighting their way back.
At around 7 p.m. on Oct. 17, Big Ten officials begin arriving at Parry's Michigan City, Ind., house, as they do each Wednesday night during the season, for their weekly session of tape viewing. On this night, 26 of the conference's 44 officials show up for the voluntary gathering in Parry's basement. "There are a couple beauties we need to take a look at," says Parry, who was an NFL official for 15 years before taking this job six months ago. The mood turns somber.
Even though officiating is an avocation (in the Big Ten, officials receive $400 a game plus expenses, which is fairly typical among the major conferences), these men treat it not as a hobby but as a calling. They truly love it; they truly are dedicated. Referee Gil Marchman estimates that, taking into account all the time he devotes to this second job, his pay works out to $2.20 an hour.
The officials have come from as far as Madison, Wis., a four-hour drive, for this meeting. They are not reimbursed. They are regular guys: an accountant, an educator, a lawyer, an optician, a pharmacist, an airline pilot. And they all love football. "I just want to stay close to the game," says Marchman, "and the field is as close as you can get."
Parry plunges in. "We live in a fish-bowl," he says. "It's a tragedy that two lousy plays have gotten so much attention. But you wouldn't be here if you weren't pretty good. The weakness that seems to be creeping up is we're watching the ball too much instead of people. We have to be great people-watchers."
The tape runs back and forth. There's the Illinois forward lateral. Over and over, Parry shows the play. "It's forward," he says with a sigh. Head linesman Ed Peters, who should have spotted the infraction, watches in silent agony.
Finally, mercifully, Parry moves on. But then comes the Michigan no-pass-interference call. "We were wrong," says Parry. "We kicked it." Back and forth goes the tape. "We made a mistake in the ninth inning with the bases loaded." Back and forth. "The sad part is this game was beautifully officiated. It was as good as it can get. Then this." Back and forth. It's as though one more look might complete the purging.
Parry asks the officials not to talk with the press about their recent errors and to keep a low profile. "Does that mean no commercials?" asks one jokingly.
"Yeah," says Parry, "and I also don't want you making porno movies."
The laughter feels good. Parry's wife, Pat, brings out snacks, including 200 Swedish meatballs. It's sort of like a wake. Tom Hofmann, a phys-ed instructor at Grand Rapids Junior College and a member of the twice-stung crew, says, "[The mistakes] make me want to get out there even more and not let it happen again. If one of us in the crew doesn't do it, none of us do it."
Another member of that crew, former Chicago cop Frank Strocchia, who has been a Big Ten official for 23 years, says, "Look, if we keep making mistakes, we don't belong. We embarrassed the hell out of all these men here."
He is ashen. In fact, side judge Wilson Jackson was in the best position to make the pass-interference call against Michigan State, but any member of the crew can make a call if he sees an infraction. In a sense, although each official has specific areas of responsibility, he is responsible for everything. Parry issued each crew member a formal letter of reprimand. "I have no problem with that," says Strocchia. "We screwed up. Something had to be done. I would have been tougher on us than that."
The officials review 92 plays from previous games. Shortly before 10 p.m. they head home. Thinking. Brooding.
The sun is favoring northern Indiana on Friday afternoon as Parry eases onto I-94 for the 167-mile drive to Champaign, where he will observe Marchman and his crew on Saturday. The day before, he had spoken by phone with Jackson, who told Parry that he erroneously saw the interference on the Michigan conversion attempt as an unintentional entanglement. "I'd give anything to have a second chance on that play," Jackson told him.
Moments before beginning the drive to Champaign, Parry also spoke by phone with Nealon. "We'll give it the very best we have," said Nealon, referring to the Northwestern-Wisconsin game that he and his crew would work the next day. As it turned out, the officiating was not a factor in the Wildcats' 44-34 win.
Parry defends the quality of officiating, saying that television magnifies their errors. Instant replay is a particular curse. Parry thinks officiating is better than ever for a number of reasons. Videotape is clearer and easier to use than film for reviewing games, officials are fitter and high school officiating, the training ground for future college officials, has improved.
