Big 12 Sports.com Correspondent
Third in a three-part series
LUBBOCK, Texas – They arrive in ones and twos, eventually gathering in the hotel lobby. They've traveled from Salt Lake City, El Paso, the Kansas City area and other destinations. They're individuals who work as a team, professionals who have arrived for their weekly assignment.
In about 24 hours, they'll be in uniform – white pants, black and white striped shirts. They're college football officials who for 14 weeks this fall call games for the Big 12 Conference. It's a part-time job that requires a full-time commitment and a passion for teamwork. They must have an affinity for working under the brightest of lights and the most-unforgiving of microscopes.
As one of them would say, "the pressure is a privilege."
This particular seven-man crew includes five officials who worked last season’s LSU-Ohio State national championship game. For three or so hours every Saturday, the crew's job is to focus on getting every call right in a game that might feature 150 plays. But before the kickoff, countless hours each week go into preparing.
"I think a lot of fans have the impression there are seven guys who work at Foot Locker and then show up to work the game," said Karl Richins, the referee in this crew.
During dinner, the conversation pinballs from golf, the NFL, Hurricane Ike and how it affected the area where crew member Mike Defee lives.
Once back at the hotel's conference room, a DVD player and projector shows a video prepared by the NCAA's Dave Parry. It reviews about a dozen plays from around the country, including the infamous "celebration" penalty called on Washington's Jake Locker.
The crew discusses some of the plays, watches others without commenting.
Next it's on to reviewing the previous week's game, in this case the New Mexico State-Nebraska game this crew worked. In the second half, line judge David Oliver pulled a calf muscle and had to leave the game. The crew switched to "six-man mechanics" because an alternate official had not been assigned.
For the UMass-Texas Tech game, Kelly Deterding has replaced Oliver. Also, Robert Cameron is assigned as an alternate official. (Sometimes the alternate is an official who has yet to earn his stripes - literally. At Nebraska, the alternate was not cleared to work so the game was finished with six men.)
As the game video progresses, the crew stops to review certain penalties that were called. Comments such as, "good get,” “solid call,” and “nice mechanics" are shared. There's also a fair amount of ribbing.
Gene Semko, the back judge, and umpire Tom Quick pay particular attention to end zone shots on kickoffs. Quick points out how he is beating Santee to the hash mark on his side – the position to reach on kickoffs. "I wanna be a back judge some day," Quick says. Santee and Bobby Ables, the field judge, accuse Quick of false starts.
A replay of Quick being blind-sided and knocked off his feet by a Nebraska defender gets numerous replays, high fives and cat calls.
Quick appears to have a photographic recall of plays in the game. One instance involved a non-call. "I watched the TV tape four times during the week," he said. "I wanted to get the feedback from the other guys on that play. I respect their opinion more than anyone else's."
At one point during the Friday meeting, Mike Moeller's cell phone rings. "That's a fine," someone says. Never mind that his daughter is expecting.
Quick is the judge of the kangaroo court and treasurer of the fine system. Members of the crew are fined for minor indiscretions, such as forgetting to turn off a cell phone and having it ring during a meeting. At the end of the season, the money is collected and donated to a charity.
Instant replay official John Lewis reminds the crew to turn their pagers on when they take the field before the game and before the second-half kickoff.
"I'll buzz everybody before the game and second half kickoff," he says. "We've got a replay official on the sideline with a spare pager and batteries. I've got his cell phone number, he's got mine. We've only got in-house video, four cameras for this game so we'll only get probably two replays."
Richins likes to go over the previous week's game and take care of as much business as possible on Friday. He likes to leave Saturday for the game. However, the game in Lubbock is a 6 p.m. kickoff so there's plenty of down time on game day.
Back in their hotel meeting room, the crew gathers around tables that have been pulled together. Each man is carrying a large 3-ring binder. Richins' is sub-divided into "Mechanics," "Administration," "E-mails," "Notes," and "Crew Business."
Many of the binders contain copies of the tests they take each week. Field judge Bobby Ables crafts a six-question test where the problems induce brain cramps.
One of the hypothetical situations reviewed includes the following sequence, "Offense second and 12 on the defense 40 with 0:04 seconds remaining. No. 22 intercepts No. 9's pass on the six. During No. 22's run, No. 47 blocks offense's No. 75 below the waist at the offense's 46. No. 22 is tackled by the face mask at defense's 10. Time expires in the second period during the play." (EDITOR'S NOTE: Answer: The defense got the ball with "clean hands" and is therefore entitled to keep the ball, but must accept it's foul for the low block. It will be 1st and 10 at the defensive team's 39-yard line and extend the period for one untimed down. (15-yard penalty from the 46-yard line for the low block).
