College football officials aim to get on rule book's same page

Published: Sunday, April 13 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

As part of the Mountain West Conference's charge into a new era of college football officiating, the league teamed up with the Big 12 and the Western Athletic Conference last year to create a combined officiating crew from the three leagues.

Crews worked four MWC games, four Big 12 games and four WAC games.

This fall, two combined officiating crews will work conference games and non-conference home games in the MWC, Big 12 and WAC.

"Each crew will have a 12-game schedule spread among the three conferences, for a total of 24 games," explained MWC deputy commissioner Bret Gilliland.

That could open the door for even more changes in the near future. "Hopefully for the 2009 season in this part of the country, we'll have one large roster of officials that work college football," Gilliland said. "It won't necessarily be Mountain West officials or WAC officials or Big 12 officials. There will simply be officials who work in all three of these leagues."

Part of the impetus behind this movement, Gilliland said, is eliminating perceived conference biases. "There's been a lot of focus on where this particular officiating crew is from and how that may affect games and there's a perception of 'homerism.' We're trying to get away from all of that."

The most egregious example of perceived favoritism by officiating crews occurred in that infamous Oklahoma-Oregon game in 2006, when Pac-10 referees who worked that contest at the Ducks' Autzen Stadium made questionable on-side kick and pass interference calls, which were upheld by replay officials. Those calls helped Oregon score two touchdowns in the final 1:12 and grab a 34-33 victory.

In the days that followed, the Pac-10 suspended the officiating crew, the crew's replay officials received a death threat and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops threatened to pull his team out of a contract to play at Washington in 2008 if the Pac-10 didn't change the practice of using its own officials in non-conference games hosted by Pac-10 teams.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team has played, and lost, two road games at Pac-10 schools since 2006, and visits Pac-10 foe Washington in September, likes the notion of combined officiating crews.

"I think the worst scenario is what the Pac-10 has set up because no matter how hard you try to be neutral, there is a familiarity," he said. "I think the concept of the mixed crews is a great idea. I'm not sure conference affiliation should have anything to do with it. Maybe it should Big 12, Big Ten for our games or Big 10, Big 12, Mountain West and WAC, so you have a different composite. I'd be more for that than this, but I think it is a step in the right direction. Just at first glance, I don't spend time thinking about it, but I believe the more sources you draw from, the better chance you'd have at neutrality.

"It's just human nature, for some officials, especially when you have argument on the sidelines, it doesn't go away and the level of the threshold to have it trigger again is less the second time and even less the third time," Mendenhall continued. "I don't think there is anything wrong with the officiating in terms of being biased. I just think human nature being what it is, the better composite, the better off you'd be."

Gilliland agrees, noting that from conference to conference there has been a lack of uniformity in the way rules are interpreted and enforced. "We want to get the best possible officials that we can from wherever they may be. We want to put them together, train them in the same way, have them adopt the same philosophies, make sure they're utilizing the same mechanics, are evaluated in the same fashion and have everyone do things the same way both on the field and in the replay booth. We want to get rid of any of these perceptual issues. We'll just know we had seven guys out there working that game that we hope are among the best officials available and aren't attached to any particular league. Where they hail from won't matter."

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