November 13, 2009
Over the course of our "Best of the Decade" series the last few weeks, one of the categories that came up for discussion was "Worst Call." But there's really no discussion, and no category, when there's only one possible choice:
The inexplicable decision to award Oregon the ball directly cost Oklahoma the win (and possibly a national championship shot at the end of the year) and brazenly defied the defensive logic behind other bad decisions that might have turned on a bad angle, "irrefutable" evidence or a simple "judgement call" -- here, officials somehow stood over a pile of players containing no football and, a full five seconds after Oklahoma's Allen Patrick exited the pile with the ball in hand, judged Oregon had recovered. I've never quite gotten over that decision: Oregon ball, based on what? There's no ball there for Oregon to recover, because Oklahoma already recovered it. What could they have possibly seen to give possession to the Ducks? It was hard to argue with conspiracy theorists who argued that the crew was seeing dollar signs, but it made at least as much sense as a trained veteran making an honest simply being that wrong.
Actually, one official did see Oklahoma recover the ball: Replay ref Gordon Riese, a 30-year vet who decided the rules barred him from overturning the recovery call, and payed for it with a one-game suspension and a barrage of nasty phone calls. Following up on the weekly officiating tumult in the SEC -- none of which remotely rivals the Duck-Sooner onside kick for sheer, head-exploding incomprehensibility -- Sports Illustrated caught up with Riese this week and reports that he still hasn't recovered from his decision to uphold his colleagues' bout of temporary blindness:
Three years later, Riese remains torn by the blown calls, and his decision. And also, by the response.
"I'm still not over this," he said. "I'm better than I was."
Nevermind that while fans watched on those 50-inch screens, and got several replay angles from ABC, Riese saw just one -- an end-zone shot. He was stuck with a 16-inch screen -- "blurry," he said. The simple contraption didn't allow him to rewind, or fast-forward, or run plays in slow-motion.
Though other replays showed an Oregon player had touched the football before it traveled 10 yards, Riese couldn't tell from his angle. And by rule at the time, he couldn't tell the referee what he had seen: Oklahoma's Allen Patrick had recovered the football.
The conflict was difficult: Call it by the rules, or get the call right. Riese chose the former, and later kicked himself for it, because "the ultimate goal is to get it right."
And yet that crew managed to get it spectacularly wrong twice on one crucial, game-deciding play. This is the specific call that makes me very zen about the consequences of a personal foul with half a quarter to play, even if it's egregious: There are run-of-the-mill bad calls, and then there are truly horrible calls, the ones that directly alter the outcome of a game and undermine the cumulative results of the game in one fell swoop. These are pretty rare -- maybe only once per decade or so -- but if you're going to expend the energy on second-guessing, public guilt trips and demands for retribution, SI's nostalgia trip is a reminder to direct it toward the few astonishing mistakes that define the category.
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Hat tip: The Wiz.