Big Ten Ref Assignments

Gene Steratore bounds from the officials' locker room at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, following a roped-off path to the court.

"Can you put a couple of pretzels aside for halftime?" he asks a concessionaire. "We'll tip you well."

Steratore is America's Ref, known to millions as the dashing man who flags a false start on an NFL Sunday and two days later uses the same motion to whistle a Big Ten basketball player for traveling.

From the Jan. 6 "Waddle and Silvy" show on WMVP-AM 1000:

Marc Silverman: "Everyone loves (Ed) Hochuli, but I believe Steratore is better all the way around."

Tom Waddle: "Not so much because of his physique but because he really explains everything."

Silverman: "He's not only officiating the football game, at Tuesday he's got Wisconsin at Indiana. You watch and go: Is that Gene Steratore?"

Steratore is humble but embraces being called the Deion Sanders of his profession, aka "Prime Time."

"Prime is here!" he tells an old friend working security.

Steps from the court, a boy offers him a slice of pizza. Steratore just smiles. And then he whispers a line that reflects the joy he brings to his job: "They pay us to do this."

In truth, this is not easy money. Basketball officials can be required to make a half-dozen decisions on each of 120 to 140 plays over 40 minutes, and TV viewers and overheated observers expect them to get every call right.

Did the player travel? Who initiated contact? Was there displacement? Was the defender's foot in the restricted zone? Was there continuation? When did the shot clock sound?

And perhaps most difficult of all: How do you keep your cool when a powerful and sometimes physically intimidating coach is blasting you?

"When chaos is erupting in our arena and fans are going crazy," Steratore says, "we have to be the calming force."

Last month the Big Ten gave the Tribune rare access, allowing a reporter to embed with officiating crews at the Rutgers-Purdue and Maryland-Northwestern games, shadowing them before, during and after games — plus while their boss scrutinized their calls at the Big Ten command center.

A summary of what we learned: By the time officials take the floor, they are hours into their workday, having iced, stretched and studied each team. They walk, jog or run as many as 2.5 miles per game. Some work nearly 100 nights from November to March — and they razz each other about their heavy schedules. They can make upward of $3,000 per game but have to pay for their flights, hotels and rental cars. They hunger for an invitation to work the NCAA tournament. They miss about 4.2 calls over 40 minutes.

Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune

And, contrary to some perceptions, the best officials try to avoid issuing technical fouls.

Rick Boyages, who oversees basketball officiating for the Big Ten, says of Steratore: "Gene can take a coach in a most heated state and disarm him in five seconds. It's a real skill."

The best example came Jan. 20, 2015, when more than 17,000 fans packed the Kohl Center to watch two ranked teams — Iowa and Wisconsin — duke it out in an ESPN prime-time game.

Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who rode the officials harder than anyone in the conference, confronted Steratore over a call and began cussing him out. Steratore approached Ryan and told him: "Look at me. Here's how you do this."

Steratore put his left hand over his mouth: "Now you can mother-(bleep) me!"

Ryan chuckled, cursed some more. A university photographer captured the moment.

"Look how fun this is!" Steratore told Ryan. "They don't know what we're doing."

Bryce Richter / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind., Feb. 14, one hour before tipoff

The three-man crew is in the officials' locker room preparing for Rutgers-Purdue. Steratore is stretching on a towel. Larry Scirotto is icing his right ankle. Bo Boroski is applying Flexall, a pain-relieving gel, to his legs. It smells like Bengay, which, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich jokes, "they buy in tubs."

Boroski, 41, is 6-foot-4, a former pitcher at UAB who began reffing soccer, baseball and basketball as an 11-year-old in Tifton, Ga. His payment was five bucks and "all you can eat at the concession stand," where the hot dogs were "like crayons."

His father, whom he calls "the original Bo," was a baseball umpire who taught him professionalism.

"I have Italian blood in me," he says, "so I have to shave right before every game. If I were to shave at lunch and we had overtime, I would be scruffy."

He has seen Pearl Jam perform 37 times, and before calling a game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, he quickly scans the arena in hopes of spotting Evanston native and Cubs fan Eddie Vedder.

Scirotto, 43, is a self-described "LA Fitness addict" with a beach body that would attract gawkers in Santa Monica. He works out every morning not only to hone his 32-inch waist and Mike Tyson biceps, but also to set an example at his day job.

