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."
For a number of years, the NCAA has been concerned with the nuances of how different conference officiating crews call games, such as how they interpret holding and pass interference penalties. The NCAA has hired a new national coordinator of officials and has taken steps to put together a standard philosophy that will be adopted and utilized in all conferences.
"You would think the rules themselves would be cut and dried. You look at the rule book and this is holding and that's pass interference and this is blocking below the waist," Gilliland said. "But there are a lot of philosophies coming into the process. Each conference in the past had taken a little bit different approach in that regard. They give some philosophies that help them. For example, in the Mountain West, we have always had a philosophy that if there's any doubt about whether a loose ball has come out as a fumble, we're going to rule that as a fumble. That's sort of a philosophical approach we've taken.
"What they've done now is standardize these philosophies and say, OK, across the country, from conference to conference, we're all going to agree that when in doubt on a fumble, the ball is out. We're all going to agree that and this one is actually going to be in the rule book in order for a catch to be a catch, the receiver has to control the ball through the entire play. You can't get the ball in your hands, touch one foot in the corner of the end zone, fall down, drop it out of bounds and have it be a catch. You've got go to the ground, hit the ground, roll over and come up and have the ball for it to be ruled a catch. There's a whole list of those things that have been adopted."
From the MWC's standpoint, the hope is that through the standardization of the rule book and the consolidation of officiating crews, games will be officiated with consistency and efficiency."We're moving in this direction nationally to try to become more standardized across the country," Gilliland said. "We've been out on the front edge of this in the Mountain West Conference in part because of (MWC coordinator of officials) Ken Rivera's leadership and as a conference we've always tried to be innovative, like with what we did with using instant replay in officiating. It's sort of consistent with our philosophy."
Contributing: Dick Harmon