Making the Right Call
I'll always have 50% of the people mad at me," shrugs Jim Krogstad, Big Ten football umpire, whose role in calling a game is not only a passion, but a second career.
Krogstad, 61, retired from M3 Insurance in 2009, but he's in his 15th year as an umpire. For years prior to landing the Big Ten job, he officiated lower-level college and varsity high school games.
"Making it to the Big Ten was a goal and dream I'd had for years," he says.
At a Badger football scrimmage in August, Krogstad and his officiating crew were participating in a "dress rehearsal" for the upcoming college football season. Sporting a black hat and a "U" on the back of his uniform, Krogstad positions himself behind the defensive line on every play, concentrating on the actions of three players: the center and two guards on the offensive line. He admits that holding occurs on nearly every play, but his expertise is in determining – with split-second timing – when an infraction puts an opponent at an advantage or disadvantage, perhaps resulting in a penalty.
Positioned behind the big boys of the Big Ten each season can be a vulnerable spot for the 5'7" umpire. "I get hit every game by someone," he admits, joking that he's considered wearing a flak vest at times. But he takes it in stride, as he does the weather. While officials don the latest in weather gear,"hot is still hot, and cold is still cold."
Big Ten officials are required to live in a Big Ten state. They work and travel in seven-man teams, and this year, because of Nebraska's addition to the league, there are eight such teams. Each is made up of a referee (who wears the white hat, manages the game, controls the time, and usually communicates calls to the crowd and TV audience via a microphone) the umpire (Krogstad), a head linesman, a line judge, side judge, field judge, and back judge. Each keys in on specific players on the field.
After a flag is thrown, Krogstad huddles with the ref. "I'm telling him what penalty I have, the number of the player, and where I'm going to enforce the penalty from," Krogstad says. He might also mark off the yardage and determine if a team will accept or decline a call.
With the exception of some recent additions, Krogstad knows most of the Big Ten's football coaches. "But I'm not out there to have them like me," he says, though he does hope he earns their respect. "They need to know I'm going to give 110% on the field, and that I might make a mistake."
To ensure officials perform at the top of their game each week, a game log and a myriad of videotapes of each game are later submitted to "graders" – current or ex-NFL officials – who review every call made and grade all Big Ten officials on their game performance.
"The grader will specifically look at the fouls we called, and those we missed," Krogstad explained, and they assign a point value of between three and seven points to each occurrence. If the grader is in total agreement with a call, he'll reward the official with seven points; if not, just three. Halfway through each season, the league informs the officials where they stand.
There is a payoff for all this scrutiny. At the end of the season, officials earning the most points are rewarded with the opportunity to officiate one of four bowl games, with the top being a BCS bowl, joining the best of the best from around the country. Last year, Krogstad ranked second out of seven umpires and was assigned to the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando. Officials are not allowed to work a post-season game involving a team from their own league, which explains why Krogstad has never had the opportunity to work at the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten pays the officials a few days after each game, though Krogstad declined to say how much he makes. This year, the crew will also receive a per-game flat fee from which they'll deduct travel and other expenses. Officials can purchase insurance – disability, travel, and liability – through an association of active Big Ten officials.
During the season, Krogstad's crew will arrive on Friday for a Saturday game. That night, they'll dine together, watch highlight films from all the previous week's good and bad plays, and perhaps also rehash their own calls from the previous week.
Saturday morning, the crew members eat breakfast together and discuss the teams they'll see that day. Two-and-a-half hours prior to kickoff, they report to the stadium and change into their zebra stripes.
Ninety minutes before kickoff, the ref and Krogstad visit with the coaches of both teams. They'll sync their watches, learn who the team captains are, talk with trainers to check on injuries and equipment, and get updated on any out-of-the-ordinary plays the teams might run if certain game situations arise. "We don't want to be caught off guard by unusual formations," he says.
At halftime and after each game, the crew reviews and verifies all the calls that were made. The referee logs the time of every foul, who called it, and the game situation. His report is sent off to the grader.
Krogstad bristles when conspiracy theorists claim games are fixed. "Each year, we are subject to a background check by both the Big Ten and the NCAA. We are prohibited from visiting a casino during the season and must communicate during the season if we are in one. We are expressly prohibited from betting on any sporting event and forbidden in a sports book at any time. Furthermore, as we are graded each week, unusual calls or behavior on the field would be easily spotted." 'Nuf said!
Still, remaining impartial, especially when officiating a Badger game, is critical, though not difficult, he insists. "I have to focus so much on what I'm doing in the game. To me, it's just another football game. Often I don't even know the scores."
That impartiality is probably why he's been rehired by the league year after year. "I've never blown a call – that I know of."
Krogstad says instant replay has become a very important part of the game. "It has validated how good we are, and that we get over 90% of the calls correct." If a controversial call requires further review, the field officials get "buzzed" from the Big Ten booth official high overhead. "We know when there's a really close situation, and we can slow the ball down to give the people in the booth a chance to review a play from all the different angles." But he reminds coaches and fans that every play is scrutinized, not just the controversial ones.
"This is an avocation," Krogstad insists. "You can't make a living doing this; there are only 12 games." As of this writing, his schedule does not include a Badger game. "But this year, we'll have a Big Ten Championship game, so who knows?"
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