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Exactly three hours before the 2:38 p.m. kickoff of the Michigan State-Illinois game last Saturday, the seven game officials arrived at the cramped dressing room deep within Memorial Stadium in Champaign. In one corner, field judge Bob Colburn opened a note from his wife, Sondra, that she had secretly stuck into the bag containing his uniform: "Have a great game. Don't make any dumb calls."
Nobody could have put it better. Rarely has college football officiating experienced such a barrage of criticism. Midway through the 1990 season, the public perception is that the officiating has been awful, a succession of inept decisions made by guys who wouldn't know how to call home, much less call pass interference. Indeed, some of this fall's foul-ups are already shoo-ins for the Refereeing Hall of Shame.
With two seconds remaining in the Colorado-Missouri game on Oct. 6, referee J.C. Louderback and his crew inadvertently allowed the Buffaloes a fifth down, which Colorado used to score the winning touchdown on a one-yard run. "We erred," says Louderback. Says John McClintock, the Big Eight's supervisor of officials, "There are mistakes that are inexcusable. This is one. But an honest mistake may be forgivable. This is one." The conference suspended the crew for one game.
On that same Saturday, a Big Ten crew headed by referee John Nealon missed an Illinois forward lateral after the Illini had blocked an Ohio State field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. Illinois, which was leading 24-20 at the time, put the game out of reach by scoring a touchdown on the play, making the final score 31-20. A week later, the same crew failed to call pass interference on Michigan State cornerback Eddie Brown after Brown had clearly tripped Michigan flanker Desmond Howard on a two-point conversion attempt with six seconds remaining. As he was falling, Howard dropped quarterback Elvis Grbac's pass in the end zone and the Spartans got a tainted 28-27 victory.
While only a few blown calls this season have affected the outcome of major games, officials from nearly every conference are taking heat. Says Bobby Gaston, the SEC's supervisor of officials, "These things do seem to come in bunches."
Says Dave Parry, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, "I think the problem is that errors by officials are not accepted as generously as errors by players or coaches. I once heard that fans only expect two things at a game: perfect seats and perfect officiating."
That's a tough quinella. What's more, officiating gaffes can have far-reaching consequences. The Colorado-Missouri fiasco could well affect the Orange Bowl, which awards an automatic bid to the Big Eight champion, and the Rose Bowl will almost certainly be affected by one or both of the snafus in the Big Ten, which sends its winner to Pasadena. In turn, matchups in bowls on down the pecking order will be altered as well. The bottom line is that officiating could well affect the postseason haul for a number of schools.
These are not happy days in refdom, but last week officials in the most beleaguered of all the conferences, the Big Ten, were fighting their way back.
At around 7 p.m. on Oct. 17, Big Ten officials begin arriving at Parry's Michigan City, Ind., house, as they do each Wednesday night during the season, for their weekly session of tape viewing. On this night, 26 of the conference's 44 officials show up for the voluntary gathering in Parry's basement. "There are a couple beauties we need to take a look at," says Parry, who was an NFL official for 15 years before taking this job six months ago. The mood turns somber.
Even though officiating is an avocation (in the Big Ten, officials receive $400 a game plus expenses, which is fairly typical among the major conferences), these men treat it not as a hobby but as a calling. They truly love it; they truly are dedicated. Referee Gil Marchman estimates that, taking into account all the time he devotes to this second job, his pay works out to $2.20 an hour.