- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

GREENSBORO, N.C. | It’s an inordinately busy room, a place where it’s quite possible to suffer from information overload.

On an early November afternoon, five televisions display four games, the happenings on each screen studiously monitored and recorded. Every now and then, something occurs to rivet the attention of the half-dozen people tracking every televised game in the ACC.

In this case, it’s a random, out-of-the-blue clipping penalty rarely witnessed in college football. After the first replay, there is a unity of opinion.

“That’s a good call” is bellowed from both ends of the room, but it wasn’t just the penalty that was examined. It was the positioning of the referee who made the call, the immediacy of his decision and his implementation and explanation of the rule. The tailback carrying the ball is almost entirely ignored.

At this juncture, it’s clear the room tucked inside the ACC’s plush conference offices is a place to see a different game. Yes, it’s still the same sport, but in the conference’s officiating command center, there’s a different outlook — not to mention a determination to improve just as much as any coach or player.

“We watch that game very differently,” said Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s coordinator of football officiating. “We all love football. I can’t even watch a game without looking at the officiating.”

In the command center, it’s the only way to watch a game.

In the details

Nothing is too mundane to keep track of during a Saturday.

Interns from local colleges with an interest in sports management don headsets and listen to broadcasts, noting every penalty, whether it’s a plain-as-day false start or Ron Cherry flagging an offensive lineman for a personal foul — more specifically, for anyone who saw last year’s Maryland-N.C. State game, for “giving him the business.”

The broadcasts are monitored for more than just penalties. Such subtle details as clock management and whether the chain crew is wearing the proper vests are noted, as well as whether the conference’s broadcast partners are providing correct information on matters including the league’s bowl tie-ins.

On this particular afternoon, things pick up at 3:30. Four games begin within moments of one another, with Virginia-Wake Forest, Clemson-Florida State and N.C. State-Duke drawing attention. So does Coastal Carolina vs. Gardner-Webb because the ACC provides officials for Big South games.

Ben Tario, the conference’s assistant director for technology and operations, holds the remote for the room’s main television. He’s also taking calls arriving from game sites and providing instantaneous help to on-site operations staff.

“We’ll see a play, get ahold of Doug, explain what happened, and he calls in,” Tario said. “Within 10 minutes, they’re talking [on the broadcast] about ‘It was a correct call and here’s why.’ It’s immediate feedback.”

Game-day recording — even with a dozen remotes connected to a closet full of TiVos — is only the beginning of the video system’s significance. Each television is connected to two TiVos, one in high definition to assist with monitoring, another to feed into the league’s editing system, which can’t handle HD video.

With the help of the list of penalties and tough calls the interns assemble, plus film of each game from television and from the schools (which usually arrives by Sunday afternoon via the Dragonfly video program), the conference assembles roughly a 50-minute video for Rhoads to analyze. By Tuesday morning, it is winnowed to a training video of 20 to 30 minutes. Rhoads enters a cramped recording studio and provides voice-overs for the plays he believes are pertinent, using a Telestrator to illustrate his points.

Rhoads, who also conducts teleconferences with referees and replay officials early in the week, then posts the video on a Web site for officials to access. He also sends it back to the schools through Dragonfly, allowing coaches to share the insights with their staff and players.

“Sometimes Doug will say, ‘Show this to your players,’” Tario said. “We want them to see it - a lot of time with unsportsmanlike [conduct], with the taunting and the signals and all that. Then there’s no excuse. If it’s been on the training video four weeks in a row, you can’t say we didn’t tell you.”

Law and order

If it all seems highly ordered, there’s a good reason — Rhoads was an FBI special agent for 26 years and later was the deputy police chief of Albemarle County, Va.

He’s in his second year as officials coordinator, and one of the first changes he made was adding the officiating command center. It is part of an emphasis on accountability and consistency, priorities Rhoads communicates both to his officials and the coaches who pepper him with questions each week.

“When I show the video, I say we want to get the felonies and let the misdemeanors go,” Rhoads said. “When the coaches send tape in, they’ll say, ‘This looks like a misdemeanor - why is this called?’ or ‘This is a felony.’ They’ve adopted my language.”

So too have his officials. Jerry Magallanes, in his fourth year as an ACC referee, said feedback has improved the past two years. Rhoads encourages officials to visit the office during one of their weeks off to enhance their understanding of how the system works. While the process appeared overwhelming at times, Magallanes said the visual reminders officials receive have enhanced their ability to their jobs.

“The one thing about what we do: You think you’re officiating one way, but you’re actually doing it a separate way,” he said. “Until you see it, you think you’re doing one thing. You look at the film and you’re like, ‘Wow, I should have done that differently.’ Then the next time you see it, you see it from a better angle.”

Magallanes and technical adviser Charlie Kalis conferred throughout the afternoon, often nodding in agreement when one murmured, “That’s close,” on an out-of-bounds play or the other said, “That’s an easy one,” after a blatant late hit.

The system has added transparency to officiating, an area of the sport that isn’t always easy to discern. And while acknowledging mistakes could add to the perception that mistakes are made, it’s also important to realize the conference owning up to its errors is part of what Rhoads calls “setting a standard of accountability.”

After two seasons of hectic monitoring and video editing, he detects improvement from a group eager to get better.

“I think the one thing I’ve seen is a better understanding,” Rhoads said. “This is their job. These are professionals - president of a university, accountants, lawyers, police officers and teachers. They respond to visual stimuli. It’s adult learning, and they’ve responded well.”

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