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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

It's Official, This Is Getting Messy

October 20, 2002|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has an open mind about officiating and all the respect in the world for Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

But amid a growing clamor from coaches and administrators to take a hard look at league officials, Delany warned there's a line even Paterno should not cross.

"And where I draw the line," the commissioner said Thursday, "is when somebody begins imputing bad intentions."

Delany is smart enough to know he has a problem, even if it has more to do with perception than reality. Because when officiating is involved, they might as well be one and the same.

Without providing exact numbers, the commissioner said preliminary research by the league found "four or five mistakes every game, pretty much the average for the 13 years I've been here."

But his headaches began with a Sept. 21 game between Purdue and nonconference opponent Wake Forest, and they've only gotten worse since.

After dismissing four league officials who worked that game, Delany tried to head off a second round of problems by promising to review Penn State's complaints about calls that figured in overtime losses to conference rivals Iowa and Michigan. (For purposes of full disclosure, my son attends Michigan.)

But then Paterno turned up the pressure by suggesting favoritism may have played a role in the Michigan game, prompting Delany to fire back.

In his first extended remarks on the subject, the commissioner made clear that while he'll consider any and all tools to help Big Ten officials do a better job -- including instant replay -- he won't let anyone question their integrity.

"Joe Paterno has been a leader, both inside and outside the game, and over the course of decades he's come to represent our best values. So if he loses confidence in the system, even temporarily, we've lost a lot. And he's not the only one to suggest we have a problem," Delany said.

"But whether or not this is easily corrected, whether it's the stresses and strains of parity, or simply because our officials had a few bad games, the bottom line is our people are honest. And any mistakes that were made were honest ones.

"Recently, a number of people have said things that played very near that line. And that," Delany said, "is where I've got a problem."

Paterno's problems, on the other hand, began with a Sept. 28 loss to Iowa. Moments after the final whistle, the 75-year-old coach raced down the sideline and grabbed an official by the jersey to complain about two late calls.

Paterno wasn't disciplined after the incident, but he wasn't through complaining, either. After another late call figured in another tough overtime loss at Michigan, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley requested a comprehensive review of league officials.

What finally coaxed the response from Delany was something Paterno said during a news conference Tuesday.

"You try not to be paranoid about it, but the same crew that did this game did the umpiring a year ago when we played Michigan," Paterno said.

He also noted three crew members lived in Michigan. "There were some concerns that some of them said to me that they had met with Dick Honig, who was the guy I had some problems with at the Iowa game, who lives in Ann Arbor.

"Those kinds of things are what they should be looking at," Paterno continued. "Not necessarily that anybody is incompetent. We are all human beings and have friends and impulses. I think that is what Penn State would like to see have done. Just re-examine how officials are assigned."

Because of his reputation, Paterno's decision to speak up emboldened a few of his colleagues.

Asked if he agreed with Penn State's call for a review, Purdue coach Joe Tiller replied, "Absolutely. Unequivocally. Yes."

Michigan's Lloyd Carr and Illinois' Ron Turner recently echoed those sentiments, with Turner, long a proponent of instant replay, talking about even more sweeping changes.

Delany said everything about the officiating program will be open for discussion -- after the season.

"At the moment, we're going to have to live with the handful of mistakes that happen in every game. If they came earlier in games or if the outcomes were different, this might not even be a topic.

"And maybe we'll get lucky and have a few quiet weeks," he added.

Then Delany paused. It sounded too much like wishful thinking.

"The reality is everybody makes mistakes -- coaches, players and officials. We'd do anything to reduce the bad calls to zero, but I don't know if we can.

"And look, if some form of replay would cut that down to two a game, and there's support from coaches and administrators, we'd be silly not to look at it," he said.

"I don't have a preordained view. My only stake in this is to come up with a system our people believe in. And right now -- rightly or wrongly -- a number of those people have lost confidence."

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