The biggest fumble in last season's epic national championship game between Texas and Southern California didn't occur on the field. It happened in the instant replay booth.
The error at the Rose Bowl was not mechanical, as the supervisor of officials told ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson. It was a human blunder, one that might have impacted the outcome of Texas' 41-38 victory, a game decided in the final seconds.
Vince Young's knee touched the ground
Yahoo! Sports has learned the wrong television feed had been plugged into one of the monitors of the video replay system. The mistake meant that replay officials did not have the necessary camera angle to properly review Texas' first touchdown. A replay official said the feed mixup might have led to another mistake earlier in the game. On that play, it was ruled that USC's Reggie Bush fumbled.
Ten months after Texas' victory, replay officials and their supervisor still haven't formally addressed what went wrong. But this much is sure: Instant replay, instituted as a backstop to ensure proper calls were being made on the field, failed.
It failed in the championship game. It continues to fail, as evidenced by an erroneous call in this season's Oklahoma-Oregon game. And it very well could fail again, considering there have been no followup meetings or discussions to establish consistent, national standards and practices for the oversight, training and equipment for replay officials and technicians.
With millions of dollars at stake for schools vying for spots in the five Bowl Championship Series games, the problems that cropped up in last year's title game haven't been rectified. The instant replay system, though flawed, goes on, possibly impacting games throughout this season – possibly impacting who will win the next championship.
Details of the Texas touchdown in question and the confusion that ensued at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4 remain fresh in the minds of the replay crew.
Second quarter. Just over five minutes left. Texas trailing 7-3 with the ball at the USC 22-yard line.
Quarterback Vince Young takes the snap, circles around the left end and runs 10 yards before a USC defender latches on. As the Texas quarterback tumbles, he pitches the ball to running back Selvin Young, who dashes 12 yards and into the end zone.
The referee signals touchdown.
To the naked eye, it was virtually impossible to tell if Young's knee had touched the ground before the pitch, which would have nullified the score and brought the ball back to the 12. But the ultimate decision no longer depended on the naked eye, or the officials on the field.
College football was using instant replay for the first time in the BCS championship game. Gathered in the replay booth were Jim Augustyn, head replay official; Dick Honig, assistant replay official and Mike McComiskey, the technician in charge of replay equipment. Augustyn watched the original shot from the ABC broadcast on his monitor as McComiskey rewound the footage with TiVo – a digital recorder available at any retail outlet for less than $200 – and Honig watched a second monitor, waiting for ABC to air a second shot from a different camera angle that might provide a clearer view of the play.
"I've got nothing coming," Honig said.
McComiskey continued to rewind the original shot. Augustyn continued to study it in vain. Honig continued to watch the second monitor and wait for ABC to show another camera angle.
"I've got nothing coming," Honig repeated.
Texas lined up for the extra point. Augustyn had only seconds to decide whether to stop the game. Once Texas attempted the extra point, it would be too late to reverse the call.
Without the benefit of another camera angle and without indisputable evidence that Young's knee had touched the ground, Augustyn let play continue. Texas missed the extra point and, seconds later, the replay officials realized they had blown the call.
While Augustyn had been reviewing ABC's original shot, the TiVo had recorded everything else ABC had aired after the touchdown – everything Honig assumed he was seeing on the second monitor. As the three men watched the recorded footage, they suddenly saw a replay from a different camera angle that clearly showed Young's knee was down before the quarterback pitched the ball.
"Where the hell did that shot come from?'' Augustyn asked.
At that same time, Dave Parry, the supervisor of officials who helped usher instant replay into college football, was standing in ABC's broadcast booth in case announcers Jackson and Dan Fouts had any questions. Suddenly Jackson, Fouts and millions of viewers who'd seen footage that showed the touchdown should have been overturned were asking the same thing: What just went wrong?
Embarrassed and perplexed, Parry headed for the replay booth in search of answers. He returned to ABC's booth for the second half, told Jackson the replay equipment had malfunctioned and Jackson relayed the report to his viewers. But Parry was still concerned about the incident.
"We thought we were going to get all kinds of e-mails and letters and all kinds of people raising Cain,'' Parry said during a recent interview. "We only got three letters. Surprisingly, very little outcry. But Keith Jackson did announce there had been a malfunction and that seemed to put it to rest.''
But there was no equipment malfunction.
Contrary to what Parry told Jackson and Jackson relayed to the TV audience, there were preventable human errors.
As McComiskey discovered, too late, the wrong television feed had been connected to the second monitor. Honig never had the benefit of seeing the shot of Vince Young's knee clearly hitting the ground, as ABC's broadcast feed showed. The replay officials had stopped play twice before in the game but apparently got the shots they needed on the first monitor to make the correct calls.
