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Pac-12 football officiating is in crisis again after a mass exodus of referees

Pac-12 Conference has seen most of its referees depart this offseason.



Football Zebras exclusive

The Pac-12 Conference has drawn an oversized share of headlines for officiating matters during the season, but now the conference is facing an officiating issue in the offseason.

Football Zebras has learned that 5 officials at the referee position have left the Pac-12. Four referees have resigned and a fifth, Mike Mothershed, retired after a 28-year run in the conference. Referees Chris Coyte, Francisco Villar, and Steve Strimling have been hired by the Big Ten Conference. Joining them in the Big Ten is center judge Jim Wharrie, who worked at least 3 games last season as referee, according to Quirky Research. Strimling is currently administering the second USFL season and is expected to take a role in the replay command center. (In addition, a Pac-12 line-of-scrimmage official was also hired by the Big Ten and another was hired by the NFL.)

Coyte, Villar, and Wharrie were seen working a spring game in Nebraska, which would ordinarily go unnoticed, but the Big Ten Network had an option for live content in April.

David Coleman, the vice president of officiating for the Pac-12, has a crisis on his hands, much like in 2018 when the NFL lost four longtime referees in a hiring spree from the TV networks. The Pac-12 had seven crews last season, meaning they will have to replace more than half of their crew chiefs, and with the departure of Wharrie, one of the potential officials to get a bump-up is also gone. This is a massive drain of talent at the heads of the crews, including Peach Bowl referee Coyte.

[Clarification: Some reports indicate that the Pac-12 has eight officiating crews. Sources have said this was the conference’s plan to add an eighth crew for the 2023 season.]

The Pac-12 is the only Power 5 conference that does not have a robust alliance with other Division I, II, or III conferences, having just a loose affiliation with the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (Division II). The Big Sky Conference provided crews when there were more than seven games, but otherwise had no affiliation. By contrast, each of the other Power 5 conferences have a formal consortium with at least another FBS conference and an FCS conference.

The Big Ten is preparing for the seismic shift in 2024 when Pac-12 charter members USC and UCLA change their conference affiliation that essentially dates back to the 1920s. Football Zebras has also learned that the Big Ten already is staffing up by hiring from other conferences and through its College Officiating Consortium headed by coordinator of football officiating Bill Carollo.

Coleman has presided over several officiating challenges during his tenure, including public airing of dirty laundry from retired officials and a business executive interfering with replay operations. An audit commissioned by the conference, however, found no major changes needed in the replay operations.

We reached out to Coleman for comment but did not receive a response before publication.

This post was updated shortly after publication to clarify the relationship between the Pac-12 and Big Sky conferences.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)