Big Sky Conference

The Big Sky adds instant replay in revenue sports


PARK CITY, Utah — At least three times since 2011, the Big Sky Conference has sent out press releases admitting officiating errors. With last week’s news that the league is adding instant replay for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball, errors of such degree should not be a problem moving forward.

“The thing we are doing is really exciting,” Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton said while addressing the media on Monday morning of the Big Sky Kickoff here. “Replay is now in the rule book so it’s almost impossible to have a game without it. And replay is now a staple for fans. That big miss could be overturned and can now be looked at. Sometimes, the people down on the field, if you’ve ever been able to stand down on the sidelines, you have the worst view in the arena and everyone else in the arena can see something maybe the officials can’t.”

The addition of replay to the Big Sky in terms of football means all 13 schools will have replay booths at their stadiums. The cost of installation of the equipment was picked up by the league office and will be around $500,000, Fullerton said. In the booth, an eighth official will be in place to review every single play of a game, incurring an additional cost. Each review official will also have an observer to help with staying engaged as well as buzzing down to the field. If the officials in the booth see a play worth looking at again, they can buzz down onto the field to an official working the sideline. Each booth will also have a paid technician. Coaches will also be allowed to challenge one play per game.

“It’s become an expectation, particularly from the media that things will be caught. So if you don’t have it, the media is saying there is no replay in the Big Sky and there’s a stigma attached to that particular game, subliminal or not, about the quality of play in the Big Sky,” Fullerton said. “Part of our strategy is to move the Big Sky up as the people ahead of us are sliding toward us because of the autonomy issues. It’s the absolute right time to do it.”

The Big Sky will handle the costs for the first five years of upgrades and maintenance for the replay equipment.

Fullerton said one of the biggest challenges was finding space in a private booth at each of the 13 football stadiums. Fullerton said he “sent out some cash” recently to schools that incurred additional costs building booths and running electric lines to the booths. Each set of replay equipment is portable and will be used at both football stadiums and basketball arenas at each member school.

“The coaches were the first ones to vote for it and it was 100 percent,” Fullerton said. “I think there’s a comfort that we get it right, especially for the big plays. The coaches were the first ones who voted for it, we took it to the ADs and they absolutely agreed. It’s money I had spirited away over the years so I was able to do it without putting a lot of financial pressure on the schools. I haven’t heard any negatives.”

In an effort to maintain the integrity and human element of the game, plays will be reviewed for competitive impact, not to re-officiate a given play in most cases, Fullerton said.

Jim Blackwood, who spent 10 years as a replay official in the NFL, addressed those in attendance here about the process of using instant replay.

“We first have to decide there’s an error on the football field. Then it has to be a reviewable play. And the third and most important thing and the thing a lot of media don’t understand is that the result of what we come up with must have a direct competitive effect on the game,” Blackwood said.

“For us to change the ruling on the field, we have to have 100 percent indisputable video evidence that the call on the field is incorrect. One thing that fans and media don’t understand is that the official upstairs is reviewing every play. We stop some. We don’t most. But in the fourth quarter, the key criteria is a three-score game. If it’s more than three scores, we just don’t want to prolong the game. If it’s three scores or more, we are only looking over turnovers and scoring points.”

Blackwood told a story about the University of Alabama beating a team by eight scores. The overmatched team, who Blackwood did not name, did not muster a first down. On the one first down the underdogs did get, Alabama challenged the spot and it was overturned. Blackwood emphasized the Big Sky wanted to avoid that.

“But make no mistake: Replay is here to stay,” Blackwood said. “It’s a part of the game. A very big part of the game. What people don’t understand and they want to tie it to the NFL is that NFL replay doesn’t stop the game unless there’s a challenge. In college, the replay official looks at every play and determines if they want to review it and if it has a direct competitive effect. If it doesn’t, and most don’t, it won’t have an affect on the pace of the game.”

The Big Sky released acknowledgements of officiating errors following Northern Colorado’s 2011 loss to Portland State and UNC’s 2012 win over North Dakota. In the loss against PSU, the Bears were erroneously flagged for an illegal block on a touchdown run that would’ve tied the game with 3.6 seconds left. Portland State pulled out a 23-17 win. UNC secured a 28-27 win over North Dakota in 2012 thanks to a fourth down and one yard to go inside the 5-yard line in which 12 Bears defenders were on the field to help stop UND.

Last winter, the Big Sky admitted a timing issue in Montana’s 69-67 win over Idaho State in the first round of the women’s Big Sky Championship basketball tournament. Montana went on to win the tournament and represented the Big Sky in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

Bobcat Beat got feedback from 11 of the 13 Big Sky head football coaches during the Big Sky kickoff. Here’s what each of them had to say.

