Commentary

Behind the scenes with Big 12 officials

Originally Published: September 29, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel was embedded with the Big 12 Conference officiating crew that worked the Oklahoma State-Texas A&M game from the time they arrived at their hotel in College Station on Friday until they left Kyle Field on Saturday night.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The Hullabaloo Diner in nearby Wellborn sits on an FM (farm-to-market) road about 10 minutes south of Kyle Field. It is a happy marriage of a roadside joint and Texas cuisine, which is to say that the chicken fried steak is the size of a laptop and the Shiner Bock is cold.

Big 12 officiating crew
Scott NovakFrom left to right: Walt Coleman, Corey Luxner, J Taylor, Michael Cooper, Scott Novak, Mike Moeller and Freeman Johns are among the Big 12's top officiating crews.

Well, it's probably cold. The party of 12 at the tables that run along the south end of the diner isn't drinking anything stronger than lemonade. What passes for cutting loose at the tables crammed with Big 12 Conference football officials are two platters of Elvis fries, which are french fries glopped with sausage cream gravy and cheddar cheese. If you order 10 platters, you get a free angioplasty.

"We eat healthy the rest of the week," Scott Novak said.

Novak, a sales representative in the Denver area, has been the referee of this crew for three seasons. No one at the Big 12 will say that Novak's seven-man crew is the best. But in the first four weeks of the season, they have worked the best games: LSU-Oregon, Oklahoma State-Arizona, Oklahoma-Florida State and now, Oklahoma State-Texas A&M.

Novak assigns each of the other six officials a task. One handles the hotel, one the weekly Big 12 rules test, etc. Field judge J Taylor, one of four crew members who live in the Dallas area, picks the restaurant. He is a walking Zagat's for the Big 12 footprint. This season, Taylor is using the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" as a guide. That's how the group ended up in Wellborn.

Dinner arrived, and umpire Mike Cooper viewed his entrée with suspicion. The pasta dish with chicken doesn't match what Cooper had in mind. "We need a menu with pictures," he said.

Novak is a firm believer that dinners like this one help meld an officiating crew, although this crew needs no help. Not only did the four Dallas guys make the three-hour drive together, but head linesman Mike Moeller flew from Kansas City to Dallas so he could ride with them. They must like each other.

That's important, because good officiating demands a seamless weave of responsibilities among the crew members. For instance, Novak, the referee, and Cooper, the umpire, work hand-in-glove to control the game at and around the line of scrimmage.

"Coop knows what to look for," Novak said "He can read my facial expression. He knows my hand gestures: substitutions, ball mechanics, hurry-up routines. … That helps us. We just know where [each other is] going to be."

Novak can read Cooper, too. The chicken fried steak Novak ordered is sitting in front of him. He decided to bail out his umpire.

"If you want mine," Novak said, "I'll eat yours."

Cooper's plate is sizzling. "If I pass you this, I'll burn my hands," he said. He looked at back judge Corey Luxner, sitting to his right. "Here," Cooper said, thrusting the plate at him to give to Novak, "you don't handle the ball."

Luxner, 35, is the new guy. Novak's crew has had a different back judge each season, which makes Luxner the equivalent of the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts.

Dinner ended -- no dessert -- and the crew piled into vans and cars to return to the hotel. The Friday night meeting is their weekly off-field work session. Before they left Dallas, Taylor drove to the conference office to pick up the crew's packet (Taylor, a captain in the Irving Fire Department, has been known to take the company car -- a fire engine -- to get the packet). It included grade sheets and video from the Oklahoma-Florida State game, a rules test and the paperwork that each official must file after every game detailing the fouls he called.

Officials live and die by the grades they receive. Grades determine whether they get postseason assignments, whether they ascend to -- cue the organ music -- the NFL or whether they get rehired. Most of the plays highlighted by evaluator Byron Boston, who is an NFL official, are praised for a job well done. However, he scolded them for "too many basic errors in this game for a veteran crew."

[+] EnlargeMike Gundy
AP Photo/David J. PhillipOklahoma State coach Mike Gundy had the officials' ears during Saturday's game.

The criticism is digested and explained away. As they watch one call that Boston believes the crew missed, line judge Walt Coleman said, "That's tough at full speed, so don't worry about it."

They are generous in their support of each other. After the video and the test, Novak goes around the room and each crew member gives a quick reminder or inspirational nugget for the day to come.

