The first day of 2014 will resemble several hundred of the other days Jay Stricherz has spent on a football field.
He’ll work a job that combines thrill with agony.
The thrill is participating in the almost perfect pageantry that is a major college football game. The agony lurks in his duty to identify the almost from the perfect. Whenever a penalty flag is dropped on Stricherz's watch, and he’s required to explain what happened to negate an offensive gain or mitigate a defensive stop, coaches will grumble and players will mumble. He’s familiar with the exercise.
And yet the first day of 2014 will be momentous for Stricherz, because it will be the last day he does what he loves. After 35 years as a Pac-12 official, he’s stepping down.
Stricherz, retired from an occupation where he imposed rules of a different kind — he was a school administrator in Tacoma for 31 years — didn’t always yearn to wear the black-and-white stripes associated with those trusted to maintain law and order amid the chaos of high-speed collisions. The 1965 Franklin Pierce graduate played football through high school before realizing his best chance to stay in the game was as a whistle blower, following in the footsteps of his dad.
“It must have been in my blood, in my DNA” Stricherz said last week as he was preparing to travel to Orlando, Fla., where the referee will serve as chief of the nine-man crew of Pac-12 officials who’ve been assigned the Capital One Bowl. The contest between Wisconsin and South Carolina, among six college games on a busy Jan. 1 schedule, will be Stricherz’ 21st bowl appearance.
There’ve been some biggies: Two Fiesta Bowls, two Sugar Bowls and two Cotton Bowls along with the inaugural BCS title game on Jan. 4, 1999, when he was head linesman for the Florida State-Tennessee contest that determined the Volunteers as national champions.
Stricherz’ first bowl game assignment – the 1990 All-America Bowl at Birmingham, Ala., between Southern Mississippi and North Carolina State – was accompanied with substantially less fanfare.
“I got down to Birmingham,” recalled Stricherz, “and people told me, ‘You’ve got to watch this guy who plays quarterback for Southern Miss. Kid’s name is ‘Favor.’ It turned out to be a wonderful game.”
“Favor,” of course, was the presumptive pronunciation of the last name of Brett Favre, who earned MVP honors in a 31-28 defeat.
By then, football’s transformation from ground to air – from rugged and plodding offenses to the empty backfields we often see on short-down situations in 2013 – was gaining momentum after rules preventing offensive linemen to extend their arms were liberalized during the late 1970s. (The late Alabama coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, decried the change in blocking technique as “legalized holding.”)
At the same time, cable television was beginning to offer more opportunities for fans to see football from home. Networks craved sponsors, sponsors craved viewers, viewers craved entertainment.
“Blocking rules and the expansion of television coverage, those have been the two major developments since I started,” said Stricherz. “It used to be there was one game a week on TV, maybe two. Now they’re all on.”
For officials, it’s a whole new world packed with double-edged nuance.
Technological advantages enable Stricherz and his crew to immediately review their work on three sets of videos, each taken from a different angle. Meanwhile, at league headquarters, the seven on-field officials, along with two in the replay booth, are graded by supervisor Tony Corrente, an NFL referee hired to coordinate Pac-12 officiating.
“We used to review our games on a 16-mm film projector,” said Stricherz. “Video allows us to study over every single play in slow motion and freeze frames: What was called correctly, what wasn’t. There’s a 6:30 a.m. conference call on Monday morning with the Pac-12 office, but the learning process — assembling information from the last game and preparing for the next one — never stops.”
But technology also has made a difficult, demanding endeavor fodder for scrutiny and ridicule. Controversial judgment calls rendered in real time are replayed in slow motion a dozen times during a broadcast, then shown again (and again and again) on the cable-network shows wrapping up Saturday action.
And then there is the wrath that awaits in social media, the ultimate oxymoron. When it comes to football officials, social media is not especially social.
Veteran Pac-12 officials receive $2,700 per game (they’re on their own for travel expenses) and smarmy feedback posted on blogs is part of a job with unique parameters.
Coaches are due respect and cordial relationships are encouraged, but “we don’t become their friends, and they can’t be our friends,” he said. “They know what our job is.”
Hired in 1979 by the conference then known as the Pac-10, a year after Arizona and Arizona State were admitted, Stricherz had plenty of time to consider the pitfalls of officiating before he worked a game involving a conference team.
“We were brought along slowly, sort of like apprentices,” said Stricherz, who finally made his debut on Sept. 25, 1982, when San Jose State visited Oregon State.
“There was a lot of anticipation, a lot of butterflies in my stomach,” he continued. “And then I got on the field, and remembered it’s the same game with the same dimensions: 120 yards long, if you include the end zones, and 160 feet wide. I realized I belong here.”
Stricherz still belongs — Pac-12 crews for the bowl season were assembled on 2013 performance grades rather than tenure — but he’s 66, and time, he believes, to pass the torch to the next generation of officials in a region where the tradition of Getting It Right began with Tom Cross and continued with the likes of Marv Tommervik, Aaron Pointer, Buddy Horton, Jerry Meyerhoff and Kirk Dornan.
Stricherz is open to the possibility of sharing his expertise in an evaluation role, perhaps, or as a consultant to novice officials. But after the Capital One Bowl, he’ll be able to enjoy football like any other fan.
Well, sort of.
“Once you start officiating, watching a game can never be the same,” he said. “My glasses always will have black and white stripes on them.”