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Jim Weber

Greatest hits: 'Canes-Buckeyes still defined by freak Fiesta flag

Jim Weber
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Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today he catches up with the decisive pass interference call in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, eight years later.

If you haven't seen the play countless times before, you will over the course of the next week leading into Miami's first visit to Ohio State in 33 years: The undefeated, top-ranked Hurricanes lead the undefeated, second-ranked Buckeyes, 24-17, in overtime of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. The BCS championship is on the line. OSU is down to its final chance, on 4th-and-3 from the 'Cane five-yard line.

Quarterback Craig Krenzel fires a pass in the direction of Chris Gamble, who's tussling in the front corner of the end zone with Miami corner Glenn Sharpe. When the ball falls incomplete, Sharpe turns to line judge Derick Bowers just a few feet away to see if a penalty flag will be thrown. When the flag stays in Bowers' pocket, Sharpe and the rest of the Hurricanes immediately begin celebrating their 35th consecutive victory and back-to-back national titles.

In the midst of the Miami bench emptying onto the field from the opposite sideline, Big 12 official Terry Porter tosses his flag from the back corner of the end zone for pass interference – approximately three to four seconds after the play ended. Later, Porter explained the delay by telling reporters "I replayed (the play) in my mind."

Given new life, Ohio State punched in a touchdown three plays later and went on to win the national title in the second OT, instantly turning "The Call" into one of the most controversial in college football history.

Nearly eight years later, with this weekend's showdown being billed as a kind of "revenge" game – despite the fact most of the current players couldn't watch the overtime because they had to be up early enough to catch the bus to middle school – there are two questions everyone is asking: "Was it the right call?" and "Whatever happened to that ref, anyway?"

Debating whether it was the correct call has proven more fruitless than debating "the chicken or the egg?"

Immediately after the penalty, Porter was flooded with a tidal wave of criticism. ABC's Dan Fouts blasted the penalty on-air; then-Miami defensive backs coach Mark Stoops said bluntly after the game, "There's not another official in the history of the game that would make that call." Columnists around the nation ripped Porter for deciding the national championship on a borderline call and waiting too long to throw the flag – none of them more vocal than Rick Reilly, who said Porter "choked" in Sports Illustrated.

Just when it appeared Porter would be forced to live in sporting infamy, in rode the cavalry. First, the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) issued a press release arguing Porter's call was correct. The Big 12 and Big 10 also publicly backed Porter's decision to throw the flag, saying the actual infraction occurred near the line of scrimmage. Technically, in that case, it should have been called defensive holding, but it still would have given the Buckeyes a fresh set of downs.

Big 12 co-founder Donnie Duncan went so far as to state that Sharpe committed four infractions on the play. In 2007, "Referee" Magazine even called it one of the 18 greatest calls in sports history – although Miami fans certainly just saw the Big 12, Big Ten and magazine as entities defending their own. But eventually even writers started to change their tune.

Of course, this has only heightened debates on message boards, YouTube clips and comment sections of articles about Porter. Almost eight years later, the debate can still be summed up like this:

Ohio State fans: Sharpe clearly impeded Gamble’s progress multiple times — he mugged him, stole his wallet and tied his shoelaces together. That's a penalty, every time. In fact, Sharpe was guilty of holding and pass interference.

Miami fans: There's contact like that on every play – it's football. The delay on the call and fact the line judge didn't throw the flag shows it was a ticky-tack penalty that shouldn’t decide the national championship. Even Ohio State fans agree.

Was it the right call? It all depends on who you ask.

As for where Porter is now, that's much easier to answer. Now in his sixties, he resides in Stillwater, Okla., where he's currently a replay official for the Big 12 Conference – fitting since he admitted to replaying "The Call" in his mind before making the fateful decision to toss the flag. He also officiates Oklahoma high school basketball games and reportedly works as a food broker. Said lifelong friend and high school officiating partner Rick Bales: "He's like me: He's getting a little bit old, slowing down some and looking into retirement."

Porter couldn't be reached for comment, but has regularly declined interviews over the years, surfacing only to defend the call and insist he is at peace with his decision to throw the flag. That's good, because with a trip to the national title on the line in Columbus this Saturday, "The Call” is about to be debated mercilessly again and viewed on YouTube almost as many times as this guy. as it slowly evolves from "controversial" to "classic."

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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, an historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.

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