Scirotto became a police officer in Pittsburgh at 19. He was too young to legally own a gun, so his mother kept it locked in the house overnight. He has since risen to a supervisory role as assistant chief but says, "I've been ducking bullets for 20 years that have real consequences."

Last month in Iowa City, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffrey got so enraged over the lack of a delay-of-game technical on Maryland, he charged toward Scirotto after the clock hit zeroes.

Scirotto was nonplussed as he exited the floor.

"Move," he told the Iowa coach. "Move."

One Big Ten coach who preferred to remain anonymous praised Scirotto as "having a good personality; he likes to crack jokes and keep it light."

Boyages wants his refs to chitchat with players and coaches before games.

"They need to see them as human," Boyages says. "If (Caleb) Swanigan finds out Larry is a cop, maybe that's something they'd talk about."

About 50 minutes before tip, six members of Purdue's game-day staff enter the room. They include a "TOC" (timeout coordinator) who communicates with a producer in the TV truck and a "tech" who serves as a replay technician.

"How 'bout the clocks, boys, any problems in the last two weeks?" Steratore asks.

Told no, Steratore delivers a pep talk: "The ego we will show on the court will only be for self-preservation. There is nothing stupid about any question you could possibly ask. We want to get it right."

Boroski examines the game ball, which varies by school depending on the apparel contract. Wisconsin uses a little-known brand from Puyallup, Wash., named Sterling, perhaps giving the Badgers a small advantage.

Before leaving for the court, one of the game-day staff members jokes to the officials: "I've never seen you guys mess up."

Steratore responds: "When I work a perfect game, I'll quit. I will never duplicate it."

Tipoff, Feb. 14

Sixteen seconds in, Scirotto blows his whistle for an unusual call. Purdue guard Carsen Edwards receives a pass after getting freed by a double screen. But Edwards stepped out of bounds while moving without the ball.

"An offensive foul down low," play-by-play man Jeff Levering says on the Big Ten Network broadcast. "Rutgers forcing an early turnover."

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Actually it's a violation, but a borderline one. Officials call this the "Gary Harris Rule" in honor of the former Michigan State guard who liked to come off screens from behind the basket, creating sharp angles to lose defenders.

But it's called only when the player is the first to receive a pass after leaving the court of his own volition. And in this case, a Rutgers defender might have nudged Edwards out.

"That's the dumbest thing," Purdue coach Matt Painter tells Boroski as he walks past.

In an interview with the Tribune the next day, Painter says: "It's not a good rule. Our guy barely went out of bounds, and one of their guys impeded his progress."

Purdue has beasts in Swanigan and Isaac Haas, and they sometimes play overlapping minutes. There's so much grappling inside, Painter says, "we can be tough to officiate."

Indeed, late in the first half, Painter hollers at Steratore: "Hold! He can't grab him, Gene."

Steratore warns Painter that Haas has to "get out" of the lane to avoid a three-second violation.

"Any time we can preventively officiate and stay out of this game," Steratore says, "we will do it."

Halftime, Feb. 14

In their locker room, Scirotto downs some chocolate-covered espresso beans. Steratore drinks a Coke and talks about his interaction with Painter.

"Getting your plays right, that's not really hard at this level if you're good enough to be here," he says. "Most of what we do is managing the game."

It's an even greater part of his football work.

"A play lasts six seconds with 20 seconds of downtime," he says. "Imagine an individual having to play so violently for six seconds and then having to be normal for 20. And then violent for six more. How do you take that emotion and keep him mentally stable in between the violence?"

Second half, Feb. 14

Before play resumes, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell chats with Boroski, telling him he's at a loss as to how to defend Purdue's "bigs."

Boroski is cordial but does not chime in, explaining later: "When (a coach) goes down that road, we can't let our guard down. Can't give a quotable line that can be used against us later. I listen and acknowledge, but I don't agree, disagree or add my own input."

Purdue leads 35-31 with 18:35 to play. Rutgers 7-footer C.J. Gettys is defending the massive Swanigan and grinding his right forearm into Swanigan's back. The low-post defender is permitted to keep it there, but Gettys twice uses the forearm to jab. No call.

"C'mon, Bo!" Painter yells.

