IRVING, Texas — In 1983, college football added another man to officiating crews. Went from six to seven.
Remember the 1983 game. Lots of power football, with tight ends and wingbacks and only occasional downfield passing. Lots of option football, heavy on the vertical, light on the horizontal.
Thirty years later, the game has changed. Formations stretch from sideline to shining sideline. Five receivers often zip into pass patterns ranging from deep to wide, with quarterbacks running every which way and players spread all over the field.
And we're still using seven officials.
Except this season in Big 12 games. The conference will experiment with eight officials, placing an “alternate referee” in the offensive backfield, on whichever side the referee doesn't occupy.
And the extra official has one primary job. In this age of hurryup offenses, of quick snaps and frantic substitutions, the alternate ref is being asked to retrieve the ball and set it ready for play as quickly as possible.
“It's not officials' role to say, ‘we're going too fast,'” said Walt Anderson, the Big 12's director of officiating. “I would tell this to coaches: ‘It's your game. You play it how you want to play it. My job is to figure out how to keep up with it.'”
The up-tempo offenses have created stress on officials, who must determine when the ball can be snapped, determine whether the defense has been given time to substitute if the offense has done the same.
And Big 12 teams play up-tempo. Huddles are as passe' as tearaway jerseys. OSU, OU, West Virginia, Baylor, Texas Tech. All have forged identities as no-huddle, hurryup offenses.
The Big 12 experimented with eight officials in the Stillwater spring game — Anderson himself was the alternate ref — and it seemed to help. At times that Saturday, the Cowboys averaged only seven seconds between the end of the previous play and the snap of the next.
Anderson said new State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was “very emphatic” before the spring game on how the new process would work. “We're going to be fast,” Yurcich told Anderson. “You don't understand,” Yurcich reiterated. “We're going to work fast.”
Anderson just told Yurcich, let's get together after the game and let the officials know if OSU's offense had to wait.
Anderson said Gundy later told him that the officials ended up waiting on the offense.
Anderson said the “sense from other officials on the field, it was giving everybody more time. We're not creating more time; the pace of the game is the same.”
What that means is that in the up-tempo game, the seven officials were running for their life. The extra set of eyes and hands and feet helps everything get accomplished a little more quickly.
Big 12 referee Mike Defee said the eighth man will free the offense. “As far as not substituting, you can go as fast as you want to,” Defee said.
The alternate referee won't be a powerless official. He will have a flag and will be encouraged to use it. The eighth official will help watch interaction with the offensive tackle on his side, plus potential hits on the quarterback.
But getting that ball set for antsy QBs is job one.
Anderson told his alternate refs that he doesn't care if their back is to the ball when it's snapped. Anderson also said he's told coaches that there will be times when a man in motion will collide with the retreating official. “That guy has got to go someplace,” Anderson said.
And the eighth official gives referees more freedom.
“You oughtta be in the catbird's seat,” Anderson told his refs last weekend at the College Football Officiating clinic. “Good feel for the game on both sides of the ball. Be able to manage fairly and equitably on both sides of the ball. So when the defense does want to substitute, we have a much better sense and feel for when that needs to occur.”
Anderson said the experiment worked great in spring games.
“Everybody loved it,” Anderson said. “You'll hear it from the officials. Allowed them to get back into the game. I had more comments from defensive coordinators, ‘finally, someone who can see when we're allowed to match up.' Plus, it gives us another set of eyes on those blind spots.”
That's the under-the-radar benefit. The alternate ref will free the line judge to place his vision more downfield, which has been more difficult as the game has gone more horizontal.
“There have been areas where we've been vulnerable,” Anderson said. “Now there will be areas where we're less vulnerable. Now there will be eight of us against 22 of them.”
Offenses can expect to play faster if they want, defenses can expect to be allowed to substitute when it's allowed and a game that has expanded to all corners of the field has an extra man to officiate for the first time in 30 years.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.