If Bruce Guindon and his high school football officiating brethren had their druthers, the installment of a fifth member to the longstanding four-man, on-field crew would have transpired years ago.
What was once a plea is now part of the Interscholastic League’s pigskin fabric. Beginning this season an additional pair of eyes will be called upon to aid specifically in the judgment of pass plays and blocks downfield, two areas that in the past have been tough calls a for group colloquially called “zebras” to accurately decipher.
This additional official – call it a back judge – brings the total number of overseers armed with whistles up to five. According to Guindon, a Pawtucket native and a football official himself who was one of the key voices in spearheading the negotiation movement that pushed hard for the inclusion of a fifth man, Rhode Island was the last state in New England to go with a pack of four officials governing high school contests.
“First and foremost we wanted to catch up with the times,” Guindon was saying recently, “but more importantly we wanted to make it a better game and a better experience for the kids.”
From an official’s perspective, the game has morphed to the point where it became nearly impossible to get an accurate handle on plays developing 30 or more yards away from the line of scrimmage. The ever-expanding age disparity between today’s players and officials represents one theory why adding a fifth official needed to happen, with Guindon supplying another.
“Like anything else in sports, kids are getting more athletic and physical. They’re bigger and faster,” he said. “Obviously they get down the field a lot quicker than our guys do. It’s not an age issue. You don’t run as fast at 35 than a kid does at 16.
“This gives us an opportunity to see more,” Guindon continued. “In the past when the linesman realized it’s a pass play, he had to run down the field. Something may happen behind him and the quarterback may throw a short pass. He’s really not in a position to see if there was interference.”
Regarding where the officials are positioned, this area by and large remains unchanged. The referee will stand behind the offensive line with the umpire likewise behind the defensive line. One linesman will continue to operate in close proximity to those operating the chains and distance markers on one sideline. The second linesman is based on the opposite sideline.
“The back judge is where your safeties would be,” Guindon noted.
While the implementation of a fifth official represents a new chapter, the brainstorming of this idea does not. Guindon shared that the R.I. Football Officials Association (RIFOA) addressed this particular need the last three times the RIIL and game officials sat down to hammer out a contract. The duration of these contracts can range anywhere from two to three years.
The most recent three-year deal expired following the 2010 season. The pay scale denoted in the expiring contract was the same as to what was stipulated in the previous three-year agreement, meaning six football seasons have come and gone without the officials seeing a pay increase.
How the officials were compensated did not top the list of concerns, Guindon says. The process of getting the fifth man written into the officials’ newest contract was revisited last January, when the officials charged with the task presented a proposal to Interscholastic League executive director Tom Mezzanotte. The RIIL green-lighted the idea – albeit with one notable provision.
“Given the economic situation, a lot of cities and towns are looking to cut back everywhere, not just sports,” Guindon said. “We had to make it fiscally responsible for both ourselves and (the communities).”
In the past, four officials and the person entrusted with the task of running the clock in the field box would receive game checks. The only difference is that the person up in the booth was awarded half of what the on-field officials took home.
Showing just how adamant they were in wanting a five-man crew, the officials opted to take the 4 ½-man fee, add it together and divide the pot into five equal shares. The same salary structure remains in place with each of the five varsity officials taking home $77, down from $86, which was represents the dollar amount when four on-field officials was the norm.
Both the RIIL and the officials were quick to ratify. The Interscholastic League officially signed off on Aug. 30 with the officials putting their stamp of approval on it the following day. Thanks to both parties pushing through this particular piece of legislation in a responsive fashion, five-man crews were on display at last weekend’s Injury Fund contests throughout the state.
“We were hoping, I guess, and thinking positively that this was going to happen,” said a relieved Guindon. “We’ve had guys working as five-man crews in scrimmages. There was a passing league up in Burrillville that we worked, utilizing positioning and trying to get a handle on what’s required and what needs to be done.”
Besides putting in small pay increases that will take effect each year of the newly signed contract, the RIIL required that the officials designate someone to keep track of the game clock in the booth. One would think such a mandate would present a challenge given most of the available manpower is now being asked to round out the expanded crews, but that’s not entirely the case.
To that end, Guindon says the task of finding and supplying the fields with capable clock managers will come from the pool of individuals who are taking the necessary steps to someday become high school officials.
The RIFOA requires that newcomers participate and complete a nine-week training session that concludes with a closed book written exam. A grade of 80 is required before graduating to the next phase, which is another set of classes in which applicants must score 90 or better. That last remaining hurdle is a field test in which every move is monitored and denoted.
“Generally we’ll have those guys work the freshman or J.V. Super Bowl. We’ll have an eight or 10-man crew [comprised of seasoned officials] dispersed throughout the crowd that will watch and draw their own opinions,” Guindon said.
Operating the clock is viewed as an extension of the classroom, which in turn will allow the officiating hopefuls to gain valuable knowledge and insight. Said Guindon, “We’re sure that they’ll learn the game better from being up there.”
For those wishing to learn more about becoming an official, visit www.rifoa.org .