An overhaul of officiating structure for the final two rounds of the Central Section football playoffs can be expected as soon as next season following the latest uproar from the Fresno/Clovis area involving a game played in Kern County.
Specifically, there's been a history of strange whistles, if no whistles, at Bakersfield High, where the beloved and oft-outstanding Drillers have been known to be treated kindly by a range of authority – from district administration to officials.
"You almost have to respect that," Bullard coach Donnie Arax says. "It's really a credit to that town that they've taken care of a school surrounded by the inner city. It's the Drillers, man, it's tradition. And they've hung on to that tradition."
Unfortunately, some of the legend has long been linked to the men in stripes by the section's north.
Clovis coach Rich Hammond, in his maiden voyage to Bakersfield High's Griffith Stadium last Friday for a Division I semifinal, learned why.
"It was an experience unlike any I've ever had," Hammond says of a 31-14 loss called by a crew from the Kern County Officials Association.
He makes this clear: "Bakersfield definitely outplayed us; we didn't play well enough."
And this as crystal: "The obstacles were a little more than I would expect in a typical high school game. And I would hope our section will go with neutral officials in the future. It would make our section stronger, better."
The officiating criticism has flowed both directions.
Bakersfield folks don't feel any more comfortable coming to Fresno County as those in the north do going south.
Arax was honest about a play in the Knights' home-field 23-10 semifinal win over Bakersfield in 2009: "There was a very questionable hold that cost them a TD. They say they get homered by our officials; we say the same thing about theirs. Who knows what the truth is?"
Change to mixed crews is imminent.
The current routine calls for area officials to remain home for the first three rounds and neutral crews to work the finals.
That means tonight, in a rare example, all four division championships in I, II, III and IV – which happen to match teams from the north and south – will be worked by five-man crews from the central association, severely tapping its depth.
Mixed crews, which would combine officials from the section's north, central and south associations on common teams for the semifinals and finals, have been used with little debate for several years in basketball.
The movement for change in football has been gathering momentum and no doubt will be accelerated in part by the Clovis-Bakersfield game.
In it, the Drillers scored on what video clearly shows to be a bogus fumble recovery on the second play of the game. Later, in the space of three plays, Clovis had two touchdowns nullified by penalties in the fourth quarter.
Many calls have been questioned over the years at Griffith Stadium, but perhaps none blown as blatantly as the fumble return.
The play had Cougars quarterback Jaryd Weakley throw a pass in the right flat to Garrett Olson, who had hardly touched the ball when hammered by cornerback Kevin Elijah. The ball dropped to the ground and was scooped by linebacker Silas Nacita, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
The point of contact occurred only a few yards in front of the flank official, veteran Dennis Wren, who failed to rule the obvious – incomplete pass – and blow the play dead. Instead, he followed Nacita to the end zone and, once there, appeared in a daze, as if saying, "What just happened?"
Nick Ellis, the game's head referee, didn't see the beginning of the play because his responsibility was to follow the quarterback during and after the pass.
But Ellis says: "By all accounts, it's possible the call was missed. And, to be blunt, from what I hear, it probably was."
Ellis then digs in: "Might we screw up, sure? But do we deliberately screw up and play favorites? Hell no. I take this [crap] personally."
Interestingly, the 27-year veteran official does allow that the south association carries a collective chip: "We've always felt the Fresno and Tulare associations are like brothers and we're the stepson, that Bakersfield gets left out in the cold."
He says the KCOA, regarding football mechanics, follows a college-oriented Southern Section manual in comparison to officials from the Tulare/Visalia and Fresno/Clovis areas, who abide by rules established by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Two bibles, but little difference outside of where officials align on the field.
Ellis did say the KCOA is considering switching to the NFHS.
Best of all, he says his association is probably willing to join the "family" next year and team with the boys from the central and north in playoffs: "I believe we have enough time to make the adjustment and make it work."
Never too soon.