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Starkey: Big East botches another one

| Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

An unfortunate tradition has emerged in Big East football: Every other year, its officials ruin at least one game of serious consequence.

The latest example occurred Friday in Cincinnati, when a ridiculous replay reversal gave Cincinnati a touchdown in its 24-21 victory over West Virginia.

The call might have cost WVU a chance to win the Big East, while Cincinnati remained in national-title contention.

Am I suggesting a conspiracy, a Big East agenda to keep a team alive for the BCS title game?


But I'd have a hard time telling a conspiracy theorist he's nuts.

All around the country, suspect replay calls are going in favor of the teams that would most help their conferences by winning.

I couldn't help but think of that when replay official Don George overruled the on-field officials on a goal-line fumble and awarded Cincinnati a touchdown.

Before we delve into it, some background:

In 2005, the Big East acknowledged an officiating error on an onside kick in the WVU-Louisville game. The gaffe likely cost Louisville the conference title.

In 2007, there were enough blunders to fill a how-not-to-officiate manual. It started with a replay official upholding a bad call that wiped out a late Temple touchdown against UConn, thus saving the Big East from a humiliating nonconference loss.

Louisville later received an apology from then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese after UConn's Larry Taylor signaled fair catch but proceeded to return a punt for a touchdown in a 21-17 victory. UConn wound up with a share of the league title.

All of which was nothing compared to the '07 Backyard Brawl, the game WVU needed in order to secure a spot in the national championship game and thus earn the Big East unprecedented prestige.

Pitt receiver Oderick Turner was flagged for two phantom holding penalties, wiping out a touchdown and a key first down.

Peter King, in his Monday Morning Quarterback column on, wrote this two days later:

The officiating crew robbed Pitt, and very nearly caused the wrong team to win. That crew shouldn't sleep for a long, long time. (Those were) the biggest phantom calls I've seen in such a big spot in a long time.

Not coincidentally, the Big East then revamped its training and review methods for officials and appointed long-time NFL official Terry McAulay as its director of officiating.

After a drama-free '08, Cincinnati happened.

Late in the first half, with WVU leading, 14-7, Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead leaped for the goal line. The ball popped loose. A pileup ensued. Officials awarded the ball to WVU.

Up in the booth, George rightfully launched a review. His mandate, as always, was this: Assume the on-field call is correct; overturn it only if there is "indisputable" video evidence.

There was no such evidence on ESPN's broadcast. To the contrary, every angle invited massive dispute as to whether the ball broke the plane, and, if it did, whether Pead had control of it.

The call was indisputably disputable. Yet, George, a trained football official, overturned it.

I suppose it's possible he had access to angles not shown on the broadcast. Big East spokesman John Paquette told me a replay official is privy to as many angles as ESPN can provide, usually seven to nine.

ESPN, however, would have no reason to withhold from viewers its best angles.

George also had use of high-definition and super slow-motion technology, but I refuse to believe he found "indisputable" evidence of a touchdown.

If he did, the Big East should say so. If he erred, the league should say that. Instead, it declined comment on the play when I called Tuesday.

That silence is more troubling than anything. Transparency, after all, should be a high priority given the Big East's recent history.

Again, I'm no conspiracy theorist, but I got to thinking: What if Pitt loses to West Virginia and goes into the de facto league title game Dec. 5 with two losses, while Cincinnati goes in unbeaten?

If I were a Pitt fan, that scenario might trouble me.

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