"If we screw up, it's done," Novak said. "If we get it right, it's done. If something doesn't feel right, get it right. At the end of the day, we just want to be right. It's going to be hot. Stay hydrated. We had a lot of noise last week. You're going to hear more. You've really got to stay in the game."

"Let's be the best team out there," Coleman said.

At their essence, the officials see themselves as the third team on the field. They share traits with the other teams. They wear uniforms. They stay in shape 12 months of the year. Their performance is graded by their "coaches." And they watch film of the other teams.

On Saturday, they meet for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 8:30 a.m. and commandeer a table in the middle of the dining room. Novak sits at the head of the table. To his right are Taylor and Coleman, who work a sideline together. To his left are Moeller and side judge Freeman Johns, who work the other sideline together. At the opposite end of the table is Luxner, the back judge. Only Cooper, the umpire, is out of position. He is sitting at the far end, next to Luxner.

Coleman, 32, is the youngest member of the crew. He is a legacy. His father, also named Walt, is an NFL official. Coleman started working Dallas high school games while an undergraduate at SMU. His body is a cross between a long-distance runner and a gymnast. With his official's hat pulled down low and his clean-shaven face, he doesn't look 32.

The week before, on the field at Doak Campbell Stadium, a Florida State coach pointed to Coleman and asked Taylor, "How old is that guy?"

"He's 48," Taylor deadpanned. "He looks young for his age."

[+] EnlargeBig 12 official
Patrick Green/Icon SMIEach official has a specific task during the game, and after years of working together, this crew understands each other well.

Taylor and Coleman have worked the same sideline for five seasons. Taylor, as the field judge, lines up 20 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. He eyeballs wide receivers and defensive backs. At breakfast Saturday, he brought up Texas A&M wide receiver Jeff Fuller, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior.

"He's a man-child," Taylor said. "We were talking about it on the way down here. A lot of times, it looks like he's holding, but he's not. He's so strong they can't get away from him. You've got to look at kids like him differently, because they're overpowering kids."

After making their way to the stadium, the officials walk the field. It's not merely a ritual. Johns checks the position of the sun in the cloudless sky and makes a note to remind the special-teams coaches that a punt returner may shield his eyes from the sun. However, once he waves that arm, it's a fair catch.

"Preventive officiating," Johns said. "You might prevent throwing a flag. I would love to have a game where I don't throw a flag."

The crew goes back through the northeast tunnel to Room N160 in Kyle Field. It is the Red Cashion Locker Room, named for the 1953 Texas A&M graduate who officiated for many years in the NFL. An autographed photo of Cashion hanging on the wall reads "Be sure. Have fun."

The men change into their uniforms and begin their physical rituals. Luxner starts running in place, earbuds delivering tunes. Novak, looks at him and brings up the song "Maniac" and Jennifer Beals, who danced in place to the song in the 1983 movie "Flashdance." That's a little old for Coleman and Luxner. The older guys start throwing out songs that everyone might know, and before you know it they are singing together.

"Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed …"

Yes, the officiating crew of the most important game in college football warmed up by singing the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Like quarterbacks, receivers or any other player, each official brings his distinct style to the position. On one sideline, Taylor backpedals downfield play after play. He estimated that he will run seven miles during the game, 40 yards at a time, backward. On the other sideline, Johns runs sideways then turns to face the action, leaning in from the waist up. He looks like a commuter searching for the 6:24 train to Grand Central.

Between plays, the officials communicate via hand and arm signals, a dialect somewhere between American Sign Language and semaphore, the flag signals grounds crews use at airports. For instance, Coleman, the line judge, will twirl his index finger in a circle to remind Novak to wind the play clock. Novak may be signaling to Moeller, the head linesman. When Novak scans the field and sees Coleman, he windmills his arm and the :25 clock begins.

The first half unwinds with little controversy. Late in the first quarter, Coleman made a split-second call on an Oklahoma State pass, calling it complete. When the replay showed on the videoboard in the south end zone and the ball appeared to hit the ground, Kyle Field erupted in boos.

In the locker room at halftime, with Texas A&M leading 20-3, Haynes, the red hat, calls over to Coleman. "Walt, the call on the sideline -- TV likes it."

[+] EnlargeMichael Cooper
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesStaying hydrated was important for Michael Cooper & Co.

They gulp water and Gatorade, towel off, and mostly sit for 10 minutes. Before they return to the field, Novak does 50 push-ups, just as he did right before the game started.

