Since the inception of competitive sport, those who govern have always fallen under the heaviest of scrutiny — the ones at the top, the few behind the curtain, and the handful in plain sight on the field, court, etc. While every fan in every sport has complained at one time or another that the referees are the worst, followers of Pac-12 football in recent years have faced a very real struggle with officiating.
Luckily, the Conference of Champions brought in David Coleman as its vice president of officiating last season, luring him away from hiring and training officials for the NFL to reset and redefine the referee standard in the Pac-12.
“During my time at the NFL, I launched and led the NFL Officiating Development Program,” said Coleman. “The top level of the program, the Advanced Development Program, is a group of officials from major college conferences. From that group, new officials are selected for the NFL. In 2014 and 2015, the NFL selected six Pac-12 officials from NFL ADP to join the league, more than from any other conference.”
This recent uptick is nice, but things were not always so good for Pac-12 fans.
Though the problem existed before there were 12, the issue has been exacerbated recently with high-profile mistakes, such as the bad ball spot in the Arizona State vs. Wisconsin game and Oregon linebacker Tony Washington’s bow after sacking Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon, earning him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the Ducks' 2014 game against the Wildcats. Gaffes like those coupled with West Coast late start times earned the conference its very own genre: #Pac12AfterDark. The moniker meant more than refereeing, and when it could no longer be used to describe the officiating mishaps, the officials were gifted their very own way to trend on Twitter: #Pac12refs.
But those days are behind us, according to Coleman, who served 22 years in the U.S. Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and once served under Colin Powell.
While the 2015-16 Pac-12 football season was far from perfect (looking at you Arizona State vs. Washington State and your inadvertent whistle), overall Coleman ran a much cleaner, tighter, more accountable ship. He credits the officials’ (and the conference's) ability to carry out the initiatives he set for them.
“My vision for Pac-12 officiating has four components: consistency, accountability communications and transparency,” Coleman said. “We have done well in the areas of accountability and transparency. Communications have improved from the previous years but not as much as the other two.”
Transparency was evident last season, with the addition of replay video being shown on the scoreboard so fans could see what the officials in the booth were looking at. The conference also added the quad replay screen in the control room to give officials the ability to see the play from every possible angle. I was able to test drive the system at last year’s officials clinic, held over the summer at Stanford.
At that clinic, Coleman gave a glimpse into the mental aspect of officiating and the preparation required prior to the start of a new season.
“Continued study of rules (including rule changes and edits for the upcoming season) and officiating mechanics is what we work on,” Coleman said. “This includes practice rules tests to be worked on individually and in groups that prepare them for the written clinic test. This is the mental aspect phase of preparation.”
Clearly he subscribes to the “if you knew better, you’d do better” mentality.
Coleman was kind enough to let me take the written clinic test, which I promptly quit after fumbling the first few questions. But after reading through the entire exam, I can attest that the officials who pass by answering more than 80 percent of the questions correctly have a firm understanding of the theory behind the whistle.
Application of said whistle is another matter, which leads into Coleman’s second phase of training: physical challenge.
“I provide the officials with a fitness program," explained Coleman. “It includes diet, exercise and tips on what to do to prepare themselves for peak performance on the field. The philosophy of the program is prepare/perform/recover and repeat the process. Officials will participate in an on-field assessment on Saturday at the clinic.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the physical portion of the clinic, but I was able to tag along to an event that helped glean even more understanding of officiating process and how it is applied to a game: shadowing David Coleman on the sideline of the UCLA spring football game as he evaluated the officials.
The crew that day was a mix of old and new, just like regular season, and as I strolled the sidelines of Drake Stadium listening to Coleman’s running commentary, I realized just how much it means to him that his officials not only get calls right, but truly understand what happened when they got them wrong. That applied understanding helps the officials with tough calls and demanding situations, like the ones we saw last year.
And while last season was fine, next season will be better.
According to Coleman, for the Pac-12, based on the number of plays in its games, 98 percent of the calls were correct last season.
“I am extremely pleased with the performance and accomplishments of Pac-12 officials in 2015, my first year with the conference,” said Coleman. “75 percent of on-field and instant-replay officials earned postseason assignments. That is a true measure of success, both individually and collectively. This included four bowl games and the National Championship Game. Our officials performed well. They strove for consistency and worked diligently to perform as solid teams.”
While Pac-12 fans may think they have it bad when it comes to referees, remember two things: The problem was acknowledged by the conference and addressed by bringing in one of the best VPs to hold officials to both a higher mental and physical standard.
Plus, it could always be worse — you could be an ACC fan.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.