Commentary

Officiating doesn't stop on the field

Updated: September 28, 2010, 2:13 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- While much of the country forgot all about the Big Ten on Saturday, a roomful of men had their eyes locked the league for nearly 12 hours.

[+] EnlargeBig Ten
Adam Rittenberg Bill Carollo, left, Mark Rudner (far) and Mike McComiskey man the coverage from the Big Ten's officiating headquarters.

At the Big Ten's TV command center, every Saturday is Showdown Saturday.

Whenever a Big Ten team takes the field, the TV command center at league headquarters buzzes with activity. Formed in 2003, the command center serves two primary purposes:

1. Streamline communication between the Big Ten and its television partners, which can help the telecasts be as accurate as possible. "There's nothing worse than an analyst misquoting a rule," says Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration. "We want them to be right."

2. Help coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo track all the key officiating decisions affecting Big Ten teams, particularly those involving replay, which the Big Ten introduced to college football in 2004.

On this day, 10 of the 11 Big Ten teams are playing nonconference games, including six contests kicking off at 11 a.m. CT. The Big Ten Network is broadcasting a record eight games, while ESPN and ABC both carry one contest.

To keep track of everything, the league has all hands on deck in the command center.

ESPN.com was there to see it unfold.

Pregame: Talk about sensory overload. The command center has six TVs, 12 satellite boxes and four laptop computers circling the room.

The league brings in on-field officials not working games to monitor contests in the command center (NFL officials in town for Chicago Bears games often help out). Command center interns sit at each of the laptops, entering clips of each play into a database.

Video coordinator Jay Reid and his intern, Omar Ahmad, roam the room, armed with remotes to raise the volume whenever major rulings are made.

Carollo sits in the center of the room, scribbling notes. Flanking him are Rudner and Mike McComiskey, the league's assistant commissioner for technology.

Rudner sits in front of the "red phone," which connects him to all the on-site broadcast crews and the control centers in Chicago (Big Ten Network) and Bristol, Conn. (ESPN/ABC).

"We're looking critically at every aspect of the game," he says. "We all have the same goal in mind."

11:01 a.m. CT: The six games kick off. "Flag already," the official watching Northwestern-Central Michigan tells Carollo, noting a foul on the opening kickoff.

11:06 a.m.: In what will become a penalty-filled first half in Evanston, a personal foul is called on Central Michigan. "Unsportsmanlike? Tony, what'd he do?" Carollo asks the official at the monitor. "Oh, I see it, I see it." Carollo pays special attention to all personal fouls and especially high hits, a point of emphasis for the NCAA.

11:13 a.m.: Carollo gets a text message from Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium, which reads "scoring play." Carollo receives texts every time there's a replay review at a Big Ten stadium (on-field officials can come from other leagues, but replay officials are always from Carollo's staff). These messages are especially helpful when Carollo isn't in the command center. He can tell Reid to isolate reviewed plays so he can study them Sunday and respond to coaches or others asking about them. The Purdue replay official deems that Toledo's Eric Page crossed the goal line. Carollo receives a text with the ruling.

11:28 a.m.: Reid turns up the Bowling Green-Michigan game as officials penalize Michigan for illegal equipment. Michigan had two players -- Martavious Odoms and Courtney Avery -- wearing No. 9 jerseys on the field simultaneously. "That's really good they caught that," Carollo says.

11:30 a.m.: Central Michigan's Paris Cotton wriggles free of a defender and keeps running. The problem? Cotton's helmet flies off in the process. "Stop it, stop it," Carollo immediately says, as the play is correctly whistled dead.

Big Ten
Adam RittenbergJim Delany, right, regularly pops in to watch what's going on around the conference.

12:13 p.m.: Ahmad turns up the Ball State-Iowa game, which has a coach's challenge. "What did they rule on the field, fumble?" Carollo asks. The officials ruled that Ball State's Keith Wenning fumbled before his knee hit the turf. Rudner, who prefers that broadcasters don't speculate on replays, checks to make sure the correct phrase is used -- "indisputable video evidence" -- when describing what's needed for an overturn. It's often botched, but Wayne Larrivee gets it right. The ruling is upheld.

12:18 p.m.: Purdue is flagged for sideline interference. Carollo doesn't see the infraction but notes it for later review.

1:23 p.m.: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany arrives, having made the short drive from the Northwestern game. Delany doesn't travel to games as much as he used to and estimates he's in the command center twice a month.

1:40 p.m.: A replay reversal awards Northwestern's Jacob Schmidt a touchdown on a 13-yard dash to the pylon. The Big Ten Network announcers attempt to explain the decision.

1:43 p.m.: Rudner calls the BTN crew at Northwestern. He passes the phone to Carollo, who explains that there are two rules on a run to the pylon. If the ball carrier dives on his own, he must get the ball on the inside of the pylon; if he's tackled or pushed into the pylon, he only needs to touch the pylon on either side and break the plane of the goal line, even if it's out of bounds. After a commercial break, the BTN announcers attempt to relay what Carollo told them.

2:29 p.m.: The room turns over in preparation for two afternoon games: Temple-Penn State and Eastern Michigan-Ohio State. Since there were six early games and only four laptop stations, the interns and officials begin charting the other two games.

2:56 p.m.: Reid has received game film from Michigan State, which finished its game only 55 minutes earlier. Every team sends Reid copies of its film, which feature more camera angles than the TV broadcasts. For example, the sideline infraction in the Purdue-Toledo game likely will show up on the Boilers' film. When coaches question certain calls, Carollo can review both the TV and team copies before responding to them and grading his officials.

4:48 p.m.: Penn State safety Drew Astorino is flagged for pass interference, but there's a question about whether Temple's Matt Brown first stepped out of bounds. "If he stepped out, he's ineligible and you can't have pass interference." Carollo said. "Pick up the flag." The official monitoring the game plays devil's advocate. "Think they'll say he was forced out?" he asks Carollo. The replay shows Brown stepped out by himself. The penalty is nullified.

6:02 p.m.: As the Indiana-Akron game kicks off, only Carollo, McComiskey, Reid and Ahmad remain in the command center. The four men will stay until 10:52 p.m., when Northern Illinois closes out a win against Minnesota.

"You could fry your brain in here," Carollo says.

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. Check out his work in the Big Ten blog. Adam can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com