Terry Porter wanted to make sure. The 50-something food broker from Stillwater, Okla., stood at the back of the Sun Devil Stadium end zone weighing one of the biggest decisions of his officiating career.
So while the fireworks went off and Miami celebrated, Porter, a Big 12 field judge, decided the fate of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Or at least that's what a lot of Miami fans will tell you.
The Hurricanes were halfway out on the field celebrating back-to-back national championships. Sure, the Buckeyes were tougher that night than everyone thought but this was justice, finality. This was a forever team for Miami. A 35th consecutive victory. Twenty-six future NFL Draft choices were on the field that night for Miami, 12 of them first-rounders.
It was all about the U. The night had proved that Miami was back in dynasty mode. Sure, there was a downturn in the late 1990s after some NCAA penalties, but the program had proved resilient. It lost Butch Davis and replaced him with the grandfatherly Larry Coker. More proof that Miami football sustained itself -- it didn't really matter who coached. Howard, Jimmy, Dennis ...
But Porter wanted to make sure what he had seen on Ohio State's fourth-and-3 play at the Miami 5 in the first overtime of the BCS title game.
Five seconds, maybe a few more, elapsed between the time Miami's Glenn Sharpe broke up Craig Krenzel's pass to Chris Gamble and Porter's flag fluttering to the ground.
"The official wanted to rethink it, make sure," said witness Dave Parry, the Big Ten supervisor of officials at the time, "Then, he threw the flag somewhat late."
Somewhat late? That's where the tangle of emotions and accusations starts for Saturday's Ohio State-Miami rematch. Porter's pass interference call on Sharpe was somewhat late the way Justin Bieber is somewhat overexposed.
It was the most controversial championship ending of the BCS era. That's what has prolonged the agony and ecstasy to this day. 'Canes fans don't want to hear again that Porter got the call right. (He did.) They don't want to hear, as Parry explained, that the only sin was Porter's "mechanics" in taking so much time.
Porter is their Don Denkinger, a human excuse for a team's failings. They don't want to recall the four turnovers and five sacks Miami gave up that night. They don't care that five years later, Referee magazine named Porter's call one of the 18 best of all time. They don't want to know there were two possible infractions on the play, maybe three. They were all judgment calls and Porter used his judgment.
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"You hate to have a national championship decided on that," Coker said.
The truth is Porter's call didn't decide the game, won by Ohio State in double overtime 31-24. Miami still had a chance to win. Fourteen total plays were run after the flag. The call altered the game, but it didn't doom Miami to a loss. It has lived on because that game turned out to be the jumping-off point for divergent paths taken by the two powerhouses.
That night was basically the kickoff for one of the best runs in Ohio State history. It has played in two BCS title games since then and is currently trying to tie a Big Ten record by winning a sixth consecutive conference title. Miami has never sniffed a championship since that night. In fact, Coker was gone after the 2006 season.
Did Porter's call have that much impact?
"Winning a second national championship would have made a difference," said Coker, now the coach at startup Texas-San Antonio. "We had such a strong base to recruit to. ... That was really my goal [to win another title]. Very few have done it. Honestly, we weren't going to win a national championship every year, but if you win 10-plus game a year you have a chance to win championships. ..."
Porter haters might simply want to hang on to Kellen Winslow II's words from that night.
"The best team," Winslow said, "didn't win."
Maybe, but in hindsight there wasn't much difference in the most star-studded BCS title game. That night Ohio State proved that it was back. The Buckeyes had 22 future draft choices of its own in the game, three first-rounders. Thirty-seven of the combined 44 starters were drafted. One hundred total players saw action and 58 of them played at least one game in the NFL, according to research by the Columbus Dispatch.
Miami's Willis McGahee overcame a stomach-turning knee injury in that game to carve out a fine NFL career. The world found out about Ohio State second-year coach Jim Tressel and his impact on the sweater-vest market.
"We would have continued to progress [if Ohio State lost] because of the style and leadership that Jim and his staff provide," Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. "He had a vision and worked the plan. Miami had different circumstances, frankly. Even at that time they were going through transition. ...
"I thought that was always a fragile situation," Smith continued on the subject of Miami, "because of how they ran it."
There were off-field problems, sure, but Coker was gone because he couldn't sustain the success. Randy Shannon was brought in almost four years ago to clean up the image and bring back the glory days. He has accomplished one, not quite gotten it done on the other.
|Miami's QB, Ken Dorsey, can't believe the 'Canes have lost. Miami has yet to come close to a national title since. (Getty Images)|
Playing the likes of Florida State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma to start the 2009 season, Miami got off to a 5-1 start. It finished 4-3, ending the season getting pushed around by Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl. This season three of Miami's first four are on the road, including Saturday and a Sept. 23 game at Pittsburgh.
"Randy, he is recruiting character, he is promoting character," Smith said. "If there are discipline issues, he deals with them. What he was trying to do is build it from the ground up with character kids with a structure where, 'You don't come here just to play football.'"
That's a dream for every athletic director. It has little to do with this game. Saturday is less about character and more about the meeting of superpowers on this Showdown Saturday. Both teams dropped 45 points on their outmatched season-opening opponents. Miami posted its first shutout (vs. Florida A&M) since 2007. This is Tressel's best team since 2002, ranked second in both polls and coming off a Rose Bowl win. Sharpe added to the buildup this week when he was told by Gamble and former Ohio State receiver Michael Jenkins there was no pass interference seven years ago, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
"I felt we were robbed of a national championship -– the whole team, not just me," Sharpe told the Sun-Sentinel. "We busted our butts that year, we had a great team and I felt like we really deserved to win that game."
A message left for a Porter in Stillwater this week was not returned. Understandably. Seven years ago, he told me, "I ain't talking about [the call]. You can call the Big 12 office."
Porter has answered any questions about his competency with his career. Off the field for a few years, he now is a Big 12 replay official, mentoring young officials in his spare time.
One current college official who did not want to be identified said: "I don't know if I've ever worked with a better deep official. If I had that call I want him to make it. Terry doesn't make it up."
Tim Millis oversaw Porter back in 2002. Millis, a 14-year veteran of NFL officiating, was the Big 12's supervisor of officials at the time.
"I don't think he liked the publicity," said Millis, now the executive director of the NFL Referees Association. "I think he considered hanging them up. I said, 'Terry you've got several good years left.'
"Terry probably doesn't know who he is closest too miles-wise, Miami or Ohio. But he probably had the best judgment of any guy I had been around on the field."
Maybe that's why it was worth waiting seven years ago, just to make sure.