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Rutgers does not attempt a free throw until 37 minutes have passed, but Pikiell has no outward complaint. Purdue is the better team, and the officials have worked a smooth game.

About the only thing that goes wrong comes when Steratore tries to toss his gum into a trash can and misses. He jokingly signals for a hacking foul.

With 30 seconds to play and the clock running, Boroski notices Rutgers walk-on Jake Dadika trying to check into the game. But Rutgers has no timeouts.

Boroski asks Painter: "Hey, can I get him in?"

Painter has no vested interest but complies. A nice gesture by Painter and good awareness by Boroski.

"That's why he's Bo," Steratore says.

Postgame, Feb. 14

Boyages huddles with the officials, praising them for a clean game. Over the next 12 to 18 hours, he will grade every foul, every violation and plays when perhaps a foul or violation should have been called. Correct calls get a "1," wrong calls get a "2" and he tags 50-50 calls with a question mark.

The Big Ten logs and charts everything. Through the first 146 games, Boyages determined officials missed 620 calls, 4.24 per game. That number is down slightly over the past few seasons. The average game has 2.6 "50-50" calls.

The only clearly missed call at Purdue came when Gettys was defending Swanigan in the low post. Boyages and Boroski analyze the replay on an iPad.

Boyages: "Looks like pop … pop."

Boroski: "Is it displacement?"

Boyages: "Well, (Swanigan) is 300 pounds. So it's probably going to take more."

Boroski: "That's what I was thinking."

Boyages: "But what level of a crack is it?"

Boyages: "You can talk him through that: '32, you can use the arm bar, but don't be popping him in the back. I'm not going to call a foul because you're not moving.' But that's aggravating to a guy."

Boroski: "100 percent. Nah, you're right. I should have taken a foul on it. It's a foul."

In ref lingo, "take" a foul means "call" a foul.

Steratore and Scirotto are off to Chicago. They'll work with veteran official Mike Eades for the next night's Maryland-Northwestern game.

Boroski is off to New Jersey to work the Creighton-Seton Hall game. En route to his hotel, he says he'll lock in Channel 22 on SiriusXM — Pearl Jam Radio.

Big Ten command center, Rosemont, Feb. 15

The No. 1 complaint from Big Ten coaches about refs? They work too many games.

"They have to be tired," one said. "They work six days a week in six different cities, travel every day, run the floor with elite athletes."

"When do they recover?" another asked.

It's a valid concern.

As Steratore puts it: "We are young cars with lot of miles."

And many of them have day jobs and families. Steratore has a family business (brother Tony, also an NFL official, co-owns it) that sells janitorial supplies in Pittsburgh. As an NFL referee, he explained to America that Calvin Johnson did not "complete" that 2010 end-zone catch at Soldier Field. He also put three kids through college, debt-free.

"I single-parented for the last 17 years, ran a business and did both sports," he says. "My children used to get on an air mattress and lie in the back of a (Dodge) Durango and I'd go to New York City, ref a game and they'd sleep on the air mattress. And I'd carry them in at 5 in the morning (back in Pittsburgh), put them in the shower and get them to school. The sacrifices are immense."

But here's why guys like Steratore, who walks tilted to one side because of a strained back, work so many games: They're needed.

"Why are there only 70 guys working 100 games?" Steratore says. "You think it's because we're greedy? There's a difference between being a play-calling official and a referee who can manage the game."

Officials are independent contractors making between $1,200 and $3,000 per night depending on the competition level and their experience. They do often work four to five games a week, but Boyages has helped the profession immensely by leading the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which assigns more than 130 officials to the Big Ten, Mid-American, Metro Atlantic, Summit and Northern Sun (Division II) conferences.

The streamlined scheduling allows Steratore — who would rather not fly — to work, say, one night in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the next in Ypsilanti. And because officials cannot expense transportation costs, they might be more prone to take a $2,000 MAC assignment than a $2,800 job on the East Coast.

"Constantly getting up at 4:30 for a 6 a.m. flight after a 9 o'clock game, maybe you can do that in your 30s and 40s," says Steratore, 54.

Boyages' top officials work no more than 35 to 38 Big Ten games each season. Rarely, if ever, will an official see the same team twice in a seven-day span.

"Familiarity is a dangerous thing," Steratore says. "Even if you are my brother, we'll have to go to a different bathroom to shave every once in a while."