Though replay officials routinely check television feeds before games and check again as the game begins, they did not do so this time – not with the national title on the line.
Nor did the instant replay crew have state-of-the-art equipment. Instead, it was using a TiVo and two television monitors – a basic setup that costs about $2,000 compared to the $125,000 system used by NFL teams and a $20,000 system that was used for other college bowl games. McComiskey said the crew might have avoided the breakdown if it had used DVSport, a more expensive system that the ACC, Big East and SEC used during the 2005 season.
"The DVSport would have been greatly helpful,'' he said.
The Big Ten, which took in more than $100 million in revenue during the 2004-05 academic year, considered buying the DVSport system, McComiskey said. The decision not to purchase DVSport saved the Big Ten approximately $400,000. After the 2006 Rose Bowl, the conference dumped TiVo and bought DVSport.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany could not be reached for comment.
McComiskey, the Big Ten's assistant commissioner for technology, said the decision to upgrade equipment had nothing to do with the blown calls during the national championship game. He said the schools' football coaches and administrators simply asked the Big Ten to reevaluate the available technology.
"We came back after the evaluation and we picked the system that we thought would be the best at this time,'' he said. "The DVSport system is a very good tool.''
While McComiskey suggested more sophisticated equipment could have saved the instant replay crew from embarrassment in the Rose Bowl, Augustyn and Honig assumed part of the blame, saying they should've stopped the game and called ABC's production truck from a phone in the booth set up expressly for the purpose of checking if the network had additional replays to review.
Parry said he told Jackson all he knew about the breakdown and that he never understood extent of the problem.
"I'm not a technology expert,'' Parry said.
But Augustyn said he offered a more detailed explanation when Parry came looking for answers at halftime.
"He came in and he asked what happened and I said we didn't have the right feed and we weren't getting the replays,'' Augustyn said. "… I guess he believed us because he was trying to figure out a way that he could go back and explain that to Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts that might make some sense as to why we didn't run the play back. … I think Dave was worried.''
McComiskey had set up the replay equipment for all of the Big Ten schools. But the Rose Bowl was only the second game he had worked as a booth replay technician, and he made his debut only a week earlier at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, according to Augustyn.
"My understanding as to why they flew him down there was because he was the so-called expert from our conference,'' Augustyn said.
When questioned further about the breakdown at the national championship game, Parry said, "To come back and blame someone and say you're wrong and somebody was at fault, that just wouldn't be fair.''
In the aftermath, there appeared to be no sense of urgency to determine who or what was to blame. Parry did not discuss details of the breakdown in January when the NCAA called a special meeting for instant replay, three officiating supervisors said. Nor did he discuss details when he presided over the officiating supervisors biannual meetings, one in February and another in June.
In May, when the NCAA approved instant replay for all conferences, it issued guidelines on reviewable plays and criteria for overturning calls – indisputable video evidence. But the NCAA issued no standards for training replay officials or for the technology used and designated no one to monitor the system nationally.
Ty Halpin, the NCAA liaison for the Football Rules Committee, said the absence of an expert to field concerns and questions regarding instant replay is "probably a relatively valid concern.''
"I think if we can somehow have a centralized clearinghouse. … that'd be great,'' Halpin added. "We're just not 100 percent sure where that's going to go.''
Verle Sorgen, supervisor of Pac-10 officials, has taken it upon himself to circulate e-mails with questions and concerns about the system to other conference officiating supervisors. But Sorgen has failed to disclose details to the media or his counterparts about the most notorious instant replay breakdown yet: the fiasco during the Oregon-Oklahoma game that one of Sorgen's Pac-10 crews worked.
Interviews conducted by Yahoo! Sports indicate the confusion has yet to be sorted out and potential problems remain uncorrected.
DUCK AND COVER?
The fiasco on Sept. 16 in Eugene, Ore. began in the fourth quarter when Oregon recovered an onside kick, leading to the winning touchdown in the Ducks' 34-33 victory. Video replays showed that on the kick, an Oregon player touched the ball before it traveled the required 10 yards, meaning Oklahoma should have been awarded the ball.
But the field officials gave the ball to Oregon, and, after reviewing the play, the instant replay officials upheld the call. The Pac-10 conference suspended head replay official Gordon Riese and the entire officiating crew for one game.
Yet the technician who operated the instant replay system said the Pac-10's technology is sub par, that the reception on the replay monitor was blurry and the equipment was to blame during the Oregon-Oklahoma game. Jess Yates, the technician, said he was so upset following the game that he immediately sent an e-mail to Sorgen. He also said he reiterated his concerns about the equipment during a phone conversation with Sorgen.
