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Berry Tramel

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Big 12 officiating: Eight-man crews are here to stay

by Berry Tramel Published: July 17, 2014
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OU's Sterling Shepard (3) scores a touchdown on a trick play during the college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the University of Kansas Jayhawks (KU) at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. Oklahoma won 34-19. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman
OU's Sterling Shepard (3) scores a touchdown on a trick play during the college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the University of Kansas Jayhawks (KU) at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013. Oklahoma won 34-19. Photo by Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman

My column in the Thursday Oklahoman began my series on Big 12 football officiating. You can read that column, which centers on the sideline decorum of coaches, here.  For Friday, I’ll write about a Big 12 rookie official from Oklahoma. For Saturday, I’ll write about the controversial targeting penalty, year 2.

But I found a bunch of nuggets from my Saturday at the CFO West clinic in Irving, Texas. CFO West is the organization that monitors officiating training for the Big 12, Mountain West, Southland, SWAC and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Walt Anderson, the Big 12’s director of officiating, is great at pulling back the veil and shining a light on the mysterious world of football officiating. Here’s some of what I learned:

* Anderson instructs his officials to be aware of the context when coaches are on the field. Stadium configuration plays a factor. “The space is defined by rule,” Anderson said, referring to the area between the 25-yard lines. “You have practical applications you have to apply. In (Stillwater), you’ve got 18 feet from sideline to wall, whereas other places, you may have 50 feet, because there’s a track running around it.  Part of that is having officials understand, in an appropriate and common sense manner, ‘work with us.’”

* The first time in several years, there is no new rule concerning blocking below the waist. But Anderson said there’s a strong lobby to ban all blocking below the waist. “There’s talk every year from the rules committee, do we want to go in that direction?” Anderson said.

* The eight-man officiating crew, which was a Big 12 experiment last season, is here to stay. The ACC and the Big Ten are using eight-man crews this season. The ACC sent a representative to the Big 12 officiating clinic. A Big 12 rep went to the Big Ten clinic.

“It’s obvious they see the merit, just because of the way the game has changed,” Anderson said. “The game has changed so much in the 30 years since we went from six to seven (officials), so it has a lot of merit. Being able to cover the field better, everyone’s so spread out now. What we had was so many blind spots.

“Plus just managing the way the game is played today, in terms of offense and defense. We’re very positive about that aspect.”

* The eighth official, whose primary job is to ready the ball for play, then hurry into the offensive backfield opposite the referee, will be called the “center judge.” Last season, that slot was called the alternate referee.

Each position uses a one-letter symbol. R for referee. H for headlines. S for side judge, etc. Anderson and Rogers Redding, the national officiating coordinator, brainstormed about what to call the eighth official. They eliminated all the letters already in use, then pulled out a dictionary. They narrowed it down to middle judge and center judge. “Let’s reserve middle judge for when we go to nine,” Redding said. Anderson said, “You and I will be dead.”

But center judge it is. The eighth official will wear a C.

* The Big 12 used the eighth official last season as an experiment. The now-named center judge came off crews that were otherwise off that week, meaning no one was a full-time center judge. That changes this season.

“We’re always going to be promoting that officiating should match the evolution of the game instead of forcing the game to change to match the officiating,” Anderson said. “We feel like the game should be the focus of players and coaches and strategies. Not rules and officiating. Rules and officiating are there to protect the integrity of the game.”

* The center judges threw an average of 1.1 flags per game last season. The average for the rest of the officials is just 2.0. The Big 12 averaged 12.8 flags per game in 2012 to 14.0 in 2013. “But 14 is historically where our five-year trend is,” Anderson said. “The 12.8 was a low point for us. Partly because there was some holding going on that we were missing. We do a lot of statistical analysis that gives us a good trend, analyzing where are our strong points, where are our weak points. What we call no-calls, actions that we fail to see.  We saw that statistically for us, more missing on holding. We’re going to look at the plays we missed and why we missed ‘em.

“Most of it is on what we call mechanics. We do not make a lot of mistakes. If you get people looking in the right area and mechanically doing what they should be doing, they usually execute. Not very many people see holding and say, ‘I’m going to decide not to call it.’”

* It’s the responsibility of every official to count the players — 11 on each side, seven on the line of scrimmage, etc.  — but the center judge is exempt. His job between setting the ball and the snap is to gauge the legality of the snap.

* Big 12 replay stoppages are down to about two per game. And that could lessen even more as the Big 12 works on better wireless communication. Making replay decisions without stopping the game.

“We’ll decide not to stop the game, because it wasn’t that big of a play,” Anderson said. “We spend time relative to judgment.” Basically, the Big 12 sets standards to make a change. A first down run that gains four yards, but was marked as a five-yard gain, doesn’t constitute stopping the game.

“The big inconsistency is defining what is indisputable. Replay can’t make decisions on, ‘we think he was down.’ Just can’t do that. You cannot change what you do not see.”

* DVSport is a company that has supplied the replay equipment for some schools, including West Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech. This year, the entire Big 12 has signed on with DVSport. Five technicians from DVSport arrived at the officiating clinic on Thursday to spend the weekend acclimating crews.

* The Big 12 makes disciplinary decisions for Brigham Young, through the CFO organization. The Big 12 suspended a BYU player last season for a targeting penalty. “No opposition,” from BYU, Anderson said. “They were expecting the ball.”

* The CFO West clinic exists to make for better officiating. “If you’re not turning over every stone to cover everything, then you’re not ever going to get as good as you can be,” Anderson said.

* Anderson had a small criticism of his crews. The center judge last season often made the ball ready for play too quickly on the opening snap of a possession. Defenses weren’t given enough time to respond to the offensive set.

But otherwise, the Big 12 did a great job giving the defense a chance. “The most positive comments about the eighth man came from defensive coaches,” Anderson said. “We only missed two situations where we should have held up play longer than we did. The previous year, it was 50. The defensive coaches appreciated the referees being much more aware of game management.”

Anderson said the snap numbers went from 185 a game to 188, similar to the gains of previous years. It went from 176 in 2010 to 182 in 2011, then to 185 in 2012.

* Very few snaps came in the first 10 seconds of the play clock, Anderson said.

* Big 12 replay official Don Kapral said “one of the biggest problems replay officials have is they want to stop the game to justify being there. Don’t stop the game.”

* Kapral said he would like television producers to anticipate a replay request, be it a close touchdown or disputed catch or a foot on the line. “If he would send us the play we need, we might not have to stop the game,” Kapral said. “The television producers are more interested in the entertainment value of the picture than working for us.”

Of course, the entertainment value is the producers’ job.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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