On the other hand, players are bigger, faster and stronger, and coaches are smarter. As a result, officials are faced with more high-speed, bang-bang plays and more complex formations. Yet Parry maintains that on an average Saturday in five Big Ten games, 725 of 750 plays are called perfectly, perhaps 10 to 15 result in calls that could have been judged either way and the remaining 10 or so produce incorrect calls. Parry thinks the rules on holding are a particular headache for officials—so much so that the infraction routinely is not called. "For us to call it," he says, "it should be a strong grab at the point of attack that has a direct effect on the play." No other judgment call leads to as many disputes.
And when disputes occur, says Parry, a good official "soothes rather than incites. He needs to be a great people-handler. Kill 'em with kindness. Firm but fair."
In Champaign, Illinois coach John Mackovic—who officiated Kentucky high school games during his Army days at Fort Knox—defends today's officials. "The tape shows that these officials call almost the whole game right. The problem is we are looking for perfection."
On Friday evening, the officials gather to look at more tape, and Marchman says, "Name any other vocation in which people are correct 97% of the time. And remember this is an avocation."
Indeed, the inevitable conclusion is that officiating is excellent, even bordering on extraordinary. When Michigan coach Gary Moeller says, "Something has to be done," as he did after the Michigan State game, he's wrong. What would Moeller and other critics suggest be done in the quest for perfection? Pay the officials more? Theirs is a labor of love, not profit. Nobody suggests that potentially outstanding officials are sitting at home waiting for the pay to go up. Parry has more than 1,000 applications on file.
Should there be more than seven officials? On nearly every play, they have all the action covered. Better training? Officials are constantly attending clinics and meetings, reading and honing their skills in fall and spring scrimmages. Nor do they lack experience. The average Big Ten official has been calling games at some level for more than 22 years.
Before the game, back judge Jim Sherlock checks the air pressure in the six game balls provided by Illinois and the eight provided by Michigan State. One of the State balls (each team goes on offense with one of its own) is inflated only to eight pounds; it must be between 11 and 13. He returns it. Parry gives the guys a pep talk. "Let's look efficient even if we're screwing up," he says. "Sell the call. Let's look like we came here to work."
Line judge Jim Keogh is thumbing through his rules manual, which contains a note to himself that says, "If the play is designed to fool someone, make sure you're not the fool." Colburn offers some advice to Marchman: "Zip your fly."
On the opening kickoff, Sherlock hits Illinois with a personal foul. "There was a bunch of crap going on," he would say later. In the press box, Parry muses on the penalty and says, "That might be a good move. Clean it up early."
Emotions are running high on both teams, and umpire Don Thayer is particularly effective in keeping the players from one another's throats. A couple of calls produce squawks from the coaches, but nothing major. Head linesman Jim Mullendore is ecstatic after the game, which Illinois wins 15-13. "For the most part we were invisible," he says.
And that's what everyone wants: Be a positive influence, but don't let anyone notice. Parry bursts into the dressing room and says, "Great game. You radiated enthusiasm."
So now do the officials go home? They do not. They trudge across the field to the Illini athletic offices, where they begin studying the game tape, responding to questions from Parry and second-guessing themselves. As it turns out, they have done a first-rate job. They did miss nailing Michigan State with five men in the back-field on one play, and they failed to flag Illinois quarterback Jason Verduzco on another for taking a step back from center before he had the ball. Small potatoes.
At last, they leave: Marchman for Chicago, where he is clerk of the Cook County Appellate Court; Thayer for Rockford, Ill., where he is president of a steel-fabricating company; Mullendore for Greenville, Mich., where he is a lawyer; Keogh for Wheaton, Ill., where he has an executive search company; Dick Honig for Ann Arbor, Mich., where he owns a company that sells gear for sports officials; Sherlock for Chicago, where he is an account manager for an auto parts company; and Colburn for Springboro, Ohio, and his work as a vocational coordinator for a neighboring school district. Great game. No dumb calls. Uncommon men, really. But nobody will believe that.