ATLANTA -- Ten groups of eight men each -- men who supposedly can't see or count -- huddle around conference room tables, helping each other solve one of the most mind-numbing exams they've seen.
The questions are about the rules of football, a sport most of these men have immersed themselves in for the past 15 to 20 years -- some more. Yet the answers still don't come easy. They aren't supposed to. This is the 2006 ACC football officials' clinic exam, a series of 35 head scratchers designed to prepare the conference's 72 varsity and eight supplemental officials for the upcoming 2006 season.
Yet it reads more like something you'd find at a Mensa convention.
Consider question No. 35: "Try on B's 3. B96 intercepts A17's legal forward pass and advances to A's 48 where he is downed. During B96's run, B78 clips A55 on B's 40. A22 was illegally in motion. B63 was offside. Down and distance? Clock?"
Answer: A retry of a point-after attempt on B's 3-yard line.
"I thought I understood the game of football," said ACC umpire Jim Hyson, who played in high school, college and coached as a graduate assistant. "But when I started getting into the rulebook as an official, it was like reading Chinese."
The test is not pass/fail, keep your job/lose your job. In fact, these brain busters never will be graded or even looked at by ACC officiating coordinator Tommy Hunt. Instead, it's just one of the tactics he uses to instigate dialogue between his crews at the ACC's annual preseason clinic.
Each summer, about the time the first national college football poll is released, nearly every conference brings together its officials to make sure everyone is ready for the season. In the ACC, it means lawyers, doctors, veterinarians, dentists, pharmacists, firemen, salesmen, financial advisors and FBI agents -- from as far north as Boston and as far south as Key West -- gathering to discuss everything from intentional grounding to unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Fans think that we pop out of the ground on Saturday afternoon, officiate our game and then go back underground with all the other varmints," said Ted Jackson, a retired ACC official who now works on the conference's instant-replay team. "They have no idea how much work goes into what we do."
In the average ACC game, Hunt said, there are roughly 150 plays. On each play, countless decisions need to be made. Instantly. And with big-money BCS bowl bids on the line, not to mention the livelihood of millionaire coaches and the donations from multi-millionaire boosters, perfection is the only standard by which these men are judged.
Each season, the quest for that lofty goal -- the perfect game -- begins here.
'If you can't run … we have a problem'
Before any critical analysis of rule 3-2-5 (when the ball is free-kicked, the game clock shall be started) can begin, Hunt must ensure his officials are in shape. Or at least injury-free. So as the clock strikes noon on this sticky 95-degree day, he instructs the group of middle-aged men to run four laps around Georgia Tech's Grant Field.
The heat and humidity are so exhausting that Hunt, who officiated in the conference for 26 years before becoming coordinator in 1999, watches from a shady spot in the stadium's tunnel.
"If you feel tired, just slow down or stop," Hunt says. "And then come see me because we'll stop something else, too. If you can't run four laps around this field, we have a problem."
Before they show up here, every official has been cleared medically by his physician (eye exam included) to work the upcoming season. Hunt uses the run to make sure no one is hiding injuries and everyone is prepared for the rigors of a noon kickoff at Tallahassee in September.
On this day, everyone finishes the jog without complaint, which shouldn't come as a surprise. These guys are lucky to be here. Each year, Hunt receives about 300 applications from people wanting to work for him. Of those, maybe 50 have the experience and recommendations to be considered.
For this season, of the 300, four new officials were hired. The only time they'll get paid is when they work a game, with the average game check around $1,300, depending on travel expenses.
"It's a long, long road," says field judge Frank Overcash. "I meet a lot of people who want to become an ACC official and then when I ask how old they are they tell me 28. And then I tell them they're too old."
When in question
After a shower and lunch, it's time to get to work. Hunt begins the first classroom session with a warning.
"If you have thin skin, leave," he says. "This is not a thin-skin weekend."
Nobody moves. They pull out their rulebooks, notepads, binders and highlighters. First-day discussion covers everything from checking the field for hazards to the importance of uniformity, where if one official decides to wear gloves because he is cold, everyone must wear gloves.
Officials are even instructed on the only two things they're allowed to discuss in the transportation van to and from a stadium: the weather and traffic.
"Anything else," says referee Ron Cherry, "and that driver will tell everyone he knows."
Eventually, the conversation turns to, "When in question" -- college football's version of baseball's tie goes to the runner. "When in question" provides officials with an escape valve. If there's a play in which a ruling is too close to call, the official is encouraged to default to, "When in question."
For example, Cherry puts on an overhead, when in question …
" the catch, recovery or interception is not completed.