"I feel so bad that Gordy had to take the fall for that,'' said Yates, who serves as the instant replay technician for all games at the University of Oregon. "… We're not up to speed yet with the equipment itself.''
Pac-10 spokesman Jim Muldoon said the equipment has been "thoroughly reviewed'' since the game.
"We're satisfied with the equipment and I think the fact we haven't had other issues with it supports that.''
Five instant replay technology systems are being used by the 11 Division I-A conferences. The Pac-10 opted for a less expensive system than the one used by four of the six other BCS conferences.
But in a recent interview, Sorgen said, "There was no problem with technology. … There was a mixup in the (instant replay) booth that caused the glitch.''
Riese complained during interviews after the game that he could not "freeze-frame'' the video on the instant replay monitor and he didn't get a replay from the proper camera angle. When contacted by Yahoo! Sports, Riese was more cryptic.
"I'm still employed by the conference and they asked me not to talk,'' said Riese, who asked the Pac-10 for a leave of absence. "I'll take the heat for now, but eventually I'll have an announcement to make.''
Halpin, the liaison for the Football Rules Committee, said conference officiating supervisors can work together to make sure they stay on the same page. But Parry and Sorgen have yet to share details of the high-profile breakdowns. Futhermore, several officiating supervisors described "turf wars,'' where officiating supervisors from different conferences interpret the rules how they want and position their officials how they choose despite instructions from Parry, the national coordinator, and John Adams, the secretary-editor of NCAA rules.
The biggest problem, several officiating supervisors said, is that Parry faces a conflict of interest by working for the Big Ten and serving as national coordinator of football officiating. Several supervisors also said they suspected there was more to the instant replay breakdown during the national championship than Parry disclosed and that details might have been withheld to protect the Big Ten from national embarrassment.
"What's good for the Big Ten might not be good for everybody else,'' said Tim Millis, who retired as the Big 12's supervisor of officials after the 2005 season. "You might be willing to talk about problems in other conferences, but not your own.
"Dave is serving two masters, and that doesn't work.''
Parry declined to say how much he earns as national director, but said the bulk of his income comes from the Big Ten.
"I don't think there's been a conflict of interest,'' he said.
But the national championship game has led to conflict.
Parry seemed taken aback when his Pac-10 counterpart, Sorgen, contended the Big Ten instant replay crew missed yet another critical call in the national championship game. The play in question took place early in the second quarter and before the officials realized the second monitor was hooked up to the wrong television feed.
USC led 7-0 and had the ball at its own 45. Quarterback Matt Leinart passed to Reggie Bush, who carried the ball to the Texas 20 before his attempt to pitch the ball to teammate Brad Walker went awry.
Texas recovered at the 18 and kept possession after officials ruled the ball was a fumble. But Sorgen said video replays showed the play was a forward lateral, which means USC should have maintained possession.
The Longhorns drove to a field goal, making the score 7-3.
Reggie Bush turned to lateral the ball
"I don't know why the Bush lateral play has stayed under the radar the way it has," Sorgen, a USC graduate, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise.
Responded Parry in an interview with Yahoo! Sports: "Verle is for the Pac-10, so of course he's going to push the envelope in their favor.''
Later Parry agreed with Sorgen's assessment but defended the Big Ten's instant replay crew while saying video replays of Bush's supposed fumble "indicated the pass was a little forward. But that's going in slow, slow, slow motion.'' Of his instant replay crew, Parry also added, "Their view was they didn't have indisputable evidence, so they left it alone.''
But in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports, Honig, the assistant replay official, said the botched television feed might have prevented the crew from seeing the angle they needed to make the correct call.
There's no evidence that college football is taking aggressive steps to fix problems with instant replay, either.
Parry said he recently talked to the NFL's officiating supervisor, Mike Pereira, about setting up an offseason replay clinic for all 11 Division I-A supervisors. But before the 2006 season, three of the 11 conferences brought in the NFL's instant replay guru, Dean Blandino, during training sessions for their own instant replay officials. The conferences were so focused on training their own officials that no one bothered setting up a national training seminar.
Parry said he would have organized the session last year, but conferences were using different instant replay rules. Asked how it would be any different after this season, with five different replay technology systems in use, Parry replied, "That's a good question.''
Many questions remain. For example, Tommy Hunt, supervisor of officials for the ACC, has compiled a list of at least 50 plays where the proper call was open to interpretation. But without anyone overseeing the national implementation of replay, Hunt said he will wait until the conference officiating supervisors meet in February to get answers.
If everything goes as Parry hopes, the NFL might have a representative at one of the officiating supervisors' biannual meetings.
"We're talking about having a one-day deal,'' Parry said. "We haven't had a chance to run it by our CEOs, the commissioners, yet. But we hope we can set up a training day to work through some problems."