CHICAGO -- The Big Ten thinks it is making history this season with instant replay.
Really, it has no idea.
History is the humble 69-year old man half a continent away speaking calmly about his invention that changed, well, everything.
"I'm not much of a sports guy," said Jim Wheeler by phone from San Luis Obispo, Calif. "It wasn't until the fall of 1965 and I was at my father's place watching a football game. I said, 'Wait a minute, I didn't know they were doing that.'"
|Last-second calls can now be reviewed in college basketball as well.(Getty Images)|
"Thought it was going to be used for training films," he said.
On another day, the Navy couldn't figure out why the landing gear on its aircraft-carrier jets kept collapsing. It called Wheeler to add stop-action to the jets' on-board cameras to isolate the problem. Pretty soon the crippled landings were solved.
The next day, it seemed, ABC was calling, wanting to use the new technology for something called Wide World of Sports.
Our viewing habits never were the same again. It wasn't even named instant replay until someone at CBS slapped on the label. Now it is the foundation of televised sports. It's why the Big Ten's experimentation with it could be a turning point in the sport.
Before this year, college football's fathers held to the belief that human error was part of the game. Now, the Big Ten can't live without it -- on a one-year experimental basis, of course. But who are we kidding? Instant replay has infiltrated every nook and cranny of organized sports. This year it germinates and takes hold in college football.
You can break down your swing at the local golf store with it. Its influence is such that major league stadiums aren't allowed to show replays on controversial plays for fear of embarrassing umpires. Yet Baseball Tonight wouldn't be in existence without it. It is an electronic safety net for leagues whose officials simply can't keep up anymore with today's athletes.
"Our referees have been told he's God up there in the sky," Big Ten supervisor of officials Dave Parry said of the technical advisor who will review plays from the press box.
All 44 Big Ten conference games will have instant replay. It will be up to the opposing coaches whether it will be used in non-conference games in Big Ten stadiums. The MAC already has said it wants it in 11 games with Big Ten teams.
"Yes I did," said Parry, a former NFL official, when asked if he would ever see the day when college football would allow replay. "As I've seen the game grow with all kinds of numbers, it just becomes more and more and more important."
Replay took the onus off officials and put it on electronic surveillance. No one can argue that the NFL system has been a success. The NHL has done a great job of reviewing plays that the human eye can't track. But is college football ready for Big Brother?
It took an outbreak of controversial calls the past few years that led to a full review of the Big Ten's officiating. In typical corporate speak it determined the zebras were doing a fine job, but the league still instituted replay.
How, you might ask, does this conservative Limbaugh League take this giant step? This is a conference that had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, with the Rose Bowl, into the BCS.
The Big Ten might be the only conference where replay could start. It has cameras already in place because of all its television exposure. The conference also has the bucks, even though the system is relatively cheap, coming in at less than $100,000 for the entire season.
But the real answer was wearing thick glasses and speaking with a Brooklyn accent on Wednesday at the Big Ten Football Kickoff.
"You're making it sound like a crusade and it wasn't ..." Penn State's Joe Paterno said. "Thank God minds do change. I hope we all change a little bit. When you stop changing you might as well pack it in."
Out of that review called by Penn State came a rudimentary replay system that would make Wheeler proud because it is so primitive. Three guys in a cramped press box booth, two monitors, a TiVo and a walkie-talkie.
The technical advisor, who is a former official -- average age 68 -- stops the game, calls down to the referee on his walkie-talkie and reviews the call based on the instant replay in front of him. It's not perfect. Not even close. There will be only a fraction of the camera angles available compared to the NFL. We won't have to wait long for the first coach to glare up angrily at the press box wanting a replay. Fans will be perfecting their "replay, replay," chant.
"More and more in college football we're seeing a transition of supervisors coming from the NFL," said Bobby Gaston, the SEC's supervisor of officials. "Anything the NFL does is automatic with this group."
Is that good?
"Not to me. I'll fight them."
"Maybe out of this will come a better widget," said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's associate commissioner for television administration.
Wheeler's widget has been refined to the point that it decides games in all sports that have millions of dollars riding on them. NBC's Game of the Week introduced baseball fans to it in the '60s. The NFL has refined the system to a science. Its influence has spread to college basketball, where officials can stop a game, go to the scorer's table and ask for a replay to correct a timing mistake.
"What really upset me is the damn patent attorneys," said Wheeler, who sounds far more bitter than he is, which isn't very. "On instant replay, once that took off on Wide World of Sports, to me the company should have said, 'We have something here. Let's patent it.'"
They didn't, at least not quickly enough. Wheeler has made a grand total of $300 off the patent of his invention. He has won an Emmy, been an expert witness on the Watergate tapes, tinkered with the Galileo Jupiter probe's tape system -- from 400 million miles away.
Wheeler used to work side by side with a couple of guys named Dolby and Bushnell. Ray Dolby invented videotape in the 1950s and the Dolby sound system later on. Bushnell, the binoculars guy, also was the father of the video game (remember Pong?).
At a project party years ago, Wheeler introduced Hugh Hefner to something called the home video recorder. We know it as the VCR. Think what cottage industry (it rhymes with "corn") might have been born that night in Hefner's head.
All this and now Wheeler's influence hits college football. Next to no one will know it but maybe the Big Ten should fly him in, introduce him, perhaps cut him a check for something larger than $300.
"Not really, I really don't care," Wheeler said of his near anonymous existence. "My daughter, my wife, my friends appreciate me for who I am."
The inventor, for good or bad, of electronic sports scrutiny.