To avoid conflicts of interest, time has come for neutral referees at nonconference games

Bill Carollo envisions a day when questions aren't raised about where officials grew up, where they went to school or what conference employs them.

Surprisingly, third-party -- or "neutral" officials -- aren't the norm for Power Five nonconference games hosted on campuses. Not by a long shot. In fact, a visiting team "bringing" its officials for a nonconference game is one of the oldest traditions in the sport.

So is the outrage whenever there is the perception of a conflict of interest.  

"I think it's very possible and probably a good suggestion [to use neutral officials] for the major games," said Carollo, the Big Ten supervisor of officiating.

The issue came into focus again Saturday in at least two games. Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello was knocked out against Northwestern following a late hit by Wildcats defensive end Earnest Brown.

Brown was flagged for a personal foul by the Big Ten crew imported -- as is custom -- by the visiting team in on-campus, nonconference games. The officiating agreement is typically written into the game contract between the two schools.

When video of the hit appeared on social media, there was immediate criticism. Brown was neither flagged for targeting nor ejected, two more serious penalties that could have been applied from upstairs by the Big Ten replay crew.

Play was not stopped for an official review from the instant replay booth. The fact that Brown brought his forearm down on what appeared to be the neck and chin of Costello did not sway the 10 Big Ten officials -- eight on the field and two in the booth.

Costello also had his helmet ripped off.

"I believe the officials on the field and the replay official missed the call," Stanford coach David Shaw said Tuesday. "I thought it was an ejectionable offense. I communicated with a lot of different people in a lot of different places, and it's unfortunate that it was missed, but I'm not going to comment any further on that other than to say they missed the call."

Shaw later added: "They messed it up. But I don't think there's any conference or crew issue."

"I got the video of what they did and what they looked at," Carollo said on Sunday. "It certainly was looked at, but they came up with the conclusion … they didn't that the severity or forceable contact was quite enough."

The Pac-12 contacted the Big Ten this week about the play in question, a source confirmed to CBS Sports.

Perhaps complicating matters, Shaw and Carollo serve together on the NCAA Rules Committee and the NCAA Division I Football Competition Committee. Shaw chairs the rules committee.

Costello is questionable for this week's game against USC, one of the biggest this season in the Pac-12. There's a possibility that both starting quarterbacks could be out as USC's JT Daniels will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury in the opener against Fresno State.

"[The Costello hit] falls in a different category," Carollo said. "You had a sliding quarterback. The official does throw the flag for a late hit. [Brown] does catch him with a forearm. It doesn't look intentional."

The targeting rule itself is less of an issue these days than the men interpreting it.

Colorado State coach Mike Bobo lashed out at Pac-12 officials who worked Friday's Colorado-Colorado State game at Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver.

"I don't understand it. It's too big a game not to have neutral refs," Bobo said after the 52-31 loss. "I mean, it's bullcrap. It's bullcrap. It's big, too big."

Bobo was upset at a fumble ruling made against his team in the second half. The Rams have lost five straight against their in-state rivals.

 The example isn't exactly apples to apples. The schools alternate being the home team, thus officiating crews from the Pac-12 and Mountain West alternate working from year to year.

However, that raises the same question: Should a crew from a conference involved in a nonconference game ever work that game?

That possibility has at least crossed the minds of regulators of the game. Beginning next season, both on-field and replay officials working a nonconference road game must be from the same league.

"The rule change was technology based and ... to eliminate a conflict of interest," Carollo said. "There's been situations, examples over the years. There's finger pointing and that's not healthy."

It's still allowable -- though not common -- for on-field and replay officials to be from different conferences. Because the types of replay equipment varied from stadium to stadium, sometimes it was easier to rely on local replay officials who were familiar with the replay equipment in the press box.

Regular-season neutral-site games and bowl games are typically worked by officials from a third conference.

The officiating snafus are fuel for opposing coaches, internet trolls and commissioners who have to decide whether to suspended officiating crews. Those crews remain freelancers -- contract workers hired by conferences who have to weigh the worth of putting their reputations on the line for a game check. https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/find-it-tough-to-empathize-with-college-football-officials-try-being-one-of-them/

Pac-12 replay official Gordon Riese eventually retired after being blamed for a replay screw-up at the end of an Oklahoma-Oregon game in 2006. SEC referee Marc Curles was hounded by fans and suspended by the league for a series of officiating missteps.

While coaching at Texas Tech in 2007, Mike Leach was fined a record amount by the Big 12, in part, for pointing out that the referee in a game his team lost to Texas was from Austin.

Conferences and the NCAA have become increasingly concerned about any hint of impropriety. With single-game sports gambling now legal in more and more states each year, the level of concern is growing.

The SEC, for one, brings in an FBI agent to speak to its officials before each season.

With so much at stake, Carollo, NCAA secretary-rules editor Steve Shaw and national coordinator of officials Rogers Redding said the subject of neutral officials for nonconference games has been discussed.

"From time to time," Redding said. "… I feel like maybe the time has come, but it's one of those things that lies with the schools."

Carollo said there has been an improvement from the days when officiating wasn't as regulated.

"From Day 1, the home team would provide the officials," he said. "That's how the term 'homer' came about."

Dean Blandino, the former senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, is now director of instant replay for College Football Officiating, LLC. The organization was created about a decade ago to bring "more consistency to officiating calls, rules interpretations and officiating mechanics," according to an NCAA website.

Redding is the CFO's national coordinator of officials. He oversees more than 300 Division I officials across all conferences. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher chairs the CFO.

Steinbrecher said a conference affiliation tends to "put labels on officials. We continue to work hard to de-label them. With the evolution of having a national coordinator, there is much greater emphasis on training and organization."

Part of the issue lingering from Saturday is the targeting rule itself. It is subjective. The rule was changed this season to streamline its enforcement.

Beginning in 2019, a penalty is called only if "all elements" of targeting are present on a play. That eliminates "the play stands" element of targeting. It is either confirmed or overturned.

"There were too many in the "stands" category where we were throwing people out," Carollo said. "I think the new rule is good. The kid didn't get thrown out."

Redding said only three or four players got ejected last season due to a targeting play. This season, new parameters were put in place. If a player is flagged for targeting three times in a single season, he is suspended for the remainder of the game in which the third penalty occurred and the next one, too.

Perception, though, remains everything in nonconference games so prominent this month.

"Even if you make the correct call, if it's close to 50-50, the [impacted teams' fans] will say, 'That's their officials. They were favoring them,'" Carollo lamented.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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