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Pac-12 to handle targeting replays differently, implement other changes

An independent review of officiating yielded some pretty frank criticism, including an apparent call for removing some referees.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

In an apparent effort to show that they’re actually doing something about the fact that their officiating is subpar, the Pac-12 announced today that it will be implementing changes to its officiating program this season.

The changes come at the recommendation of a consulting organization that was commissioned for an independent review.

Here are the broad strokes, as summarized by the Pac-12 itself:

  • The head of officiating to report directly to the Commissioner rather than the football administrator;
  • Adoption of a new replay manual codifying processes and procedures that will eliminate the potential for an incident like the one in last year’s Washington State v. USC game reoccurring;
  • Enhancements to training programs for officials, and more consistency in grading and training from the officiating supervisors; and
  • A new communications protocol with more transparency and public comment around significant calls or errors that either impact player safety or the result of the game.

The conference went to great pains to emphasize that it’s doing more things right than wrong: “The review concluded that the Pac-12’s football officiating program is fundamentally sound and predominantly consistent with industry best practice, including with regard to the quality of officials and use of state-of-the-art technology.” But are they getting it 99% right or 90% right? Independent of context, both of those numbers appear very high. But in the world of officiating, 90% is a failure.

Closer inspection of the executive summary from Sibson Consulting revealed it to be not really close to 100%, identifying numerous areas for improvement. Many of those areas are well known to fans of conference, while others are a little more obscure.

But if I can digress for a moment ... for what it’s worth (and I think it’s worth a lot, actually), the Pac-12 deserves credit for making the findings public. It’s an organization that’s generally shrouded in secrecy, so this is a positive move. They also said “all recommendations will be implemented,” which is also a great idea.

Since a reviewed targeting call between our own Washington State Cougars and the USC Trojans and the subsequent fallout is what set this whole thing in motion, and since the changes on that front are what you’re probably going to see most prominently in the games you’re watching, let’s start there.

Targeting

This is a two-part change — one part NCAA, one part Pac-12.

The NCAA has instituted a new targeting review procedure this year in which the automatic review of any targeting flag (which has been in place for years) must now be confirmed by the replay official. In other words, no targeting flag can “stand” unless every part of the definition of targeting can be confirmed via replay. If it can’t, the call is overturned.

That should help a bit with the inconsistencies we’ve all observed, given that the bar for targeting is now higher. However, as we’ve seen, no matter how much training these people receive, they can’t seem to get on the same page from game to game.

So here’s what the Pac-12 is going to do: Have one person — the Pac-12 Supervisor of Replay Officials — make all targeting review decisions. This is a fantastic move and should ensure a higher level of consistency.

The Officials

The feeling among fans for a long time has been that many of the officials themselves in the Pac-12 are subpar. The report didn’t exactly dispel that notion! It did say, “the Officials are viewed as a competent group” and “are good on-field communicators,” but “are calling certain penalty types inconsistently across crews.” Why is that happening? Here’s what the report says about how it’s handling the officials:

  • Hiring and Recruiting
    “The Pac-12 is the only Power Five Conference without an affiliated Group of Five recruiting and training partner for officiating, often called a ‘pipeline,’ which is a major weakness”
  • Training
    “The clinic does not provide the Officials with sufficient training, and needs to provide more clarity on specific play calling”
    “Training tapes and conference calls by the Position Supervisors need to be standardized, and all training tapes need to include more binary conclusions”
    “Officials do not have adequate personnel resources with whom to consult at the Pac-12 regarding rules and mechanics”
  • Grading and Evaluating
    “The current ranking system [of officials] is too dependent on subjective measures”
    “Fitness is overemphasized in the evaluation of the Officials, and the current system for evaluating fitness can be improved”
    “Supervisors generally lack both recent on-field experience and recent NFL experience”
    “Supervisors do not train consistently and effectively”
    “Grading is not consistent across the group, and many lack rigor in their grading process, including a lack of commentary and poor specificity”

So, in summary, the Pac-12:

  • Doesn’t do enough to actively help develop the officials at lower levels who will eventually become Pac-12 officials;
  • Doesn’t train them well enough once they’re employed; and
  • Does a bad job of deciding which of its officials are actually good.

This is the solution provided by Sibson, which is actually fairly stunning on its face:

“An intentional increase in turnover may lead to an enhanced recruitment of high-quality talent.”

Um, I’m not sure what “an intentional increase in turnover” means exactly, but I’m struggling to come up with something other than “you really need to fire some of your officials.”

I think it’s worth pointing this out, though: “According to most parties, the Pac-12 does an excellent job focusing on and maintaining a diverse officiating group.” That’s definitely worth celebrating.

Communication

This is a biggie for fans, since so many controversial calls seem to just be explained like this:

Sibson said, “We would recommend continuing to communicate on important and definitive circumstances to the public without significantly increasing the volume of this distraction.”

It’s unclear exactly what the latter part means, but Scott addressed the change this way during his opening remarks this morning:

There’s going to be a shift in our communications protocol when it comes to officiating, with more transparency and public comment around significant calls or errors that either impact player safety or the result of the game.

We are also going to be monitoring closely what the SEC is doing with their Twitter feed and their other external communications, and we’ll see if we want to make further adjustments in the future. But for us this will be an important step forward in terms of how and when we communicate based on the significance of any egregious errors that have an impact on player safety or the outcome of the game.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this actually will look like. My money is on a Twitter feed or Facebook page or both, given the “public comment” component, in which they drop in a video or something explaining the call — something like this account with tweets like this that link to a story that explains calls:

Conclusions

For as critical as the report is of the conference’s officiating program, this is a good first step for the Pac-12 — both in making the report public and in promising to implement all recommendations.

That said, it will likely take years to see the fruits of the vast majority of these changes on the field. And for that to happen, the conference will have to implement effective changes — no gimme for these people. But at the very least, it’s reasonable to expect that ridiculous targeting situations should be minimized this year.

You can read the full Sibson executive summary here.