Ref at center of controversy in NFC title game made questionable call in Calif. high school football game

Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP

Referees are human beings, just like coaches and players.

Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) drills Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis during a third-down pass near the end of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. A referee who has local ties has come under fire for not calling pass interference on the play. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

Any of them can make an ill-timed mistake that potentially impacts a game.

That moment arrived for side judge Gary Cavaletto and the rest of the officiating crew in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was not penalized for a mistimed hit on New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis late in regulation.

Saints fans have blamed their 26-23 overtime loss on the decision. Some have gone as far as attempting to legally force the NFL to replay the game.

But this isn’t the first time Cavaletto, a former Channel Coast referee from Goleta, has made a judgement call that others have disputed.

Former Ventura High football coach Phil McCune recognized Cavaletto’s name from the newspaper this week.

“Once I saw his name,” McCune said, “I knew who he was.”

A search of The Ventura County Star’s archives showed Cavaletto was at the center of another controversy, this time locally, more than three decades ago.

Trailing 14-12 in the waning seconds of the 1988 Buena-Ventura rivalry football game, Ventura lined up to attempt a game-winning field goal. The kick sailed directly over an upright.

Cavaletto called it “no good” to halt Ventura celebrating what the Cougars thought was a 15-14 win.

“Everyone called it good,” McCune remembered this week, “except the one person that made the call.”

The moment made a list of unforgettable Buena-Ventura memories gathered by former Star columnist Jim Parker for a 1997 column about the rivalry.

“The ball went right over the top of the upright and who knows,” Parker said on Wednesday. “It probably would have been a ‘boink.’ ”

Parker quoted then-Buena coach Rick Scott about the field-goal attempt in 1997.

“It was an exciting moment” Scott said. “What I really remember the most though was (Ventura coach) Harvey Kochel.

“He calmly came over and shook my hand patted me on the back and congratulated me on my first Buena-Ventura win. He was a most gracious gentleman that night. If I were him that night, well, I don’t know.”

The Ventura Unified School District responded to the events by installing NFL-style upright extensions at Larrabee Stadium, which lasted until the stadium was renovated recently.

Sunday’s playoff games have sparked debate over potentially extending the NFL’s replay system to penalties.

Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) hits Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis while the ball is in air near the end of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. The Saints and their fans were furious there was no pass interference called on the play. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

McCune remembers Cavaletto, who also officiated basketball and baseball, approaching him soon after at a basketball game.

“I appreciated that the first thing he did was say, ‘I’m so sorry about that,’ ” McCune said. “Everybody makes mistakes. There’s nothing you can do about that. Obviously, it cost us a game, but officials work long and hard to be good.

“He made a call. I believe he honestly believed it.”

Cavaletto, a three-sport star for Bishop Diego and an Atlanta Braves draft pick, was inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.

He worked his way up to the NFL with stints in the CFL, Arena Football and the XFL. The first American to officiate the Grey Cup, the CFL championship, in 1996, Cavaletto made his NFL debut in 2003.

“He rode it right to the top,” McCune said. “For him to work in an NFC Championship Game was really quite the feat. To go that far is impressive.”

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