Oct. 4, 2011
By Bob Socci
The commissioner sat in the box to the left, his focus on preempting any further secession from his conference.
On a campus just a short drive to the west, presidents of a second league were scheduled to meet the following day to strategize a way of expanding their own soon-to-be-shrinking ranks.
And on the field below, officials with ties to a third conference presided over Air Force vs. Navy, one of college football's fiercest and yet purest rivalries.
Meanwhile, I sat in the home radio booth at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, thinking about the confluence of circumstances juxtaposing why the game is so great with why the industry is so troubled.
Craig Thompson helped found the Mountain West in 1999, only to see charter members BYU and Utah defect little more than a decade later. The former opted for independence after the latter elected to help the Pac-10 grow to a dozen. At the same time, TCU, which joined the MW in 2005, decided to bolt for the Big East in 2012.
Now come reports that the Big East -- though not quite the same Big East that attracted TCU -- is interested in another of Thompson's schools. Recently scorned by Pittsburgh and Syracuse in favor of the ACC, the Big East lusts for Air Force, an original Mountain West member, as well as the Naval Academy for football only.
Coincidentally -- or not -- Big East presidents scheduled a meeting Sunday at Georgetown University, roughly 35 miles from where Thompson and I both happened to be a day earlier.
And while we were there in Annapolis, albeit in separate sections of the press box, referee Mike Defee, back judge David Vaughan and the rest of their crew from CFO West -- a partnership of the MW, Big XII and Southland Conferences -- were suited up to officiate a game destined to deliver typical Air Force-Navy drama. Too much, as it turned out.
If scripted, the weekend's story lines would have been penned by a Russian playwright rather than word-processed by a Hollywood screenwriter. The game itself gave us compelling theatre; up to and -- unfortunately -- well after the end.
The Falcons aggressively took the lead on the fourth play. With their 25th play, the advantage reached 18 points, at 21-3. It remained so into halftime. After the opening play of the 4th quarter, the difference was the same, at 28-10.
But Navy staged one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the Commander-In-Chief's series. The Mids ran 37 plays and devoured more than 12 minutes of the final quarter to tie the game with 19 seconds left.
They pulled within two on Gee Gee Greene's spectacular catch, and tied it on Alexander Teich's dive to the pylon, set up by Kriss Proctor's perfectly-timed pitch. As a result, for the second time in as many Annapolis encounters, Navy and Air Forced reached overtime.
On the eighth snap of the extra session, Proctor dived for the lead; a crowd of 37,506 erupted; and the Mids' sideline went ballistic. At almost the instant his colleagues, the linesman and line judge raised their hands in the air, Vaughan pulled a yellow flag from his pocket and tossed it to the turf.
His call was unsportsmanlike conduct; the fifth penalty of the game for a Navy team that totaled five penalties the first three weeks of the season. Defee announced the infraction, though he never really expounded, noting only Proctor's "number two" on second reference.
He would be left to explain the ruling to a reporter in the aftermath. Again, Defee would prove short on words.
The long of it was Jon Teague's extra-point try, lengthened to a 35-yard attempt. The Falcons blocked it; their deficit remained six points.
Air Force took over at the 25-yard line. Tim Jefferson, the winningest quarterback in Falcon history who performed brilliantly all afternoon, passed for 16 yards to Zack Kauth. Again he threw in Kauth's direction, this time drawing a pass interference call.
Three plays later, Jefferson reached the end zone. And two years after an Air Force field goal sailed wide left to end a 16-13 overtime loss to Navy, Parker Herrington drove a PAT down the middle and a dagger into the Mids' hearts for a 35-34 win.
By now you've no doubt heard, read and formed your own opinions about Vaughan's decision to penalize Proctor. I certainly have mine, and like broadcast partner Omar Nelson, said my piece on Saturday.
Given the time, place, emotion of the moment and, yes, the act itself, it was dubious at best. With rare exception -- see baseball's Jim Joyce -- the best officials in sports never become part of the story, let alone the headline.
There is a certain objectivity to almost every call -- holding, offsides, false start, etc. -- requiring an official to enforce what he sees, as defined in a rule book. But with something so subjective as unsportsmanlike conduct, particularly at such a crucial stage, one should heed the words of Falstaff in Henry IV: The better part of valor is discretion.
Were Shakespeare himself writing about Saturday's events, I'm sure he'd agree that an official should do everything in his power to ensure that the players who've poured so much of themselves into a game decide its outcome on their own.
Now, I'm not in the business of bashing officials. Credibility is the most valuable possession of my profession. As much as you put your heart into it, a game should be called with your eyes.
There was a specific instance on Saturday, for example, when I believed a personal foul against the Midshipmen was the appropriate call. I said as much at the time.
And as much as those 15 yards impeded the Mids in overtime, they alone didn't separate Navy from victory. Many factors contributed to the ultimate result.
