New scrutiny of Pac-12 officiating is reaching a boiling point that will only get worse until commissioner Larry Scott takes a firm and transparent stance — neither of which has yet happened.
#Pac12Refs is a longstanding and running joke on Twitter, the critical nature of which is rooted in some truth. In 2014, I chronicled some instances of the conference’s flag-happy officials doing the league a disservice. Persistent criticism after years of embarrassing officiating gaffes precipitated a change the next offseason. David Coleman was introduced as the Pac-12 officiating head in 2015, a move that offered hope of improved refereeing.
Three years later, the reputation of Pac-12 officiating has never been worse.
Everyone (in the colloquial sense of the word) hates the referees overseeing their conference. Though the Pac-12 and Big 12 seem to get the most backlash on social media, hashtags decrying the officiating in pretty every conference are readily available. Referees in general are frequent and easy targets for derision, a more comforting scapegoat on whom to blame a loss.
Garden-variety scapegoating turning into full-blown conspiracy-mongering usually pertains only to the most overzealous of message board-posters. But enough seeding of conspiracies have persisted in the Pac-12 over recent weeks to not necessarily lend credence, but certainly mainstream the idea that officiating isn’t on the up-and-up. And when an institution’s credibility is questioned is when it has a serious problem requiring serious response.
Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel, one of the most reputable investigative reporters in sports journalism, broke news on Oct. 10 that Woodie Dixon — the conference’s senior vice president of business affairs and not a trained official — overruled a targeting call against USC defensive end Porter Gustin in a 39-36 win over Washington State on Sept. 21.
Gustin’s hit on Gardner Minshew came on Washington State’s final drive, which ended in a blocked field goal.
Thamel followed up last week with acquired text messages Washington State coach Mike Leach sent commissioner Scott as well as Dixon, which included the line, “Why can’t I help wondering, if you’re trying to manipulate wins and losses?”
And thus we have, out in the public eye and reported from a reputable outlet, the catalyst for typical grumbling about officials to be examined as something more nefarious. In his texts, Leach accused Dixon of being “afraid of USC.”
There’s little doubt USC is viewed as the national brand of the Pac-12. The Trojans are the only program in the conference to win a national championship since 1991, and before Marcus Mariota’s Heisman in 2014, the only to produce a winner of the award since Jim Plunkett in 1970. Conspiracy theories are often rooted in a logical idea; in this case, that the conference would kowtow to its most recognized brand.
Of course, there’s inherent irony in that the same officiating crew botched a targeting call against Washington State in the same game; or in USC’s schedule last year, including playing at Washington State on a Friday night on just six days’ rest. What’s more, USC is the most penalized program in the Pac-12.
Conspiracy theories and how to defuse them are becoming an increasingly pressing issue of our time, beyond football. Coincidentally, Leach has previously ventured into that world, which has nothing to do this episode; but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention it.
Besides, it’s not just Leach from the Pac-12 coaching ranks whose laments about Pac-12 officiating have fanned the flames. The conference announced a fine and public reprimand Wednesday night for Arizona State defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, who lambasted the referees in last Thursday’s Sun Devils loss to Stanford.
The announcement of Gonzales’ fine came a few hours after the conference issued a statement on its findings of the Dixon incident, which included the following paragraph:
The review found that administrators responsible for the Conference’s football program and its officiating program had failed to put in place adequately clear and thorough procedures governing instant replay for football. It also found that administrator Woodie Dixon’s call into the Conference’s centralized replay center during the targeting call in question was a mistake and influenced the replay officials’ decision, though it also found the influencing of a replay decision was an isolated incident.
While technically correct, the conversation surrounding and implications of the issue demanded a more forceful response. Contrast this with news Thursday that the NFL fired official Hugo Cruz — an unprecedented move in the modern era — because he missed a critical penalty on a scoring play.
Can confirm @footballzebras report that the @NFL has fired down judge Hugo Cruz. It was for performance reasons, and not for just one call, either. Unprecedented move during the season. Story coming soon.
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) October 25, 2018
Complaints from fans will never cease; they’re a part of the game. But shy of a drastic stance from the conference, the criticism from coaches and media will only serve to undermine the league’s credibility.