Rob Ash, ninth season, Montana State: “I like it in terms of getting key plays right. But I hope we don’t overdo it. I hope it doesn’t get to the point where we are reviewing too many plays. I hope we trust the judgment of the officials on the field. I just hope they don’t disrupt the game too much not just for our offense but just for the sake of college football. Our games are already long enough the way they are. We don’t want to be evaluating and reviewing one out of every 10 plays.” 

Mike Kramer, fifth season, Idaho State: “I don’t like it. I don’t like instant replay in any sport. I don’t like it at any level. I don’t like it at all. It’s the human element and it’s a human game. If we are going to do that, let’s start calling balls and strikes with a computer. We could. I don’t like it and I don’t believe in instant replay. But if we are going to have it, let’s have it. I’m glad to see the league have it and I’m glad it’s in HD. But I don’t think I’ve ever made a challenge. We play money games that have it and I just want them to make the call.”

Jerome Souers, 18th season, Northern Arizona: “I think it can only help. I think it’s going to be awkward in ways at first. There’s going to be different strategies with it. If you think it’s a questionable play, you’ll be getting up and snapping the play before they can get the review going. But most of us have all coached against teams that have replay. Money games, you have it. It doesn’t impact the true nature of the game. I just hope it makes the officiating more accurate. That’s a positive.”

Tim Walsh, seventh season, Cal Poly: “I was at an FBS school (Army) for awhile and in reality, if the officials are doing their job, we should never have to question a call. If that’s the way we do it, I think it’s a great thing because the game is never going to slow down. The people who are going to slow it down is if the coaches start to question. Everywhere I’ve been, the official on your sideline has been real good at telling you to throw (the challenge flag) or not. That’s philosophically the way I’m going into it. Now, if I get proven wrong on it, then maybe I’ll do it a different way. For perception, on those one or two plays a year that can change a team’s fate, those mistakes aren’t going to be made so I think it’s a good thing. But the plays will be called the best they possibly can be.”

“But I’m also a believer in the human aspect of this game. I don’t call a perfect game. The quarterback doesn’t play a perfect game. It’s a human game and you are kind of taking the human element out of it.”

Ed Lamb, eighth season, Southern Utah: “I love it. The officials do a tremendous job at all the levels. In the first few years, we all saw it in the NFL and it was slowing down games but now they really know when to get involved and when not to. The potential to overturn a crucial call, I think it is fantastic for our players to not to have to suffer through the doubt of an off-season where a game or a championship might have been lost on a crucial call.”

Earnest Collins Jr., fifth season, Northern Colorado: “It’s a part of the evolution of the game. We will have to put together a chart of when we should and when we should not challenge. We will have to pay more attention to the video boards more. But it’s a part of it, you have to get used to it and you have to prepare for it.”

Bubba Schweigert, third season, North Dakota: “I like it. I think it sends a message that the Big Sky wants to be up there with all leaders in college football. I think our officials do a really good job but sometimes, they make a mistake. If we can correct that mistake, especially if it comes on a scoring play that can affect the outcome of the game, I like it. Our challenge is to do it efficiently. I think our officials are working hard at that and our administrations are working hard at that so that we do it efficiently so our fans can have a good game day experience.”

Ron Gould, third season, UC Davis: “It gives us a calmness that the referee is going to get it right. They are human, they are going to make mistakes but that happens. The strongest part of this whole thing is they are able to look at it every single play and say ‘Let’s get it right.’ That gives me the piece of mind that every team around the league that may have a play called wrong to get it corrected.”

Jay Hill, second season, Weber State: “We should have instant replay. It’s what college football is about. It gives the officials the piece of mind that they are getting the calls exactly right or at least more accurately.” 

Jody Sears, second season, Sacramento State: “I absolutely love it. I think it’s great for our conference and the growth of the conference and for the fans. I think it’s outstanding.”

Bruce Barnum, first season, Portland State: “I’m not going to throw my flag. There was one play in the last six years (as PSU offensive coordinator) where I knew they took a touchdown away. We threw a double pass and it wasn’t. It was two yards back. So I love instant replay if they get it right.

“I think once they get the kinks out, you won’t notice it. We might sell a few more hotdogs but it’s not going to add an hour to the game. You’ll see some guys — you’ll see Coach Kramer let the boom out and make sure to use his challenge — but I’ll save it for if it’s a critical point. I’m sure they’ve trained them and will have them ready for it.”

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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