" the block was below the waist.
" the legal forward pass was catchable.
" the facemask was twisted, turned and pulled, not just grabbed.
" the defender is guilty of roughing the kicker, not running into the kicker.
The talk then shifts to rule changes. Though the ACC views its officials as contractors and not conference employees, these men -- men with wives, families and full-time jobs -- have been buried in their rulebooks since February. They've attended weekly study sessions since March. So when the rule changes are brought up, no one is surprised.
"This is a job where you never stop learning," says second-year official Mike Triana. "I don't care if you're working, sitting on the couch … you're always in that rulebook."
At the clinic, all the rule changes are reviewed, but two in particular are discussed at length. One is Rule 3-2-5, which states the clock will start on a free kick when a kicker's foot touches the ball, not when the ball is touched by the receiving team.
"The clock operator is going to need to be on the ball," Hunt says. "If not, we'll never get out of there."
The other is a change to Rule 12, the instant replay rule. This year, coaches will be allowed to challenge one play per game by calling a timeout. If the call is overturned, the coach will get the timeout back. If not, he will lose that timeout. While some in the room don't think coaches will use the device often, since every play already is reviewed in the replay booth and the possibility of losing a timeout could be too valuable, others aren't so sure.
The key, Hunt says, is everyone on the field knowing how many timeouts a team has remaining. He asks the officials in the room if it would help to issue red LIVESTRONG-type bracelets that the officials could wear once a team has used its last timeout. This would remind officials not to stop the game for a replay -- no matter how much a coach is yelling to do so.
'If they have a problem, tell them to call me'
As Saturday afternoon rolls into night, the Georgia Tech football meeting room falls dark and silent. On two ceiling-to-floor-sized projection screens at the front of the room, a punt from last September's game between Boston College and Florida State is about to be shown.
Florida State's Fred Rouse prepares to catch a Boston College punt deep in Seminoles territory. The instant the ball falls into Rouse's arms, BC's DeJuan Tribble flattens him. The ball pops loose. Boston College recovers.
A flag flies into view and Hunt turns up the volume in the room to hear the game's television announcers analyze the call -- catch interference, a 15-yard penalty.
"He touched that football! He touched that football first!" the television voice says. "There is no question (Rouse) had opportunity to catch that football. That's an awful call. That's an awful call right there. That's a great play by DeJuan Tribble and an awful call."
Hunt pauses the clip (as seen above): "Is this a foul?"
"YES!" the room rumbles in unison.
"Well, our coaches think that was a good, clean play," Hunt says. "They think that's good football. But you know what? They're wrong. Make that call. Make it every single time. And if they have a problem with it, tell them to call me. I'll stick up for you guys every single time. That's not necessary."
The stream of clips continues. There's a facemask penalty. A holding call. Hunt pauses the tape on another Florida State play. Running back Lorenzo Booker is down on the ground and a play is blown dead when a North Carolina State defender lunges into Booker's back. An official misses the personal foul.
"We look really bad here," Hunt says. "Really bad. We're standing right there. If you see this, send him out of the game. That is not football related. That move was intended to punish."
Later, the officials at the clinic watch more film, an hour-long video with more than 120 plays, from all of college football's conferences, created by NCAA officiating coordinator Dave Parry. Everything from mechanics and personal fouls to fumbles and formations is covered. The tape includes the infamous game-ending multi-lateral play between Michigan and Nebraska in last season's Alamo Bowl.
"These are excellent calls on all these backward passes," Parry says in the voiceover. "But we need a clear explanation of what took place, especially considering the high-profile nature of this TV game."
Hug it out
When the two-day clinic ends, everyone scatters. From here, it's back to the rulebook and back to the weekly study sessions. Any day now, assignments will start trickling in for preseason scrimmages. The assignments for the season already have been issued. Before long, it will be Week 1, and the world will wait for these men to make a mistake.
"You're never going to work the perfect game," says Triana. "There's always going to be something you could have done better. You just don't want to be controversial. You don't want to decide the outcome. You don't want to be on 'SportsCenter.'"
As the group begins to split, many of the officials, holding ACC bags and wearing ACC polos, say goodbye to their co-workers the same way they said hello two days earlier.
With a hug.
"I'm kind of a macho guy. I'll shake your hand. I'll say hello. But I'm not into hugging guys," Hyson says. "But with this group, you just do it. There's such a mutual respect for one another. Out on the field, the only people who have your back are the seven guys in stripes. That just builds this special bond -- a bond that no one else could understand unless you're out there."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.