ACC officials seek perfection

Updated: November 16, 2006, 2:36 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Standing in the hotel lobby on a sun-splashed Friday afternoon recently, referee Ron Cherry is looking for an answer. How has the season gone so far? The 14-year Atlantic Coast Conference veteran closes his fist, finds a wooden strip on the back of a lobby chair and knocks it for good luck.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comUmpire Tom Laverty can sense when players are trying to butter him up.
"So far so good," Cherry says with his trademark grin. "But you never know. We could all be raking leaves next Saturday."

To ensure that doesn't happen, Cherry joins the other six members of his crew in a hotel ballroom to begin preparations for Saturday night's game between Miami and Virginia Tech. The seven-man team -- a dentist, a firefighter, a salesman, a realtor, an investor, a builder and a customer service manager -- has a combined 100 years and more than 950 games of Division I-A experience between them.

The game doesn't carry the national title implications some thought it would back in August, but that doesn't mean it's any less important. Miami head coach Larry Coker is reportedly in danger of losing his job. And Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer also has come under fire for his team's 6-2 start.

"If you want pressure, you walk out onto the field with a coach who is in trouble," says field judge Jim Coman. "Listen to all the people call him names, call for his head and you'll realize real fast how important this all is. One bad call can determine the fate of his job, his assistants' jobs as well as the lives of all their families. That's pressure."

The game is the first Orange Bowl appearance for the Hurricanes since the much-publicized Oct. 14 brawl with Florida International. By the time kickoff rolls around at 8:12 p.m. on Saturday night, there is only one standard by which the crew will be judged: perfection. To see how they get there, and if they get there, Cherry and ACC Supervisor of Officials Tommy Hunt granted ESPN.com behind-the-scenes access to chronicle each step along the way.

Friday, Nov. 3, 8:21 p.m., Pacific Time Restaurant, South Beach
Sitting in a private booth in the back of a posh South Beach restaurant, the crew sips on water, Diet Coke and iced tea -- alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited the night before a game -- and nibbles on everything from salmon to sea bass.

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A 90-minute meeting to review film from previous games now behind them, it's time to relax. The conversation is endless, the camaraderie clear. The group has been together for three seasons, the longest run of any ACC crew. But on this weekend, it isn't entirely intact, as conference rules prohibit side judge Van Golmont from officiating any game involving Miami, his alma mater. Golmont has been replaced by Mike Safrit, a side judge from another crew. But the group doesn't miss a beat.

Before the trip back to the hotel, line judge Sterling Allen stops at Ghirardelli for the weekly gourmet chocolate pit stop.

"I don't know how it got started, but every weekend, we have chocolate in the dressing room," Allen said. "It's tradition."

Saturday, Nov. 4, 9:56 a.m., University of Miami Book Store
With more than 10 hours remaining until kickoff, half the crew heads to the Miami book store to buy souvenirs for family back home.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comBack judge Pat Ryan doesn't think twice about picking up some Miami gear for his family back home.
Coman buys a bright orange Miami sweatshirt for his wife. Pat Ryan picks up a couple T-shirts and a hat for his three kids. He also buys a sticker to go alongside the hundreds of others already on his refrigerator. These are men who pay close attention to the color of the shirts they wear on game day, but don't think twice about a book-store shopping spree. They're not playing favorites. This is tradition.

"When I first got in the league, the older guys would tell me, 'You're going to get so much crap.' Now I know exactly what they mean," Ryan said. "I can't believe I'm buying another T-shirt."

Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Miami Airport Marriott, Salon A
Those who don't make the trip to the book store kill the afternoon by watching other games. But they don't watch the players. They watch the officials.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comFor every hour the crew spends on the field, they spend three times that in meetings.
"Since I became an official, I never watched a game the same way again," Allen said.

The stickier the call, the better. Later, when the group reconvenes for a two-hour meeting for more film review, Cherry wiggles like there's a bug in his pants when watching a borderline touchback call. Each crew member then gives a presentation, assigned by Cherry, on football officiating fundamentals. When the presentations conclude, Cherry gives his pep talk before the crew prepares to leave for the stadium.

"Sixty minutes of complete concentration," Cherry tells the crew. "That's everything. Men, officiate as hard between plays as you do during plays and we'll nail this son of a bitch tonight. Nothing else is acceptable."

Saturday, 5:47 p.m., Orange Bowl dressing room
As the clock crawls closer to kickoff, Ryan, the back judge, checks both teams' footballs to ensure they're properly inflated. Allen, the line judge, puts out his chocolate and pages through his rulebook. Tom Laverty, the umpire, thumbs through the game program.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comOnly referee Ron Cherry can turn a microphone check into a laughing affair.
Out on the field, Coman, the field judge, is in the middle of his warm-up routine. In the summer, the 58-year-old runs 72 sprints in an hour -- two-thirds forward and one-third backward -- every other day. Tonight the number is far less than that -- just enough to get loose.

"You don't want to head out there on the opening kickoff and blow a hubcap," Coman said.

On the other side of the field, Cherry tests his microphone. A windy South Florida night is making the task more difficult than normal, but the laid-back Cherry takes it in stride. He switches the microphone on, "Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3." Then quickly flips it off, "Your mother." And then back on, "Testing, testing, Miami and Virginia Tech, Orange Bowl." The technicians laugh.

Saturday, 6:32 p.m., Orange Bowl tunnel
Almost 45 minutes later, the jokes are over.

Ross Dettman for ESPN.comBefore the game can begin, head linesman Mike Samples makes sure he and the chain gang are on the right page.
Cherry, Laverty, Allen and head linesman Mike Samples are walking through the Orange Bowl's underbelly on their way to meet both head coaches. At each stop, the interaction is brief. The coach gives the officials his captains. The officials give the coach the names and positions of the crew. Then they're on their way. There are no jokes. No more laughter. It's time to go to work.