The crew also goes over the answers to two other tests that were sent out by Big 12 officiating supervisor Walt Anderson. The tests are about maintaining a mental sharpness while reviewing rules and considering what would happen if a bizarre chain of events occurs on the field.
The bantering, the verbal shots and locker room humor turns serious during the final segment of Saturday's meeting. It is part team meeting, part group therapy. Each official gets his chance to say how he plans to call the best game possible and improve.
"With this group, the egos are checked at the door and it's all about 'crew,'" says Moeller, who is this week's discussion leader. "Pressure is a privilege. We keep the game out there the day before the game but then game day closes in and we focus. In the game we're not the same group of guys who bust on each other the night before."
"Conference play starts in a couple of weeks," Quick says. "We're getting better week to week and we need to keep pushing each other to get better."
"There's a trust in this crew," side judge Gene Semko says. "I know that if somebody has a better look on something I called and we need to pick up the flag, he's not trying to steal my thunder. He's trying to save my ..."
"If everybody is responsible for his position, has a solid pre-snap routine on every play, knows his keys, then everything works," Deterding says.
"We're all in this together," Ables says. "The challenge in today's game is it might be one-sided. If it is, we need to work harder to be better, make sure we're doing our due diligence on every play."
"This isn't a day off for me," says Cameron, the alternate official. "I'm here to help if I can. I'll be there if you need me."
When it's Richins' turn, he focuses on the brotherhood and camaraderie.
"What I like is the crew chemistry," he says. "I've been on some crews where I've had to babysit, where I've had to make guys have discussions, where guys have argued about calls on the field.
"You guys have become my friends and family. This has been a tough week personally."
Richins' 21-year-old daughter Mallory is about to start undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The bond of brothers in the room is palpable.
The officials' locker room at Jones AT&T Stadium is a cubicle 15 feet by 15 feet. The crew dresses in their hotel rooms. It's an odd sight seeing them walk through the lobby and to the four cars that will transport them to the stadium.
During the ride, Richins underscores the attention to detail. He asks Semko and Moeller if he should say "UMass" or "University of Massachusetts" when he makes penalty announcements.
The crew arrives at the stadium about two hours before kickoff. The pre-game is equal parts hectic and peaceful. The chain gang crew comes in to pick up their vests; the two assistants who will handle the on-field instant replay communication equipment stop by; a stadium worker gets Richins hooked up to his wireless microphone; the game clock and play clock operators report in that all is well in their press box location.
Not only are the Friday night and Saturday morning preparation meetings necessary, it's evident that there's little time to study once at the stadium.
Deterding, though, uses a few minutes to over his notes. He also flips through a dog-eared set of officiating note cards.
An hour before the game, the crew takes the field. Richins and Quick visit both locker rooms to meet the head coaches.
The game between Texas Tech and its Division I-AA opponent isn't competitive but that doesn't mean the officiating crew doesn't work like it's the national championship game.
After the visitors return a fumble for a touchdown to make it 14-7, Texas Tech fumbles the kickoff. The replay officials (John Wilson and Gary Brown) review the call for over three minutes before ruling the ball carrier's knee was down before the football came lose.
Texas Tech leads 42-7 at halftime. There have been 13 penalties called in the first 30 minutes.
In the officials' locker room, Quick urges his crew members to concentrate on dead ball situations. He fears the trash talking might escalate into physical contact.
During the second half, the only use for the scoreboard involves the ticking game clock. Only four more penalties are assessed in the second half.
With 8:49 remaining and Texas Tech leading 56-7, Quick holds up play to talk with the linemen on both teams. "They'd been yapping at each other the whole game," he said later. "I was tired of it. I told 'em to be quiet and play football or guys were gonna get thrown out."
After the game, the officials collect their bags in their locker room and head to their cars. About 15 minutes later, they're back at the hotel and in their meeting room for the third time in just over 24 hours.
The game is over but the crew still has paper work.
Richins reviews each penalty for the report he must submit by 10 a.m. Sunday. His crew members review their cards to make sure their penalty notes mesh with Richins' penalty sheet.
Moeller's cell phone rings and he gets an update on his new granddaughter. "That's another fine," Quick says kiddingly.
After nearly an hour of writing and re-hashing, the meeting ends. All of the officials have morning flights.
In his weekly e-mail update that he sent to the crew, Richins included this prescient quote from Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville: "You have all this togetherness and all of a sudden it's over. That's a realization of football."
And it's a realization for this and other officiating crews. After another week of preparing and studying, they'll get together and do it again.