- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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[ESPN The Magazine senior writer Ryan McGee's father worked the BCS Title game as a referee last night. We chronicled his final season as a ref in a recent issue. For the title game between Oklahoma and Florida, we were allowed to tag along.]
When the officiating crew for the 2009 BCS Championship arrived in sunny Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday afternoon, the reaction was the same from the umpire to the line judge to the instant replay official.
Well now, this clearly isn't a run-of-the-mill ballgame…
That point became evident the moment they laid eyes on their digs for the week—the swanky Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort. The marble floors that wrapped around the lagoon swimming pool were outshone only by the nipped and tucked faces sunning on that slab.
"When we were down here for the Virginia Tech-Miami game last month," field judge Jerry McGee said with a chuckle, "We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn. This is better."
The hotel was also a bit isolated from the hoopla to the north where the teams and media were caught up in the hype machine. That was just fine by this ACC crew, who like to approach their games like the secret service—do the job and head home before anyone realizes you were even there.
On the biggest day of their black-and-white striped lives, the team let us tag along. And no, that did not include any lounging by the pool.
The crew of ten—seven on-field officials, one alternate, and two replay officials—meet in Salon 3, a meeting room hidden by other meeting rooms, all of which are occupied by a national off-site of the Nielsen ratings folks.
Referee Ron Cherry (dude in the white hat) runs the meeting, immediately setting the theme of the day.
"We're going to paint the house tonight. One coat…They supply the paint, we just put on the overalls and go to work."
Translation: Nobody here bought a ticket to see us officiate tonight. Let's do our job and manage the game.
For thirty minutes the crew watches a video compilation of plays put together by ACC football officiating coordinator Doug Rhodes, a former ACC ref and FBI agent. Every play comes from league games during the 2008 season and every play is a super-fast, bang-bang, tough-ass call, all of which are discussed and debated by the men in the room.
The clip selection is no accident. Everyone in the room expects a high-flying offensive shootout and the plays they're watching are chosen to get them in the right mindset—catch/no catch, sideline toe-draggers, was the quarterback's arm going backward or forward as he was hit? They spend a lot of time on this year's new "horse collar" tackle rule, with a reminder that the runner must be pulled straight back for it to be a penalty. "I know you guys know the rules," Cherry explains, "But we have been off for a month, so a refresher can't hurt."
Tuesday evening is also spent watching tape on each team, kicking off two days of endless discussion of team tendencies. Some of the crew have called friends in the SEC and Big 12 to see if there's anything they should look out for.
As they watch, Cherry repeats the same line over and over: "This is the stuff that's going to happen tonight, guys."
On Tuesday afternoon, Cherry participated in a pre-game meeting with the game directors, NCAA suits, FOX TV, as well as band directors, athletic directors and coaches from both schools. They discuss everything from pregame ceremonies to TV timeouts to how many cheerleaders are allowed on the sideline (20 per team). On gameday, Cherry goes over his notes on the meeting with his crewmates. Normally only two officials keep an eye on pregame warm-ups, but the entire crew decides to line up along the 50-yard line and be on the lookout for stuff like late hits "because when the stakes are highest, so are emotions."
After some questions about the wisdom of having both teams use the same tunnel during pregame introductions, everyone wants to know how the hell Oklahoma is going to get the Sooner Schooner on and off the field.
"I was in that same meeting for the 1990 Orange Bowl between Colorado and Notre Dame," recalls McGee, who is retiring after tonight's game, his 404th as a college official. "All Lou Holtz wanted to know was how the whole running of Ralphie the Buffalo was going to work. He wanted to make sure half his defense didn't end up injured before the game even started."
The meeting wraps up by going around the room and letting each crew member share one last thought, concern, or piece of advice.
Line judge Rich Misner and head linesman Sam Stephenson, the men who bracket the line of scrimmage, remind the crew that both teams love to run slip screens, which means a lot of plays will be coming directly at them, so they're going to need help on the periphery. Everyone nods in agreement.
The final word goes to McGee and replay official Ted Jackson, who have been at this a combined sixty years. "Just slow it down," McGee tells the room. "No one will remember tomorrow if we took fifteen seconds to make sure we got a call right."
Alternate Tom DeJoseph puts it another way: "Whales not minnows. If it isn't obvious, it isn't a foul."
The officials and their families gather in the lobby of the hotel—the Orange Bowl Committee has vans and a police escort waiting. Dressed in sport coats and slacks, the crew is whisked to Dolphin Stadium nearly four full hours before kickoff. During most regular season games, they dress at the hotel, but tonight the crew decides to take their time and soak up as much of the experience as they can.
Over the next two hours the crew laughs, relaxes and swaps war stories. Some head to the training room to get taped up, others stroll out to the field to snap photos.
McGee's Blackberry continues to buzz with well wishes from everyone from childhood friends to Dr. Jerry Punch to members of his regular season crew (most of whom worked the Alamo Bowl two weeks earlier).
As the teams take the field for warm-ups, the crew sets up a human shield along the 50 just as planned, but it becomes obvious early that both teams are on their best behavior.
For now anyway.
The teams leave the field and as the bands get ready the officials retreat to the locker room one last time before kickoff. One last pep talk and one last reminder to treat this just like any other game.
