DALLAS, Texas — The split-second decisions Big 12 officials make before packed stadiums and millions-deep TV audiences each Saturday? They’re not nearly so nerve-racking as the evaluations that follow each Wednesday.
The conference uses a crew of current and retired NFL officials to grade every play from every weekend game. Once those evaluations are distilled down to 35 or 40 plays (a process that can consume eight hours), they are graded again—this time by the man who helped bring accountability to the league’s officiating.
Walt Anderson was repeatedly labeled a genius by attendees at the Big 12′s preseason officiating clinic. If that seems like an elevated opinion of a folksy 62-year-old who instructs part-time employees on how to call holding, listen to the stories of him watching video on fast-forward and still spotting even minor positional missteps by crews. Anderson sees officiating as essentially an eight-piece puzzle with hundreds of contingencies on every snap, and seemingly he sees it all.
When game officials check their weekly grades online, they see the comments of initial evaluators in black, followed by Anderson’s comments in red. Sometimes Anderson’s responses contradict the evaluator’s. There is no confusion about which matters more.
“We work hard at making our program consistent,” Anderson said, “and the best way to have consistency is to have an apex where the buck stops somewhere.”
For nine years in the Big 12, the buck has stopped at Anderson.
When former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg hired Anderson as the league’s coordinator of officials, things quickly became uncomfortable. Necessarily so.
“The old-school guys, those people weren’t used to a lot of accountability,” Anderson said. “The staff that existed at that time, a lot of those guys were used to an environment in college officiating that was more tenure-based and wasn’t so much performance-based. Guys really had a hard time adjusting.”
So hard a time, in fact, that many were weeded out during the first few seasons. Now the league is far tougher to crack: No longer can friendships or word-of-mouth referrals land an official on a crew.
“When we came up, if you didn’t know the right people you almost had no chance,” said Anderson, a former quarterback at Sam Houston State. “It was very disheartening for guys that were really prepared to put in a lot of effort. You couldn’t get your foot in the door anywhere because you couldn’t get anyone to open the door.
“That’s not how athletics is shaped relative to players and coaches. It shouldn’t be that way for officials.”
Mike Defee enters his ninth year as a Big 12 official having worked conference championships and Rose Bowls. Yet he’s no less immune to the pressure now than he was when he worked his first league game.
“I think the Big 12 is up to 189 plays per game,” he said. “You can officiate 188 of those correctly, but if you officiate the other one incorrectly, you’ve had a bad game.”
An NFL official since 1996 who has worked two Super Bowls, Anderson’s acumen stretches beyond knowledge of rules and an ability to scour film for miscues. He also has earned reverence for his managerial style that quantifies and rewards the best officials.
“Most true professionals welcome competition,” he said. “They just want a level playing field.”
That new playing field allowed Reggie Smith to become a Big 12 official at age 28 and a referee at 31. He was running track at Robert Morris when he started officiation youth league games. He spotted “Inside the Meat Grinder” at a Pittsburgh bookstore and read about NFL ref Chad Brown. When the book referenced the Personal Touch officiating camp at UCLA, Smith cobbled up the $500 camp fee and flew across country.
“Best $500 I’ve ever spent,” he said this week in Dallas.
Smith quickly ascended through the high school and small-college ranks in Pennsylvania, eventually working the Division III Stagg Bowl in 2004 while still in grad school. He later joined Arena League 2 and then C-USA, even worked a year in NFL Europe before cracking the Big 12 in 2009.
“This league will help anybody who wants to help themselves,” said Smith, now 34. “The resources are in place but there are no free rides. We’re not going to take anybody’s word that since you’ve been doing it 20 years so you must be good. Pay the price, invest your time, be dedicated to improving.”
Smith roamed the hallways of the DFW Airport Marriott with other lean, muscular types who looked better suited for a cross-fit convention than an officiating clinic.
Each Big 12 official must satisfy a BMI evaluation from a third-party medical staff used by the NFL. The days of the pot-bellied side judge waddling 30 yards behind the play are over.
“It’s good when you look out and see officials who look like they belong on a football field as opposed to looking like they belong in a bar,” Anderson said.
Beyond the image concerns, Anderson believes fitter officials are better prepared to make late-game calls that invite scrutiny.
“When the body gets fatigued it impairs the ability of the mind to process information and do its job,” Anderson said. “People who are fit are able to have better cognitive reasoning function.”
The 52-year-old DeFee said he’s working out in the gym at least four times a week.
“I weigh every day, because I don’t want to get too far out of balance,” he said, noting that he increases cardio training leading up to the start of the season. “You owe it to the game to be as good late in the fourth quarter as you are in the first quarter.
Speaking to more than 400 officials from the Big 12, Mountain West, SWAC, Southland and Division II conferences in attendance, Anderson commanded the video screen to break down philosophies and mechanics of clips from 2013 games.
Some were called correctly. Some were not.
All became teaching moments cataloged by Anderson, who operates with as much transparency as the Big 12 will allow.
“He can remember things he told you three years ago,” said one official.
For four days, Anderson popped in and out of hotel meeting rooms—helping the back judges on fair-catch calls, explaining pace-of-play nuances to referees, conferring with replay officials on appropriate points to stop the game for reviews.
He sees all.