The West Lafayette/Evanston back-to-back makes for easy travel for Steratore and Scirotto, who meet Boyages at the Big Ten command center to review plays and grab lunch. Upon returning to Chicago the previous night at 11, Boyages talked them into late-night burgers at Au Cheval.

"We can't hang out with Rick," Scirotto says. "I'd have to go to the gym three times a day."

Lunch, Park Tavern, Rosemont, Feb. 15

Ex-coaches love telling stories. Here's one: Before shifting to administration, Boyages toiled as a coach at William & Mary, which has never made the NCAA tournament. He got so enraged at the officiating during a 2001 game at East Carolina, he pointed to different spots on the floor and shouted: "Foul! Foul! Foul!"

Mike Eades responded by giving Boyages the heave-ho.

Now Boyages determines which Big Ten games Eades will work. One is on this night in Evanston with Steratore and Scirotto.

"Glad Rick had a change of heart about me," Eades said, grinning.

Eades, primarily an ACC ref, is a fixture at North Carolina-Duke battles and has worked two of the last four Final Fours.

All that is nice, Eades said, but "if they're keeping score, it's a big game."

Eades, 51, lives in West Virginia, where he works with at-risk youth. In his younger days, according to Boyages, Eades wore tight shirts to show off his physique and moussed his hair.

"Confirmed," Eades responds.

Last month at the Iowa-Michigan State game, Eades' whistle broke off its lanyard. He searched his pockets for a backup as if hunting for car keys. After coming up dry, he had to jog back to the officials' locker room.

"Mike," Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw kidded him, "you refereed a whole lot better when you did not have the whistle."

Tipoff, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Feb. 15

"It's going to be a hot one tonight," Steratore tells Scirotto and Eades before popping in a stick of Juicy Fruit and heading to the floor.

He means that literally and figuratively. Welsh-Ryan Arena is four games from being gutted. With the crowd near capacity, it can get steamy.

"The sidelines are tight," Steratore says.

So are the coaches. This is a huge game for Northwestern's Chris Collins and Maryland's Mark Turgeon. Steratore says he expects them to be "wound up."

Northwestern plays a crummy first half, in part because do-everything point guard Bryant McIntosh exits after getting whistled for two fouls in the first three minutes — bumping Anthony Cowan on a drive and colliding with a rebounder.

With 4:28 to play in the half, Steratore rings him up again, ruling that McIntosh drove his right shoulder into a defender before shooting a short jumper. Collins barks a bit. Northwestern trails 32-22 at the break.

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Halftime, Feb. 15

While the crowd is transfixed by the bowl-tossing acrobatics of Red Panda, Boyages lingers at the scoring table to use the DVSport system to check out replays of about a dozen calls and non-calls. He wants to be prepared for his postgame session.

Boyages checks to see whether NU forward Gavin Skelly got held going after a loose ball. Not really, he decides. A valid non-call. He also scrutinizes a play that occurred three minutes into the game — Wildcats center Dererk Pardon bodying up Damonte Dodd on a missed shot in the paint.

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Boyages studies McIntosh's third foul, saying: "It's a judgment call. Gene is in great position."

Second half, Feb. 15

Melo Trimble looks like a lottery pick. In the midst of a 32-point game, the Maryland point guard surges past Pardon for a layup and briefly glares at Scirotto. Trimble, whom Steratore has praised for being fair and easy to converse with, wanted an "and one" call.

Next time down, Scirotto tells Trimble: "I know you don't complain. I'll watch it better."

They low-five.

A frustrated Vic Law commits an obvious over-the-back foul and complains a bit to Scirotto, who tells the NU forward: "Vic, that's a foul, bud."

As Scirotto puts it later: "It's never, 'Shut up, kid, and play basketball.' We interact without being defensive."

Steratore tells young officials to be unafraid to engage players and coaches. Don't do it "when the fire is too hot," he tells them. "Wait till the water is good."

Maryland leads by 12 with about five minutes to play, but Turgeon is barking at Steratore. He wanted a timeout called once the Terrapins crossed halfcourt, but coaches can't call for time during live-ball situations. Trimble twice called for time with the ball in the backcourt.

"Mark said, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Steratore says. "Whoa. He says, 'You know what I wanted.' I tell him, 'Well, I'm not playing for you.'"