"Hey," Jackson says as he and former Big East official Charlie Kalis settle into the replay booth in the press box, "there are fewer people here tonight than we have for any game at Clemson."
Bad news—we already have our first stoppage in play for a review in the booth comes on the second play of the game. Sam Bradford's pass to Manuel Johnson was ruled a first down by side judge Darrell Harrison.
Good news. The play is upheld.
No one will remember tomorrow if we took fifteen seconds to make sure we got a call right.
McGee's first tough call of the night happens to come on Florida's first touchdown. Louis Murphy dives toward the end zone as he is hit, slamming the ball free as he hits the ground and as his back slams into the turf on the one yard line.
Was it a fumble? Was it a touchdown? Or was he down before the ball broke the plane?
McGee doesn't hesitate. Touchdown.
Florida stuffs Oklahoma at the goal line on four straight plays. While the world watches to see if the Sooners break the plane of the goal line, Misner and Stephenson watch for them. Meanwhile, Cherry and umpire Tom Laverty watch for early jumps and holding, and the three men lined along the back of the end zone—McGee, Harrison and back judge Gary Patterson play outfield in case a tight end or wideout slips free for a quick strike.
Watching all that horse collar tape this morning just paid off. Head linesman Sam Stephenson, an 18-year ACC vet, doesn't call it at the end of a long run by Chris Rainey. Just as they discussed in the morning film session, the penalty occurs when a player is jerked straight back into his own tracks, a rule put in place to avoid leg injuries. Ramey is pulled down by his collar, but to the side, which makes it merely a tackle from behind and not a penalty.
McGee's second tough call. A would-be Sooner TD pass is knocked loose at the goal line and batted around by no fewer than five players before Florida comes up with it.
Confusion reigns, but not with McGee, who confidently points to indicate—Gator ball, first down.
The scoreboard reads 7-7, but in the officials' locker room they could care less. Instead, they take a quick inventory of calls and no-calls and adjust their mechanics to fit what each team is doing offensively. The downfield guys are going to drift a hair deeper than planned when Florida has the ball because Tim Tebow and supposedly injured Percy Harvin thus far haven't run the ball as much as expected. And whenever Harvin does, he ends up way downfield.
McGee takes a straw poll on his Gator touchdown call and the room agrees that if Jackson and the replay booth let it stand then that's good enough for them…that and the Oklahoma sideline didn't complain (which is unusual for them even when a play isn't close). Still, the 27-year ACC vet is anxious to watch SportsCenter later that night and see for himself.
The scoreboard in this locker room reads Florida 3, Oklahoma 2…as in penalties.
Big call number three for McGee—a facemask at the goal line against Oklahoma late in the third quarter. This one's a no-brainer, and it's also the fourth personal foul of the game. Because when the stakes are highest, so are emotions.
Two plays later, after a very nice incompletion call by Patterson, the Gators take the lead 14-7.
As the clock ticks away in the fourth quarter, the officials begin to do exactly what they wanted to do—quietly disappear in to the background. Cherry has a pair of off-setting unsportsmanlike conducts with thirteen minutes to go. Past that, the only play reviewed upstairs is upheld and the crew throws only three more flags during what becomes a tank battle of a final quarter, all procedural stuff, except for Tebow's Gator Chomp in the face of Nic Harris.
"I hated to call it," Patterson says, "But I had to."
If it isn't obvious, it isn't a foul.
Florida has the ball and is salting the clock, but not before Tebow and umpire Tom Laverty collide at midfield and end up in a pile. Laverty, a former offensive lineman at D-2 Olivet Nazarene, emerges from the wreckage without flinching.
"I felt bad about it," the Heisman winner says in the postgame press conference. "I had to help him put his shoe back on and everything."
The 2009 BCS Championship ends as a good one. Florida 24, Oklahoma 14, and as the Gators celebrate, the ACC crew disappears into the end zone tunnel. The first one off the field is McGee, which has usually been the case his entire career. Only this will be the final time.
As the rest of the crew comes into the locker room, McGee greets them at the door and an impromptu receiving line forms. Each official gives him a hug and congratulations on one of the most prolific college officiating careers that anyone can recall—404 games, 300 in Division 1, including 20 bowl games.
The celebration is stopped momentarily to take care of business, as McGee rattles through the game's eleven penalties and the crew checks the personal penalty cards they keep during the game. McGee's penalty report will be turned in to the ACC and both schools for review.
As the business concludes, replay officials Jackson and Kalis arrive and are immediately hit with a joking amount of hell for "pulling the trigger on the second play of the game!"
Laverty pulls off his jersey to reveal Tebow's cleat marks on his back while everyone else in the room is riveted to the highlights being shown on ESPN, then hits the showers.
Everyone, that is, but McGee, who sits in the corner, still in his uniform.
"I think I'm just going to wear this home."
Showered and ready, the crew emerges from the locker room and loads into the vans, where their families are waiting with a round of applause.
The police escort hits the lights and the convoy rolls out. Game over. Mission accomplished.
They painted the house and no one knows their names.
Just the way they like it.
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16hMark Schlabach and Sharon Katz