Casualties of conference realignment, Pac-12 officials detail hope, devastation in search of new opportunities

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During fall Saturdays last year, Pac-12 official John Morton would gaze up at the stands, the sights and the sun and feel something else wash over him during the conference’s impending demise.

Sentimentality. Melancholy. A sense of loss.  

The CPA from the Pacific Northwest had spent 13 years as a Pac-12 on-field official. The 2023 season was his last in the league, mostly because it was the end of the league. It wasn’t easy having that fact play over in his mind and on the field for the entire season. 

Officials are supposed to be neutral. Morton couldn’t be. Not in this case. He and his peers were rooting for status quo.

They weren’t alone.

“You knew that very well could be the last time you ever went to that stadium,” said Morton, a veteran back judge originally from Olympia, Washington, now currently living in Dallas. “You knew all these teams were going to be in other places next year. Officials were going to be in other conferences. It was unlike anything else. It definitely made for a much different season.”

Amid the Pac-12’s dissolution, it’s easy to overlook a cohort of individuals who proudly carry with them some of the conference’s lasting legacies. The 64 Pac-12 officials who worked last season have been scattered to the winds of fate but not without memories, emotion and goodbyes.

It was a very unceremonious end,” Morton told CBS Sports. “There were people with a lot of runway left in front of them. Good officials. But the numbers are going to be such that not everybody is going to have a chair when the music stops.

Those 64 on-field officials (not counting replay officials) were divided into eight crews of eight for the league’s last season. The story from there is almost Darwinian. Natural selection with a whistle. Only the strong(est-perceived officials) survive. 

The net effect is that actually few, if any, of the Pac-12 officials will lose officiating jobs. It’s just that those jobs won’t be in the old Pac-12 (obviously) or perhaps even the Power Four.

CBS Sports was able to account for 55 of those of those 64 officials in regard to their on-field duties for 2024. Approximately 32 of them were hired by FBS leagues, the majority of which are in the Power Four. Eight of those 55 will be in the Mountain West, C-USA and American conferences. Two retired. Two were hired by the NFL. Nineteen stayed with the Pac-12 to populate three crews that will work Oregon State and Washington State games this season.

“It hurts like hell, I’m not going to pull punches,” said Pac-12 field judge Brad Glenn, one of those retained by the league this season. “Even if I was not picked up [by the Pac-12], it would hurt.”

With the Beavers and Cougars competing as independents for at least the next two seasons, having entered into a scheduling agreement with the Mountain West, the remaining Pac-12 officials are scheduled to do all of four games this season between Oregon State and Washington State. That total is approximately one-third the number of any other FBS official. In the industry, those reps – or lack thereof — matter. 

“We’ve been dealing with this every time we have realignment,” said Mike Defee, a former veteran official who now is the supervisor for the Mountain West and Conference USA. “It creates a ton of anxiety with officials. Guys are looking at, ‘Are we going to be stable? Are we going to be around?'”

Merton Hanks, the Pac-12 executive associate commissioner of football operations, gave this statement to CBS Sports: “We will have veteran Pac-12 officiating crews this season and continue to work collaboratively regarding officiating with FBS & FCS conferences. The Pac-12 state-of-the-art instant replay facility, which we opened last summer, will continue to be our home for instant replay operations.” 

Glenn said he applied “everywhere” when it became obvious the Pac-12 was all but done. Morton did much of the same, memorably reaching out to SEC officiating supervisor John McDaid. Another, David Ross, also hooked on with the SEC; like a lot of conferences, the SEC likes to think its officials are the best in the country.

“Some [application] processes were more formal,” said Morton, an accountant by trade. “Some were as simple as a résumé or an email. And then you played the waiting game. You hoped that someone was buying what you were selling. When I got the call from John McDaid to work in the SEC, it was an unbelievable opportunity.”

Glenn, a 62-year-old semi-retired property manager, is beginning his 23rd season in the league. He’s not sure, but he may be the second-most experienced official left in the Pac-12.  

“I’m happy for a lot of the people that moved upward and onward,” Glenn said. “[We’re] licking our wounds, the rest of us, the rest who are still kind of in the ‘lower stage,’ I would call it.”

The Big Ten has been the most active conference in this space. It added a total of 16 Pac-12 officials – both on-field and instant replay – since the end of the 2022 season. Six of them moved over before the 2023 season once USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12. Ten more have matriculated to the Big Ten for the upcoming season. 

Steve Strimling had been an official for 17 years, 12 of them in the Pac-12. He was hired by the Big Ten before the 2023 season as a replay supervisor. The Huntington Beach, California, resident is less than 50 miles away from his old haunts at USC and UCLA. What used to be a drive up the 405 to officiate a Pac-12 game has become a cross-country trip. Entering his second season with the Big Ten, Strimling is traveling 1,720 air miles each week to the Big Ten command center in Rosemont, Illinois. 

David Yeast, a Pac-12 instant replay official since 2017, lives in Park City, Utah. He is a mere 25 miles from a former Pac-12 school (Utah). For him, it’s a 1,250-mile flight to the same Big Ten to be command center supervisor. 

That’s not counting the on-field officials where — like realignment itself — geography won’t matter.

“There will be guys now leaving on Thursdays to make it in for Saturday games,” Morton said. “All new stadiums, all new campuses. It’s like starting over halfway into your career.”

One conference’s termination is another conference’s windfall.

“It was devastating,” Bill Carollo, Big Ten supervisor of officials, said of the Pac-12. “It wasn’t the fault of the officials. They were just put in an unfortunate situation. It was like a Fortune 500 business shutting down.

Yeast spent 12 years as the NCAA’s baseball national coordinator overseeing umpires. He worked the 1996 Olympics as an umpire and once crossed a picket line to work a handful of Major League games. 