Postgame, Feb. 15

A shower runs near the officials' cramped locker room at Welsh-Ryan. But before getting clean, the refs will spend nearly 30 minutes reviewing plays with Boyages, who praises their work.

"You guys did a really good job — great job on offense-initiated contact all night long," he says. "Any time a guard jumped in (to a defender), you were consistent laying off (the call)."

Boyages had warned the officials before the game about a Maryland freshman who has tricked refs by locking arms with a defender and making it appear he was getting obstructed.

"A lot of us work multiple conferences," Steratore says. "Nobody else in college basketball preps us like this. Nobody."

But with about two minutes to play, Steratore whistled NU guard Isiah Brown for a foul on an inbound play. Brown couldn't believe it, motioning that Cowan, the freshman guard, had hooked him.

"Heads-up play by Cowan to draw that foul," analyst Stephen Bardo said on the BTN telecast.

Indeed it was. Chatting with his fellow officials, Steratore says he was duped.

Here's what he told Cowan on the floor: "You got me. Don't be defensive. Don't act like you're innocent. You got me. ... But you could have missed the dang front end (of the one-and-one free throw) so I wouldn't feel so bad."

Steratore smiles. He wasn't perfect.

You know what that means? He's not about to quit.

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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Copyright © 2018, Chicago Tribune

Know this about the college football officials who draw your ire on Saturdays: Their every move is scrutinized.

From the moment they leave home for a game, they're on company time. That means no beer with Friday dinner. And if their game is in Las Vegas, no restaurant attached to a casino.

Once they step onto the field, if they chitchat with a coach or athletic director from School A, they're expected to give equal time to School B.

Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's coordinator of football officials, has heard coaches gripe about refs who seem to be waving to members of the crowd on one side of the stadium before a game.

Aha! I knew that zebra had friends on the other side!

And then Carollo informs the coach: The official was signaling to a crew member in the press box that his beeper was working.

Carollo met with the Tribune for three hours last week at Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont to offer insight into the profession, review the season and break down some controversial plays.

Should a replay review have overturned J.T. Barrett's awkward fourth-and-1 scamper in the Ohio State-Michigan game? Should Ohio natives have been allowed to officiate the game? We'll get to that.

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But first ...

•Ever wondered how many plays occur in a Big Ten football season? With 10 bowl games to go, we're at 19,057 — 179.8 per game. That's a lot of opportunities to mess up.

"There are only two things that are perfect," Carollo says. "Your mother and your maker. We're human. We make mistakes."

Carollo also tells coaches: "The toughest job on the field belongs to the quarterback. The second-toughest — the officials."

It's routine to have to log 20 years doing high school or lower-level college games before getting a shot in the Big Ten. The scrutiny is intense. After games an NFL official spends five to six hours grading every play, using the TV replays and sometimes the "All-30" tape — a wide-angle view with all 22 players and eight on-field officials.

An example of when the "All-30" was needed: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty at Ohio State, but the TV replay could not reveal why. Harbaugh, who had been warned, protested a valid offside call (the center did not "simulate a movement") by slamming down his headset and flinging his play cards in the air.

The "All-30" video revealed that some cards landed inside the numbers, at least 25 feet onto the field. Under "The Football Code," the NCAA rulebook states that "conduct that might incite players or spectators against the officials is a violation."

One month earlier at Wisconsin, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was standing on the edge of the "white" that separates the field from the bench. He got smacked in the face by an official in mid-signal and was penalized 15 yards for "physical interference." That was a debatable call. Harbaugh's was not.

•After an independent evaluator (NFL ref) grades every play, the head referee reviews it with Jerry Markbreit, a veteran of 43 seasons and four Super Bowls, or Dean Blandino, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating. Carollo, a former NFL (two Super Bowls) and Big Ten official, breaks any ties.

The calls are graded on a scale of 0 to 7. Routine calls earn a 6, though points can be deducted for flawed positioning. Blown calls merit a 0 or 1. Top officials average near 6.

How to earn a 7? Save an entire officiating crew or make a proper ruling on the last play of the game. For example, the Michigan State Hail Mary that beat Wisconsin in 2011. A replay review reversed the call on the field; Keith Nichol had, in fact, broken the plane.

