IRVING, Texas — The first football game Jerod Phillips ever officiated was a little league showdown in Jay, his hometown in Oklahoma’s Delaware County, near the Arkansas state line.
It was hot. Maybe 100 degrees. And pouring rain. “You couldn’t even see across the field,” Phillips said.
That was 21 years ago. Phillips was a college freshman just trying to make some extra money.
On Aug. 31, Phillips will trot onto another field. It will be hot. It could be raining. But it won’t be in Jay and it won’t be little leaguers. Phillips will make his Big 12 officiating debut with the nationally televised Baylor-SMU game, which inaugurates McLane Stadium hard by the Brazos River.
“That’s going to be a surreal moment for me,” Phillips said. “That’s going to be a big day. I’m humbled for that opportunity.”
And Phillips, a line judge, will be thinking about the drenched and muggy field in Jay.
“That’s where we started... me and my dad,” Phillips said. “I always like to think when I go into these stadiums, ‘It’s a long way from Jay, Oklahoma, little league.’”
Not too long ago, Phillips was calling high school games. Then junior college. That’s where the Big 12’s officiating scouts spied him. They directed Phillips into the Division II Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, moved him into the Southland and Mountain West conferences, and finally elevated Phillips to the Big 12. Quite a jump in six years.
Phillips’ rapid ascension opens a window into how officials get to the highest levels of football.
“We noticed it right off that he had a lot of potential,” said Walt Anderson, the Big 12’s director of officiating. “Kind of put him on our radar.”
What exactly did the Big 12 notice? A physically fit official who was always where he was supposed to be and displayed a willingness to get better.
“The first thing is, because it’s just so important to us in terms of the fitness, a guy in shape will catch your visible eye,” Anderson said. “Looks like he belongs on the football field as opposed to belonging in the bar.
“We watch how they work. We watch what they’re looking at. Even at a lower level, there are certain basic fundamentals. We want them learning good mechanics. Just like a coach would tell you, if I can coach guys that I know are going to be coming into my program to do certain things early on, I don’t have to spend time teaching them later.
“There are certain fundaments we look for in officials; it catches our eye, because it’s like I don’t have to retrain this guy. I don’t have to spend time at this level, he’s already at this level. I can take him at that point and move him forward. We noticed that with Jerod.”
Phillips, 39, is a seventh-grade geography teacher and coach in Grove, just north of Jay. He got into officiating through his father, Buddy, who spent 20 years calling Oklahoma high school games. Jerod Phillips worked high school games himself for many years.
“I’m proud for him,” Buddy Phillips said. “He’s really worked hard. I don’t mean this in a mean way. A lot of the ol’ boys, especially in high school, they’re just kind of looking for a paycheck and they don’t really get into the rules and the mechanics, try to better themselves, but Jerod never was that way. Way we look at it, go into a job, try to do it the best you can. That’s been his approach.”
Phillips has dedicated himself to attending clinics and incorporating what he’s learned. That’s what Anderson has seen since Phillips came aboard CFO West, the Big 12’s umbrella officials organization, in 2009.
“Once I started interacting with him when he was part of the Southland and he’s getting feedback directly on games ...then I see how he reacts the next week,” Anderson said. “He would take everything that we would do and he would do immediate improvement. Some people, you have to beat ‘em over the head with stuff and it never sinks in. He’s not only coachable, he’s responsible, in that he responds to what you’re coaching him. You see that effect right away.
“When you find people that perform and are coachable, they have a tendency to rise above the crowd rather quickly. And that’s exactly what he did.”
Buddy Phillips watched his son’s first game calling on the Division II level, at Pittsburg State, and figured his son was headed for advancement.
“I told the wife after the first game or two, he’s got such a demeanor and calm under stress,” Buddy Phillips said. “He’s got a knack for it. He’ll do good. Whenever I first started working with him, I knew he had a feel for it.
“I know he’s worked hard. He’s studied hard. When he first applied, they said, ‘Man, you gotta lose some weight.’ Well, I think he lost 40 pounds. He got to watching his diet and lost 40 pounds.”
Jerod Phillips is an example of the Big 12’s commitment to officiating. This is serious business, from the conference office to the guys on the field. They know their craft the same way coaches know theirs. Big 12 officials are committed to excellence, and if that commitment slides, Anderson stands ready to ride herd.
“We’ve got a system here... the mechanics, the philosophies they’re teaching, the viewpoint of the game to make it the best it can possibly be,” Phillips said. “That’s their goal. If you put your focus and concentrate on what they want you to do, the opportunities to move ahead are there.”
And so next month in Waco, a glistening new stadium opens along with a glistening new chapter in a career.
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.