Canzano: A deep dive on Pac-12 officiating
Focus should be on football, not officiating.
I’m not with those who think Pac-12 Conference football officiating is better this season than any of those in recent memory.
Because we’re still talking about it.
Pac-12 Conference referees had a bad weekend. The lowlight: officials working the Washington State-Oregon game lost count and robbed the Cougars of a down in the second quarter. The Pac-12 acknowledged the error on Sunday, per protocol, but I’m left wondering what more can be done to ensure better officiating.
On Sunday morning, a group email with more than a dozen recipients circulated in the Pac-12 footprint. Among those included were former long-time Pac-10 and Pac-12 officials such as Walter Wolf, Verle Sorgen, Fred Gallagher, Mack Gilchrist, and Chuck Czubin. Also, on the email chain was Bill Richardson, the Pac-12’s retired instant-replay supervisor.
One of them wrote: “Not a good week for all our football officials.”
But their comments weren’t limited to the Pac-12’s woes. They seemed alarmed about officiating in general. Particularly, the shortage of officials at the high school level. In Oregon, for example, there’s a crisis going on. The number of available high school and small-college football officials is down 33 percent since 2019.
One former referee included on the email wrote, “We know there’s a significant issue here that our public has a responsibility for.” Another offered, “I’ll come back if you do.” Another chimed in with, “Not enough Bud and scotch to get the flanks back.”
A fourth, now in his 70s, volunteered: “I’ll be the alternate.”
Officiating numbers are down nationwide for a variety of reasons, the pandemic included. When the games stopped, some officials quit and didn’t come back. Others got weary with the loss of civility. Being screamed at by parents, coaches and athletes loses its luster over time. Also, the pay isn’t great. As a result, fewer new referees are signing up to be trained to officiate high-school games.
A couple years ago I wrote about the importance of having a minor-league system for college football officiating. The Pac-12 didn’t have one — and still doesn’t. Now, I’m wondering how the shortage of high school officials might someday impact college athletics in general.
Let’s talk about the value of a pipeline. In the summer of 2020, the Big 12 Conference lost four referees. Three of them retired. The fourth, Reggie Smith, left for the Big Ten. Losing four referees and 42 years of combined experience amounted to a staggering wave of overnight turnover.
Greg Burks, the Big 12’s supervisor of officials, faced a problem. But he also had the benefit of a minor-league pipeline. The Big 12 has an officiating consortium with the Mountain West and Southland conferences.
Burks simply hired three of the highest-graded officials directly from the MWC. The fourth replacement, Kevin Mar, was working in the Pac-12 and had a reputation among conference coaches as being one of the best around. Mar’s previous stop: the Mountain West, working under Burks.
“Guys that have come into the Mountain West were previously in the Southland Conference,” Burks told me then. “We train them. They make the steps through the different levels, so that means they’re prepared. There’s a learning curve. It has served us well.
“I think a lot of people are happy.”
A lot of people in the Pac-12 footprint aren’t happy with the officiating. Washington State fans feel ripped off. Not just with the mysterious loss of a down on Saturday, but a phantom turnover, too. Oregon State fans are unhappy with what they felt was favorable treatment of USC on Saturday night at Reser Stadium. And those watching Utah-ASU saw a puzzling fourth-down-and-1 sequence in which a lineman clearly jumped, but wasn’t flagged.
Do officials from other conferences make errors?
It happens all the time.
In fact, in Week 3, ACC officials botched an offsides call in the Cal vs. Notre Dame game that turned an Irish field-goal attempt into a first down. It was an obvious blown call that affected the outcome of the game. The ACC suspended the official, but didn’t offer a public statement or acknowledge the error.
Ask around, and you’ll find that fans in just about every corner of college football believe their conference officials stink. There’s a ton of confirmation bias out there. But the Pac-12’s officials aren’t just making an occasional egregious error, they’re also battling a broken brand and have inadequate infrastructure.
Here are three suggestions:
• PIPELINE: Establish a structured pipeline for conference officials. The Pac-12 shouldn’t be hiring its crews in a scattershot philosophy, piecing together the officiating teams, year to year. The familiarity and comfort born from officials working alongside each other for decades in the same system can’t be overstated.
I think a few of the major on-field officiating issues we’ve seen in recent years can be traced back to the Pac-12’s lack of a minor-league officiating system. Also, if the Pac-12 wants to hire and retain the best officials, look for ways to do that.
A Pac-12 source told me on Monday morning that the conference is currently engaged in discussions to construct a streamlined pipeline of talent with like-minded conferences. Great. Get it done — now. Because a system that recruits and develops better officials will help improve the on-field product.
• RECRUIT and RETAIN: Immediately invest in recruiting, developing and training high school officials across the Pac-12 footprint. Many of the best Pac-12 officials over the years stuck around the conference because they lived and worked their regular jobs in the area.
Former Pac-10 and Pac-12 referee Jay Stricherz, for example, worked for three decades as a high school administrator in Tacoma. Some others were realtors, bankers and lawyers in the region. If the Pac-12 plays a pro-active role in recruiting, training and investing in officials at the high school level, it will only help improve the available pool of referees down the line.
Retention is also major issue. The Pac-12 should pay more than other conferences, give the referees perks that others don’t, and focus on putting the best team on the field on game day.
• CONNECT: Fix the brand. I think a big piece of the broken brand of the Pac-12 officials stems from the Larry Scott-era. The former commissioner wasn’t comfortable with or interested in helping fans understand what was actually happening on the field or behind the scenes.
Remember the instant-replay fiasco of 2018 and the meddling of Woodie Dixon? It was an awful period of time for the conference. One that was compounded by Scott, who was evasive, uninformed, and aloof when he should have been tuned in and transparent. Trust of the conference disintegrated and I think the current regime continues to pay a tax on that.
I wonder if commissioner George Kliavkoff’s conference might consider pop-up clinics on select game days or before spring games or even specialized programming on the Pac-12 Network that would help educate the public on what we’re seeing on the field.
Let us all hear conference officials talk about rule changes and trying to get the calls right. Let football supervisor Merton Hanks explain the training and evaluation programs. Have a retired official talk about the complexity and pressure involved on a game day. Show the public how much getting it right matters. Perception matters.
I hate seeing blown calls. I don’t like the uneasy feeling that Pac-12 fans have on game day when it comes to officiating. I also feel for the officials, who are out there trying to do their best. But we can’t really talk about how much better the officiating is when the talk coming out of the games is about blown calls.
The Pac-12 has four teams ranked in the Top-15 of the AP poll. It has three undefeated teams and five others with only one loss. Oregon State and Washington State look like the two best unranked teams in America.
So why are we talking about Pac-12 officiating?
Because it’s still a problem.
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