Carollo says his crews average 5.6 mistakes per game — and that includes incorrect mechanics or faulty positioning.

"People say: 'Where's the accountability?'" Carollo said. "We do a lot of things quietly; we sit down crews (for a game). That does not come out publicly, but I do tell the coaches (involved)."

The conference is serious enough about trying to get calls right that it spends about $1 million annually to train and grade its officials. Three characteristics it looks for: capability, the capacity to improve and character, which includes meshing with crew members and handling coaches professionally.

•To hear Michigan fans tell it — or show it on a 3-minute, 39-second YouTube video titled "Disgrace to the Rivalry" — the officials blew more than 5.6 calls on Nov. 26 at Ohio Stadium. And every one, they seem to believe, victimized the Wolverines.

Now for a closer version of the truth: There was one egregious no-call, as bad a whiff as the officials had at any moment of this Big Ten season. On third-and-7 in the first quarter, Michigan's Amara Darboh got fouled twice on one play — defensive holding and pass interference — and neither penalty was called. What makes it worse is he was the intended receiver.

Another no-call that went against Michigan came after Jabrill Peppers' third-quarter interception. Just as Peppers was being tackled, Ohio State's Mike Weber decked Michigan cornerback Brandon Watson, who was standing nearby, not involved.

The whistle had not blown, so technically the no-call was valid. But Weber's action fit the definition of unnecessary roughness. It was a cheap shot, the kind of hit that could start a fight. Carollo downgraded the official who declined to throw the flag.

Some Michigan fans also complained about a pass interference call, claiming J.T. Barrett's pass to Curtis Samuel was uncatchable. (Have you seen Samuel leap? It was not uncatchable.)

In double overtime, Buckeyes cornerback Gareon Conley had his right arm around Grant Perry as he broke up a short pass with his left. That's a 50-50 call that was not flagged.

And on the game's most controversial play — The Spot — Barrett was ruled on the field to have broken the plane of the 15-yard line when a Michigan defender contacted him. The ruling was close enough, Carollo said, that whatever was called on the field would not have been overturned by replay.

•Before "Disgrace to the Rivalry," the other part of the YouTube video's title is "Bobby Sagers and Kevin Schwarzel fix Ohio State/Michigan game."

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Perhaps the video makers were taking their cue from Harbaugh, who spent much of his postgame news conference railing on the officiating. The Big Ten reprimanded him and fined him a puny $10,000.

Spurred on by Harbaugh and perhaps the video, a radio station with more than 37,000 Twitter followers tweeted out Carollo's work phone number and extension with #FireBillCarollo and #BoycottB1GEvents. A security company is reviewing the threatening voice mails Carollo received.

Here's what makes the video so ridiculous: It includes a clip of an official patting Weber on the behind with "Bobby Sagers; Cincinnati, Ohio; Buckeyes Fan" burned above.

The official is not Sagers, according to Carollo. It's Brian Bolinger, who is from Indiana.

Carollo, by the way, instructs officials to keep their hands off players, for reasons of image and professionalism. In this case, Bolinger was saluting Weber for not retaliating after a tough hit along the sideline. But patting him on the butt was unnecessary and a bad look.

•The point made by the dozens of Michigan fans who emailed me after the Ohio State game was that Ohio natives should not have been allowed to serve as officials in the game.

The Big Ten has no residency rule, and here's why: Crews, especially the best ones, work together all season. (A crew consists of eight on-field officials, an alternate, two replay officials and an independent timer.)

The one sent to Ohio Stadium on Nov. 26 was Carollo's highest-rated crew, and it contained this geographic makeup: four from Indiana, three from Ohio, three from Michigan, one from Illinois, one from Pennsylvania.

If the conference had a residency rule, that crew would be all over the Maryland-Rutgers and Minnesota-Wisconsin games but not much else. (Incidentally, Carollo once jokingly asked Harbaugh if his team's drubbing of Penn State should have been invalidated by the presence of four officials from Michigan.)

What might draw extra scrutiny is if an official was next-door neighbors with a coach, if the official's son or daughter worked in the athletic department of a Big Ten school or if the official donated to a school that is not his alma mater.

Also, every official has to submit to NCAA-coordinated background checks. The Big Ten has used government agencies to peer into the bank records and any gambling habits of officials.

