If there is one thing that all sports have in common, it’s that officials are never the most liked people on the playing field. They remain nameless to 95% of fans but the game would not exist if officials are not there to keep the peace. Yesterday I interviewed a legend in the officiating world that is here from Louisville, Kentucky to figure out what goes behind the scenes in the world of officiating.
Paul Schmitt played Tackle for U of L in the late fifties and has been officiating at the collegiate level for 45 years. He began his career in the Missouri Valley Conference, working his way into founding the Southern Independent Conference Officials Association where he worked some of the most famous college football games in the 1980s, including the Doug Flutie Hail Mary game. He is one of the original replay officials in college football and currently sits in the replay booth for Conference-USA games. I’ve known Paul my entire life but never really knew how big of a deal he was.
I was greeted at the door by a man of large stature gracing a Pinstripe Bowl hooded sweatshirt. The firm handshake was even more painful with his obtruding Orange Bowl ring in his right hand. His left was adorned with his most recent Conference-USA Championship game ring. Before sitting down to ask him specific questions about what officials do, he took me down to his hallway filled with framed memories from his officiating times.
The first picture I notice shows him receiving the game ball from an elephant. Yes, an elephant. In the infant stages of the MVC, they had to do many gimmicks to attract fans to games. “You don’t realize how big an elephant is until it’s walking towards you.” When he was being prepped he initially reached to get the ball from the elephant, but was quickly scolded by the trainer. “NO. You don’t get the ball from him. He gives the ball to YOU.” I doubt UK needs to bring elephants to games, but it may not have hurt against Vandy.
After I saw the strange picture I was immediately taken aback by all of the legendary coaches that had taken pictures with the referee, followed with a personal note and an autograph. A picture with Lou Holtz on the field, turned out to be Lou’s last game at Notre Dame Stadium (he bragged that he was the first person to be able to use their newly expanded press boxes). Bobby Bowden and Howard Schnellenberger were a few of the other famous coaches that sent their best regards to Paul, including a picture of the Hail Mary signed by Doug Flutie.
There was one picture out of them all that stood out from the rest of them. This picture only showed him walking off the field with another referee; a strange picture considering the theme of this wall. After telling stories about all of the others (When you’re in pictures in Sports Illustrated a story HAS to come with it) he finally made it to the bland picture. “This is from my last game as a head referee at the Citrus Bowl. There’s supposed to be somebody in between us, but now he’s missing.” The man missing is Joe Paterno. Since the proverbial ish hit the fan at Penn State, one of his son-in-laws photoshopped JoePa and his autograph out of the picture. The original lies in the frame behind the new picture.
I asked some serious questions, but the stories made me feel like a kid in a candy shop. His Orange Bowl appearance (his personal dream game) following the 1986 season pitted Oklahoma vs. Arkansas. The main headline of the game was that Butkus Award Winner Brian Bosworth was ineligible for steroid use. If you don’t know who Bosworth is, I recommend you watch ESPN’s “You Don’t Know Bo” where they detail Bosworth’s bad boy mantra. Before the game Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told Paul that he named Bosworth an honorary Captain for the game. Paul informed him that it was fine, but that Bosworth had to remove himself from midfield before the coin was tossed. By NCAA rules, the game begins when the coin is flipped, with the referee enforcing all NCAA rules (like Bodworth’s suspension). Coach Switzer didn’t tell Bosworth before he walked out onto the middle of the field. When Paul told him he had to leave, bad boy Bosworth teared up and trudged off the field.
While stories like that, or ones featuring Deion Sanders or “those punks from The U” are fascinating to hear, you can’t avoid asking about the Doug Flutie game (after all, what play is more famous).
Some of the interesting things about that, right before the big play Bernie Kosar takes em 93 yards on a drive and overcame three 4th down situations with 30 seconds left to take the lead. Here’s what really happened, Boston College calls a timeout with 6 seconds to go. I’m telling the officials to move back because there wasn’t anything they could do but throw it long. One guy said he’d cheat a little and I told em “cheat a whole lot.” After I talked with my officials Flutie is back there in the huddle calling the play and I said, “Throw long Doug!”
Standing 72 yards from the end zone, he could barely see his best friend Bill Lange raise his hands signaling touchdown. Paul was running down the sideline with Boston College’s coach Jack Bicknell in pursuit asking him, “Is it over?” Paul replied, “if you want it to be.” At the time, the rules stated that regardless if the game was technically out of reach, you had to kick the extra point. Paul looked down the tunnel and saw all of the Miami players leaving the field and said to himself, “they don’t want to play no damn extra point, the game is over.” What I find even more interesting is that once all had settled and they were back at the hotel, the officiating crew was more concerned about a questionable ineligible receiver downfield call that had occurred in the first half that “Jimmy Johnson tore me up over”.