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Posted: Thursday November 12, 2009 1:37PM; Updated: Thursday November 12, 2009 2:26PM
George Schroeder
George Schroeder>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Once at center of controversy, Gordon Riese feels officials' pain

Story Highlights

A blown call in '06 Oregon-Oklahoma game made Gordon Riese infamous

Riese might be the first victim of technology changing how we watch sports

Despite conspiracy theories, he says officials always want to make the right call

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A blown call awarded Oregon possession after this on-side kick, setting up the Ducks' game-winning drive.
A blown call in the 2006 Oregon-Oklahoma game awarded Oregon possession after this on-side kick, setting up the Ducks' game-winning drive.
AP

On Saturday afternoons, Gordon Riese watches football on his 50-inch, high-definition TV. You'd expect as much from someone who, by his own admission, loves the sport. But ask Riese about the officiating controversies that have erupted this season, and he'll tell you he hasn't kept up.

"I've done that on purpose," he said, "because I did not know if reporters around the country were going to call me."

Now, who would do something like that? Why would anyone bother a retired high school math teacher?

Well, if the name sounds familiar, it's because Riese became instantly infamous three years ago.

Upon further review, maybe you remember Oklahoma vs. Oregon in 2006.

Now here we are, in the age of high-def, YouTube and Twitter, with officials' gaffes dissected, freeze-frame by freeze-frame, then disseminated at light speed to, well, everyone. We've learned the name of SEC referee Marc Curles, whose crew was involved in an incomprehensible celebration penalty in a tight LSU-Georgia game, and suspended after several questionable calls and no-calls that went against Arkansas in the Razorbacks' upset bid at Florida. We've cussed the decision -- indecision? -- of the anonymous instant-replay official who somehow didn't see an interception in last week's LSU-Alabama game.

We've actually discussed, in something approaching seriousness, the idea that a league might be protecting, even subconsciously, its BCS title contenders. Some of us have wondered if it's all a sham.
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Riese, a retired Pac-10 referee, thinks it's "an absolute shame, if that's what's going around."

"What really bothers me about some of the fans," Riese said, "is they don't understand the integrity that goes with our profession -- or actually, it's an avocation."

After a career that spanned nearly 40 years -- 28 on the field in the Pac-10 -- Riese knows, firsthand, about officials. And he knows about fans.

They know about Riese, too. He might be the first victim of the convergence of technology that has forever changed the way we view college football -- and officiating.

Three years ago, Riese was in the replay booth in Eugene, Ore. You might remember what happened when, trailing by six points with 72 seconds left, Oregon tried an onside kick. Officials awarded possession to the home team, leading to a dramatic victory over Oklahoma.

Except replays showed a Duck touching the football before it had traveled the necessary 10 yards. And also, that a Sooner had recovered the kick, anyway.

You think fans have seen black helicopters circling SEC stadiums this season? In '06, angry Sooners fans concocted conspiracy theories, too. Technical glitches and restrictive replay rules weren't nearly as sexy or satisfying as some diabolical scheme involving Phil Knight, Nike and the Pac-10.

The Oklahoma school president called for the game to be wiped off the record books, and fans called for the replay official's head. When they learned his identity, Riese received death threats, and the vulgar phone calls, hostile letters and harassing e-mails continued for three months.

So when Riese says of game officials, and their counterparts in the replay booth, "They're under fire, they really are," he knows.

Three years later, Riese remains torn by the blown calls, and his decision. And also, by the response.

"I'm still not over this," he said. "I'm better than I was."

For nearly 40 years, Riese remained fairly anonymous, which is the way he wanted it. In 1966, he attended an officials' meeting with a friend. Next thing he knew, he was calling Pop Warner football, and junior high games.

"I just fell in love with it," he said. "Don't ask me why, I just did."

Riese became a Pac-10 official in 1977. He was on the field in 1982 for Cal-Stanford when the band came on the field in the midst of all those laterals. He knows he missed what might have been a forward lateral because he was out of position. But it was an honest mistake.

Riese is convinced he got most calls correct, and that most officials do "99 percent of the time." He's also certain the universal goal is 100 percent, regardless of circumstance.

"I cannot tell you one person I ever met that was gonna 'homer' someone," Riese said.

Some fans will never be convinced, though. Not after that September afternoon in '06.

Along with the on-field crew -- led by referee David Cutaia, who is now the Pac-10's coordinator of football officiating -- Riese was suspended for a game. But he never returned to the replay booth, at least not in a decision-making capacity. The $400-per-game paycheck wasn't worth it.

Nevermind that while fans watched on those 50-inch screens, and got several replay angles from ABC, Riese saw just one -- an end-zone shot. He was stuck with a 16-inch screen -- "blurry," he said. The simple contraption didn't allow him to rewind, or fast-forward, or run plays in slow-motion.

Though other replays showed an Oregon player had touched the football before it traveled 10 yards, Riese couldn't tell from his angle. And by rule at the time, he couldn't tell the referee what he had seen: Oklahoma's Allen Patrick had recovered the football.

The conflict was difficult: Call it by the rules, or get the call right. Riese chose the former, and later kicked himself for it, because "the ultimate goal is to get it right."

That rule has changed, as have others, allowing replay officials much greater latitude. The Pac-10 and other conferences have since upgraded the technology -- though as fans have switched to high-def, the leagues feel pressure to keep up. Riese hopes the Pac-10 will go high-def by next season, because even with the improvements, "it's not as good as what I'm seeing at home."
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"I sit here and watch on my 50-inch screen," he said, "and I can make a decision pretty quick."

Better technology might have made it easier for the replay official in Seattle last month to have seen whether an Arizona pass hit the ground as well as a receiver's foot before it was snatched by a Washington linebacker and returned for the winning touchdown. Perhaps with HD, the guy in the booth last week in Tuscaloosa would have seen irrefutable evidence that LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson intercepted Greg McElroy's pass and got at least one foot down inbounds.

Riese, 67, wouldn't know for sure, because he says he hasn't seen either play. The Portland, Ore., resident spends much of his time these days playing with his grandsons, ages 7 and 8. But he also works as a "technical assistant" to the Pac-10, attending games and reviewing video, evaluating officials' performances on the field and in the replay booth.

Riese has made it a point to avoid ESPN's endless highlight loops, preferring to focus instead on the games he's assigned. He knows a WAC replay official was recently suspended. He understands a couple of questionable calls went Notre Dame's way when Washington visited South Bend. He's vaguely aware of the raging controversies way down South.

Even without high-def, he understands officials are under fire.

Says Riese, "I feel for every one of them."

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