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John Blanchette: Big Sky commissioner drops the ball

For Eastern Washington University’s football community, there was no consolation in the Big Sky Conference’s acknowledgement Tuesday that Harpo, Chico and Groucho had infiltrated the officiating crew for Saturday’s loss at Montana. There was only this it-could-have-been-worse realization:

Pac-10 zebras could have been working the game.

Not that the Eagles should have expected an apology, a do-over or the verdict to be set aside. No matter how many fateful flags or fluffs, Eastern still had opportunity on its side. Stop an off-tackle play on fourth down and the game goes to overtime. Complete even one pass out of four from midfield in the final 50 seconds and kick the winning field goal.

Still, for the conference to concede major suckage in the officiating is a drastic – and embarrassing – departure.

“We don’t normally comment on officiating,” was the statement from commissioner Doug Fullerton, “nor do we plan to regularly do so in the future. However, there are cases where it is warranted and this is one.”

But, as usual, there are no tangible repercussions for shoddy work.

No paychecks docked, nobody benched for a week – and no announcement likely if it effects the officials’ future employment.

“I don’t want them looking over their shoulders thinking about whether they’re going to get fired for making a bad call,” Fullerton said in a telephone interview.

Like the way coaches look over their shoulders lest, in the heat of postgame emotion, a mere reference to officiating might get them fined or suspended by the commish?

It will be the source of much consternation in Missoula that two botched calls Fullerton cited specifically went against Eastern, as did most of a handful of others still being reviewed by the conference office. It would be nice to suggest that the ineptitude went even-up but, well, not so much.

In particular, Fullerton noted a hit out-of-bounds in which EWU’s Jesse Hoffman was illegally blocked in the back – propelling him into the Grizzlies’ Kevin Klaboe. That improper penalty offset an illegal formation call against UM on fourth down and kept alive the march to the eventual winning touchdown.

“I don’t know how you miss that,” Fullerton said. “It’s right in front of you.”

His other beef was the unsportsmanlike conduct flag against EWU receiver Aaron Boyce as he slowed and dragged his toes across the goal line after toasting Trumaine Johnson for a third-quarter touchdown.

“We don’t want that called,” Fullerton said. “It’s got to be bigger than that.”

Oh. Except it’s part of the flapdoodle created by the NCAA’s – that is to say, the coaches’ – obsession with taunting and sportsmanship, and the impossible spot officials are in trying to parse it. There is actual language in the rulebook that addresses a change of pace crossing the goal line, as there is for a player leaping up from a big play and signaling first down, which Montana’s Steven Pfahler was nailed for – and which Fullerton applauded, though it was just as silly as the Boyce penalty.

Look, Boyce wasn’t slowing down to conserve energy and Pfahler wasn’t helping out the chain crew, yet neither amounted to even jaywalking violations in the realm of sportsmanship. But if you don’t want the flag thrown, get rid of the rule.

Still under scrutiny from Team Fullerton are some unflagged violations: two for pass interference (one would have kept a fourth-quarter Eastern drive alive), Marc Mariani’s pre-end zone celebration on his 82-yard punt return and a block below the waist on a kick return. Fullerton did say that EWU quarterback Matt Nichols’ apparent touchdown dive that was ruled short in the fourth quarter “appears to be a good call – his knee goes down and bounces up and the ball is not in yet.”

If this seems to be a not unreasonable amount of borderline cases in a game of speed and a thousand snap judgments, maybe it speaks to how well officials actually do their jobs. But Fullerton saw it otherwise (“very disappointing”), and the mere fact of a public announcement underscores just how badly the game was called. So why not sanction – and name – the officials?

“Because they were judgment calls,” he said.

Yet a week earlier, Fullerton suspended EWU linebacker Kyle Wilkins for an improper hit, a determination even rival coaches found dubious. The commissioner explained the inconsistency away by calling it “a rules violation” – never mind that it was at worst a misjudgment, and certainly not premeditated. But it’s obviously easier to hold a player accountable than a moonlighting teacher or salesman in stripes.

Sometimes it’s Harpo, Chico and Groucho making the rules, as well as enforcing them.

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