High school football officiating is under review in Central Jersey, and the impending adjustments should be a hit.
On the field, fans will see an extra official at select Greater Middlesex Conference and Mid-State 38 games this fall. Off the field, officials will use technology — and feedback from coaches and fellow officials — to sharpen their work.
“Last year, we as coaches were concerned with the direction of the officiating and the lack of consistency in the calls and the application of the rules,” said Bishop Ahr assistant Marcus Borden, who chaired a GMC committee to address the matter. “In order to improve the game, there needed to be some checks and balances.”
Credit these coaches for speaking up. And credit the officials for listening. For starters, the leagues will experiment with six officials instead of five. The NJSIAA finals will employ six officials this season, with an expectation that all state tournament games will do so next year. North Jersey conferences did it last season with success.
“We’re going to have two officials deep downfield instead of one, so we’ll get much better coverage in the passing game,” explained Carmine Piccardo, the assignor of officials for the NJSIAA and several North Jersey leagues. “In five-man games, guys are chasing runners or pass receivers to the goal line and making calls on touchdowns from five yards away, which is not a really good angle. In the NFL or a college game, you always see somebody planted right on that goal line. It’s a big call that can win or lose games.”
Joe Shaw, assignor for the Mid-State 38, said each team in that conference agreed to host two six-official games.
“Number one, it will improve the safety factor for the kids,” Shaw said. “Number two, as the game has progressed, everyone is breaking into these pistol offenses and no-huddle and throwing the ball all over the place. It used to be basically a ground game. Now the one deep guy who’s back there has an awful lot of responsibility.”
It seems like a no-brainer, but money is an obstacle. To sell athletic directors on it, Shaw offered to cut $5 off each paycheck in a six-man crew, from $85 to $80 per ref.
Piccardo and Borden both said the sell was harder in the GMC, where “not everybody is on board financially,” as Borden put it. Still, both said there would be at least some six-man games in Middlesex County this fall.
As Piccardo explained, “It’s not baseball where you’re playing 30 games. You’re talking five home games, max. You’re getting a lot of bang for your buck. It shouldn’t be a financial concern.”
Besides, the refs are meeting them halfway. The Central Jersey chapter of high school football officials, which includes both GMC and Mid-State 38 crews, paid $800 for access to HUDL — a popular software program that allows coaches and players to break down and study game film with just a few keystrokes.
“It’s a huge step forward,” Piccardo said. “I told the (GMC) coaches, ‘Can you imagine what a disadvantage officials have been at over the years? They rarely have gotten to see themselves on tape unless something really bad happens and it ends up on YouTube. Imagine if you coached without the ability to review film.’ “
This isn’t just self-help. There will be peer review and feedback.
“We have three or four evaluators now who can look at a crew and see if they’re doing things correctly,” Shaw said. “It’s not going to be used punitively; it will be used educationally.”
The final component of this checks-and-balances system is evaluation by the coaches. In North Jersey, they fill out a form grading officials on punctuality, communication and consistency. The GMC is adopting a similar form this season.
“We’re asking coaches to send it in maybe two days later, not the night of the game,” Borden said. “After a couple of weeks, we’ll discuss what the (most prevalent) topics are. There are new rules this season, especially about behavior of players and coaches — bullying — that some people might not know.”
Ideally, the written evaluation and HUDL’s technology go hand-in-hand: Officials are alerted to coaches’ concerns, and that helps focus their film study sessions.
“It’s a starting point,” Borden said.
Like football, change is sometimes a game of inches. With these sensible reforms, coaches and officials are advancing the ball together.