“I’ve always had an appreciation for the Pac-12. It was truly the conference of champions,” he said. “It had faded. The leadership, I think, failed. Not just [commissioners] Larry [Scott] and George [Kliavkoff] … Our officials were a casualty of it.”

It is the unseen process of retaining and losing jobs that is just now coming to light. Ross, a technology worker for the city of Phoenix, had been in the Pac-12 for 10 years. 

“The hard months were when [last] season ended,” Ross said. “January and February — I would not wish [on] anybody, what we went through.”

Glenn had been one of those staring at his phone, afraid of being ghosted. 

“You’re hired on a one-year basis,” he said. “You’re not assumed to be coming back until you get notified otherwise. Sometimes … you just don’t get any information. By deductive logic you kind of figure, ‘Oh, I guess I’m fired.'”

It’s those personal stories of this transition that hit the hardest. The work is typically not about the money. Officials are technically contract workers — freelancers if you will. They are paid a flat game fee by their conferences. For the most part, the compensation is negligible. Officials are typically responsible for how they get to a game. They have to account for airline delays, connections, bad food and hotel rooms that aren’t exactly the Four Seasons. 

“The contract sort of reads, ‘Here’s your money, go for it. Get there how you want,'” Strimling said

It’s more about the high of being arbiters of the sport while keeping that low profile. These are insurance executives, lawyers, financial advisors who have the flexibility to fly out 12 times a year for games and then hope for a postseason assignment to top it off. 

Of course, any discussion of the Pac-12 officials’ plight must include another part of their legacy. Pac-12 supervisor David Coleman knows. He was hired in 2015 to clean up the league’s officiating reputation.

Every fanbase might think their conference’s officials are the worst, but it’s charitable to say the Pac-12 has made headlines in that space over the years. 

This is the league that gave us Cal-Stanford in 1982. Veteran replay official Gordon Riese was basically hounded out of the game after missing a couple of crucial plays following on Oregon onside kick late in a 2006 game against Oklahoma. The missed calls allowed Oregon to keep possession and eventually beat the Sooners. 

Former Pac-12 officiating supervisor Tony Corrente resigned in 2014 citing personal and professional reasons.

Former Pac-12 general counsel Woody Dixon famously called in from a boat and overruled a targeting call in the 2018 Washington State-USC game. That night, Yeast was eating dinner with his wife on a Friday in Seattle prior to working a Washington game. He glanced up at a television.

“We all felt the fallout,” Yeast said. “It was a horrible situation. It should never happen. The name ‘Pac-12 officials’ is plagued by what Woody did then … Out West, that certainly is the perception. I am biased because I know how good the vast majority of our officials are.”

Beyond getting it right, the primary goal for any official is to stay out of sight, not be noticed. Social media is always waiting to pounce with a set of ginsu knives. Who knew that at one point a decade ago, the Pac-12 led Division I when 30% of its officials went to the NFL over a two-year period?

“That was one of those situations where [Riese] left after that and was not really seen again,” Morton said sadly. “Every now and then something is going to come along and it’s going to outlive you. That was one.” 

A national reset of sorts continues in the industry. Entire new sets of crews had to be hired in the SEC, which added Texas and Oklahoma. The Big Ten added USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon. The Big 12 supervisor Greg Burks brought in 12 new officials and three replay officials with the additions of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. 

The Pac-12 is believed to be the only Power Five conference that didn’t have a “consortium” — feeder conferences from which to draw officiating talent. The Big Ten has agreements with the MAC, Missouri Valley and six Pioneer League (FCS) schools. The Big 12 works with the American and Southland conferences. 

“I can’t take everybody,” Carollo said. “We’re not running a charity. We’re running a business, and we’re going to have the best business in the country.” 

Carollo is proud of the racial and gender diversity in hiring the best officials. More than half of his new hires are minorities, he said. For only the second time in McDaid’s five SEC offseasons, the SEC did not lose an official to the NFL. 

“I use this term – I don’t mean to be ugly – I’m not looking for retreads,” McDaid said. “I’m looking for young guys that don’t have any baggage. I can shape them a lot easier. It’s like taking an old golfer that’s played for 40 years and you’re trying to teach him to swing differently.”

The situation reflects arguably the biggest upheaval in college football officiating since the Big East’s last football season in 2012. Back then, McDaid was completing his 11th season as a Big East official, the last six as a referee. He was hired by the SEC to replace Steve Shaw in 2020.

This offseason, McDaid had to account for — and evaluate a glut of — officials suddenly on the market. Only the Mountain West, Sun Belt and MAC kept the same team membership going into the 2024 season. The other six leagues had to rejigger their officiating lineups. 

After careful consideration, McDaid hired two from the Pac-12 — Ross and Morton.

“I tell [officials], ‘Bet on yourself,'” McDaid said. “We all go around trying to develop political capital, but don’t let that be a crutch for developing your own competencies and abilities. You bet on yourself. If you’re a damn good official, you will bubble to the top.”

Ross said he was proud to have worked every Pac-12 rivalry game except Stanford-Cal and Arizona-Arizona State. (He couldn’t do the Territorial Cup because he was an ASU grad.) Ross’ final game last season was a Pinstripe Bowl assignment between Rutgers and Miami. The family got a holiday vacation to New York.

Morton estimates he has done a dozen bowls/conference championship games in 13 years with the Pac-12. Glenn continues to officiate for the fun and camaraderie. In that sense, officiating is a vocation more than anything else. 

“I was willing to go anywhere to extend the career as much as I could,” he said. 

Another example of their duties being more of a calling than a job. Or maybe it’s more important just to have any officiating job at this point in the upheaval.

“I’ve got to hope,” said Glenn, having made the cut for now, “that wisdom and experience [means] more than youth and vitality.”

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