"More mental than anything," he said.

The sun begins to fall behind the west-side stands, and the sideline that Coleman and Taylor are working falls in the shadow. Oklahoma State scores a touchdown on the opening possession. After the extra point, Moeller and Novak converse briefly in the middle of the field.

"It's getting hot out here," Moeller said.

"Mo, you want me to see if you guys can switch sidelines?" Novak asked with a grin.

Oklahoma State quickly drives downfield again. Weeden throws an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Blackmon at the front right pylon. Taylor, the field judge, is standing 3 yards away. He rules it incomplete. Terry Turlington, the replay official, buzzes Novak to let him know he is reviewing it. He overturns Taylor's call and Oklahoma State pulls within 20-17.

The Cowboys complete the comeback, take a 30-20 lead and hang on for the victory. They don't secure it until the final play, when Blackmon runs 39 yards backward to give the Aggies a safety and make the score 30-29.

Back in the locker room, the officials fist-bump each other. Luxner and Cooper give each other a congratulatory hug. They mostly look worn out. The game lasted 3 hours, 43 minutes. As they move in and out of the showers, Turlington, the replay official, arrives from the press box. A few minutes later, he is followed by Big 12 observer Jeff Lamberth, legal pad in hand. Lamberth, a Houston attorney, is an NFL official on the disabled list with a bad knee. He made 21 pages of notes that he will send to the league office.

Lamberth spent 30 minutes going over what he saw.

He turned his attention to the call Coleman made of the reception on the sideline.

"Tight pass you had on your sideline? It was a catch," Lamberth said. "But, let me ask a question: Who signaled catch?"

"I didn't," Coleman said, "because it wasn't sideline."

"I think you need to signal something, for Terry's benefit," Lamberth said. "When it's that tight, Walt, give a catch signal, so Terry up in replay is going to say 'Their ruling is catch.' We figured it out because you stood there and signaled time out. It's close enough to the sideline, just" -- Lamberth makes the catch signal. "It's absolutely a great call."

The session is mostly a lesson in appreciating what we take for granted. It's like hearing a Starbucks manager praising the baristas for making good coffee.

Lamberth gets to the third-quarter touchdown that Turlington reversed from the replay booth. Lamberth asked Turlington to describe his decision.

[+] EnlargeScott Novak
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesScott Novak and his crew evaluate their performance after each game, but try not to obsess over mistakes made or calls missed.

"He got the ball," Turlington said of Blackmon, the Cowboys receiver. "He separated his hands. He put the ball in his right hand. His foot came down in bounds. His second foot came down out of bounds, and there had been no contact. As he's out of bounds, the guy pushes him in the back. He follows on through two or three more steps, and the ball gets out. I'm not even sure he didn't flip it out. He definitely caught the ball in bounds and was out of bounds before anybody touched him."

"J, first of all, your mechanics were perfect," Lamberth said. "Look, guys, we've always said this. When deep guys are on the pylon, that's a whole different look than we see 99 percent of the game. So when we're on that pylon, we talk about this in our clinics, that's hard for us. The players are coming at a different angle. The officials are not running with them parallel. They are coming perpendicular. Positioning, you were perfect. … I'm not worried about it. That's what replay is for."

Afterward, Taylor said, Blackmon blocked his vision of the defender, and he couldn't see what role the defender had in Blackmon going to the ground.

"Being competitive, you don't want to get overruled," Taylor said. "You want to get them right. I did what I was supposed to do. They [replay] did what they were supposed to do. We don't officiate to replay. We officiate the game. If something does go wrong, they will bail us out. If you ever get to where you are officiating to replay, that will send it in the wrong direction."

That's the attitude all officials learn over time to adopt. It preserves their sanity.

"Everybody wants to be perfect," Novak said. "When I got into this, the game would be over and I'd watch the game until 4 a.m. and I would beat myself up. I still do that, but I understand mistakes are part of the game. There are 170 plays in a game. You've got to work it one play at a time. It's a competitive game. You've got to learn how to focus 170 times, seven to 12 seconds, and then you start over. Be the best you can be. That's what you learn over time."

Of all the comments, jibes, analysis and gossip discussed by Novak's crew, the one comment that best captures how they view their work came as the men plopped down in their locker room at halftime.

Taylor, to no one in particular, asked, "What's the score, anyway?"

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com