Extra scrutiny comes, Carollo said, "if anything looks or feels suspicious."

In 2007, a scandal hit when a Yahoo Sports investigation revealed that Big Ten referee/crew chief Stephen Pamon had a checkered past that included a $400,000 debt, in part from gambling losses. Commissioner Jim Delany responded by saying the conference would strengthen its background checks. In 2008, it announced Carollo's hiring.

"If we lose our integrity," Carollo said, "we lose everything."

•The Big Lead, a website with more than 27,000 Twitter followers, was among many to assert that Daniel Capron, who worked the Michigan-Ohio State game, had been fired in 2002. (The post linked to a 2002 story from the Purdue Exponent, a student newspaper.)

Actually Capron was not fired, but the eight-man crew performed poorly enough in the 2002 Purdue-Wake Forest game that it was essentially benched for one game.

"That was for calls that Capron had nothing to do with," Carollo said. "The crew sat down one game and returned for the rest of the season."

Michigan fans, and The Big Lead, also pointed to a 2006 clip from the Athens (Ohio) News in which Schwarzel disclosed he was an Ohio State fan growing up. (Imagine that, a sports fan reared in Ohio cheering for the Buckeyes.)

The 1,100-word story also included this sentence: "His crew worked the Ohio State/Michigan game this fall (2006), which also featured the two top-ranked teams at the time, but Schwarzel was not allowed to work the huge game because he is from Ohio."

Some Michigan fans treated that sentence as a smoking gun.

Carollo said the reporter — there's not even a byline on the story — simply got that wrong, given that the Big Ten has no residency rules for its officials.

•Some fans, of course, will always think their team is getting wronged. The Big Ten could help its cause by being more transparent after controversial calls, but the conference is generally fonder of trotting out this line: "The Big Ten considers this matter closed and will have no further comment."

Clickbait pieces fill the void, such as The Big Lead's "This Conspiracy Theory About the Referees in Ohio State-Michigan Has Some Merit" and a Dec. 1 Bloomberg Businessweek story under the headline, "Do College Football Refs Have It in for Your Team?"

The story alleges evidence that officials favor the team that has a better chance to make the College Football Playoff, thus enriching the conference.

"Protected flagships in the Big Ten did especially well with officials, the research shows," the story reads. "Ohio State, the conference's most competitive flagship team in the years (Rhett) Brymer studied, was 14 percent less likely to be dinged for a discretionary foul than, say, Purdue, a non-flagship team with little chance of contending for a national title."

OK. Is it also possible Ohio State commits fewer discretionary fouls because it's better than Purdue — better players, better coaching, better everything?

•Here's why you might want to consider that officials born in Ohio can properly call a game involving Ohio State: Their livelihood depends on it.

The highest-rated officials get the best assignments. Carollo can assign officials to games involving the Big Ten, Mid-American Conference or Missouri Valley Football Conference. If you could make $3,000 working a Big Ten game, $2,000 for a MAC game and $1,000 for a Missouri Valley game, which would you strive for?

And how about the concept of personal pride, doing your job competently?

•Targeting continues to be a focus for Carollo. In 2015, 24 targeting calls were made and 11 overturned. So far this season, 23 targeting calls were made and six were overturned.

Carollo said it should have been seven. During Michigan's aforementioned 49-10 drubbing of Penn State, Nittany Lions linebacker Brandon Smith got penalized and tossed for a hit on Perry. The hit was above the shoulders and Perry was deemed defenseless, but there is an exception in the rulebook to "playing the ball," which Smith did. Replay should have reversed the call.

•After every season, each Big Ten team receives a report of about 50 pages reviewing its penalties.

The focus of Minnesota's will not be much of a mystery. The Gophers committed seven of the Big Ten's 17 targeting fouls. And Carollo said all were valid.

The most debatable came when linebacker Nick Rallis was ejected after contacting a Purdue player on the shoulder pad. But Carollo validated the call because Rallis led with the crown of his helmet, and the NCAA believes those hits are dangerous for the tackler.

The other 10 "confirmed or stands" targeting calls were against Illinois (three), Michigan State (two), Penn State (two but should have been one), Iowa (one), Michigan (one) and Nebraska (one).

Carollo hopes to visit with Minnesota coaches to talk about ways to reduce targeting penalties.

For the good of everyone, let's hope that happens.

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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