Air Force set the tone immediately with its hurry-up offense. The Falcons controlled the line of scrimmage early and were perfect on 3rd down -- converting 6-of-6 attempts -- in scoring their first three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Mids missed a tackle that could have avoided Air Force's initial score. They also failed to capitalize on several breaks.
There was a possession prolonged by an inadvertent whistle to nullify an apparent lost fumble and two fourth-down conversions, including a fake punt. Navy totaled 18 plays, 74 yards and 9:48 time of possession on the drive. It ended frustratingly, with a missed field goal attempt.
A later series was set up by a fumble recovery at Air Force's 38-yard line. Down 21-10 at the time, the Mids went backwards. Five plays netted a four-yard loss, and no points.
And yet somehow Navy nearly overcame all of the that; due largely to the indefatigable running of Teich, the improvisation and moxie of Proctor, and a perfectly-executed on-sides kick by Teague to Brandon Turner.
That's where the real shame of Saturday lies for me.
For 12 months those players and their teammates had worked toward the moment they could meet Air Force again, following their 14-6 loss last year at Colorado Springs. They awakened from a disappointing start and stirred a furious rally, only to deal with a devastating loss.
Teich rushed 35 times for 148 yards. Proctor passed for 132 yards and rushed for 134 yards, including three TDs, on 37 carries. Included was a Steve Young-like scramble and dash, spinning and weaving his way 27 yards on Navy's last-minute game-tying drive. Proctor showed uncanny composure, just as he did in the frantic seconds to follow.
That effort -- and, likewise, the performance of his counterpart Jefferson, who completed 9-of-10 passes and scored twice -- should be celebrated. Instead, someone else's determination that Proctor lost his poise for a split-second and deserved a 15-yard reprimand is what will be remembered from the most important game of his lifetime to date.
Still, the 21-year-old Proctor took his seat on a riser outside the Navy locker room soon after the game to field questions from reporters. Meeting the press, in their finest hour and worst moments, is something routinely required of `student-athletes,' as they're so often introduced to the media.
We expect them to peel away what hides their bare emotions and honestly explain themselves and their actions. In Proctor's case, he said calmly:
"I got up and I was trying to run to our sideline. Some guy got in my way and I just told him to move explicitly and he called it. It's unfortunate that the refs made a call like that, but it's football. That's the way it is. If we make that PAT, we wouldn't be talking about it."
Mature as Proctor's statement is -- choosing the word `unfortunate' and pointing out that the penalty could still be overcome -- it's a great starting point for moving on to Southern Miss. Considering the Eagles just gained 654 yards in routing Rice, are 4-1 and in the midst of 17 straight winning seasons, the Mids better move on from last Saturday.
But before I do, as I've done many times before as a sports fan and broadcaster, I can't help but ask why we're always left without a thorough explanation of such questionable calls in college football.
While officials need to be protected, the game, the public and the so-called guilty party are entitled to an explanation beyond what the referee Defee told pool reporter Patrick Stevens of The Washington Times: "The Navy player got in the face of an Air Force player right after the play."
Or this statement, released by the Mountain West:
"After thorough review of the incident following the Navy touchdown in overtime, it is clear a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct/taunting was warranted under NCAA Football Playing Rule 9-2-1-a.-1. and was properly administered by the CFO West officiating crew. This will be the only comment provided regarding this matter."
How? Why? In what way? If it was absolutely appropriate, remove all doubt. After all, somebody's in someone else's face after just about every play. If Vaughan regrets his decision, upon seeing the replay, Proctor is at least owed a mea culpa.
Remember when the aforementioned Joyce admitted to blowing the call that cost Detroit's Armando Galarraga a perfect game last summer? The next day, Joyce was given a standing ovation at the Tigers' Comerica Park. A recent Sports Illustrated poll of major league players named Joyce baseball's best umpire.
Joyce and Galarraga even co-authored a book, Nobody's Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History. Nobody's perfect. Not the kids who play college sports, and not the grown-ups charged with governing them. But only the teenagers and early 20-somethings are asked to tell us exactly why they aren't.
On a related note, I've long been convinced that college officials in any sport should not be proprietary to individual conferences, but should be employed and evaluated as part of a national organization. It would eliminate perceived parochial conflicts of interest that are inherent in every inter-league encounter and create more consistency in how rules (and behavior) are interpreted.
Of course, that's not going to happen. Ongoing conference chaos shows us there is no central authority over major college football. As long as leagues look to take what they can get from each other, forget about any spirit of cooperation for the betterment of the game itself.
Air Force and Navy gave CBS a thriller on Saturday, easily outdoing the excitement level of either of network TV's marquee games to follow that evening: Alabama at Florida and Nebraska at Wisconsin, both of which wound up one-sided.
Watching the Falcons and Mids reminded us why we love college football. Sadly, we also learned there are a few things to loathe about it.