"It's like the Power Rangers," Cherry says. "It's morphing time."

On the field, Safrit and Coman are studying players during pregame warm-ups. Coman makes a note of all the left-footed kickers and passers, information he will later pass on to Cherry so the referee will know where to position himself in the offensive backfield. On this night, both teams have left-footed punters. Safrit makes a note of players who have their knees exposed and warn them to lower their pants before the game.

At the same time, Ryan, who is in charge of television timeouts, meets with a producer from ABC. And Samples gets with the chain gang and double checks the length of the chains while making sure everyone in the crew understands each of his signals.

Saturday, 8:13 p.m., kickoff
The ball is in the air and play is under way. For the next three hours, these human beings, complete with their own thoughts, feelings, emotions and opinions, will be asked to transform into robots.

They know what's at stake: futures, careers, livelihoods. And yet they block it all out.

"We call it 'painting houses,'" Cherry says. "Nobody ever notices who paints your house. They just know it looks beautiful when it's finished. We just want to paint houses."

As the first plays unfold, one thing is clear. Watch the officials and not the ball and you quickly realize every play is like a perfectly choreographed ballet. There are the hand signals within the crew before each snap, the unique way every play is boxed in. When the ball is snapped and the play heads downfield, the box expands. As soon as a pass falls incomplete or a play is blown dead, the box contracts. When a play goes left, the box shifts left. When a play goes right, the box shifts right. On passing plays, the officials cover the field with a zone, handing receivers to one another as if they were a defensive back.

Every action by any player has an equal and opposite reaction by an official.

Saturday, 8:54 p.m., the first flag, 12:02 left in the second quarter
Early on, the game is a bore. Both teams are trying to establish the run; neither has committed a penalty. It's a clinic on sportsmanship. Hurricanes are helping up Hokies, Hokies are helping up Hurricanes. It's a love fest. Even the officials are in on the hand-holding. During one stoppage of play, a Miami defensive lineman says to Laverty, the umpire, "You're our favorite crew." Laverty chirps back: "I'm sure you guys say that to everybody."

It takes until the 12:02 mark of the second quarter for the first flag to fly. Offsides on Miami. The penalty is declined.

"You can tell that the message came from high above that tonight was going to be strictly about football," Ryan says afterward. "And that makes our job a whole lot easier."

Saturday 10:00 p.m., Coker goes nuts, 12:20 left in the third quarter
With Virginia Tech leading 10-3 early in the third quarter, controversy finally arrives. Miami's Glenn Sharpe intercepts a Virginia Tech pass at the Hurricane 25. But Coman, the field judge, sees contact between Sharpe and Hokies wide receiver Josh Hyman and throws a flag for pass interference.

Watch the Virginia Tech-Miami controversy

It took nearly half the game, but that one toss of yellow fabric has put the crew in a position they know all too well: the enemy. The typically stoic Coker nearly pops a vein in the side of his forehead stomping out on the field to bark his displeasure. The Miami fans begin screaming and swearing. And on the ABC television broadcast, commentator David Norrie adds, "I haven't seen a more ticky-tack call on a cornerback this year. Larry Coker has every right to be upset."

But the criticism is all part of the territory. Put on the black and white vertical-striped shirt and people are going to hate you.

"This is the only job in the world where you're supposed to start out perfect and then improve," Laverty said. "Every Saturday, we go to a stadium where 70,000 people hate us. But it's the seven individuals who have our backs who are the only ones we hear."

Saturday, 11:11 p.m., The Game That Won't End
With six seconds remaining and Virginia Tech leading by a touchdown, Hokie running back Brandon Ore rushes to the Miami 48. The players and coaches walk on the field to shake hands. The fans file for the exits. But Cherry won't have any of it. He blew the play dead at :02. And he has every right to give Miami both of those seconds.

"Please clear the field," Cherry says over his microphone. "The game is not over. There are two seconds still on the clock. Two seconds. Clear the field."

Calmness finally restored, Miami quarterback Kyle Wright launches a Hail Mary that's intercepted as time expires. The game is over. But it isn't. Samples, the head linesman, has thrown a flag for offsides. Miami gets one untimed down.

"The whole time I'm thinking if they score here that's all people are going to be talking about," Ryan said.

But it doesn't happen. The attempt fails and the game finally ends. Virginia Tech 17, Miami 10. Afterward, Cherry acknowledges he had no idea how prophetic his pregame speech about officiating all 60 minutes would become.

"That's why we're out there," he says. "I was in total control. Miami was entitled to both of those downs. And if they would have scored there, they would have earned it. You have to officiate all the way until the very, very end."

Sunday, 12:04 a.m., Orange Bowl parking lot
The stadium now quiet, the fans now gone, Cherry's crew, freshly showered and newly fed, climbs back into its SUVs for the ride back to the hotel. Early morning flights await everyone, the only way to salvage what few hours remain in the weekend.

Sometime between now and Wednesday, technical advisor Ted Jackson will comb over the game film, evaluating each official's performance. They'll never see those grades and instead will see only their end-of-season ACC ranking by position. It is this ranking that determines bowl assignments and crew assignments for next season.

Six days from now, in Clemson, S.C., the group will meet and do it all again. Including preseason scrimmages and postseason bowl games, this is the life, 25 weekends a year. And these guys wouldn't have it any other way.

Hours after the game, while walking out of the hotel bar where Ryan, Laverty and others are grabbing a late-night snack, Cherry is asked to evaluate the weekend. He turns to a wooden table a few feet away and gives it a knock.

"Another house painted," he says.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.