Officials embrace second family
Off-field bonds help crew members with game management
Eric Steen has plenty to take care of each day during his full-time job. And then there’s his paying job and his moonlighting job on top of that, each requiring plenty of time and attention.
Steen is a single dad with two boys, ages 12 and 6. They have to get to school, eat dinner, head off to extra-curricular activities -- martial arts now, but football isn’t far off either -- and church. Steen plays drums there, giving him a little respite from the busy life he has during the day driving a HVAC delivery truck. And then there’s homework, not just for the kids but for him as well with his weekend gig which this year will include officiating football games for Conference USA.
He said when his boys have homework, “I have homework too. I have homework all year round because you have to stay on top of your rules. If you don’t know your rules, you’re not going to get on the field.”
It’s not as easy as one may think considering the size of the rule book and the amount of upheaval there is almost yearly. Technically, the rules changes only happen every other year, but even during the season, for instance if a player-safety issue comes up, a new interpretation may be distributed by the NCAA’s national coordinator of officials, Rogers Redding.
“Rules change like laws do; every year or every month something is going to change,” Steen said. “During middle of the year something might change. We might get a notation through email, something might change to something different than what happened in the past. It’s kind of a year-round situation.”
Steen has been officiating football for 17 years, the past six working the college level in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. A native of Austin, Texas, Steen is making the jump up a level to the fast-paced C-USA, where nine of the 12 squads this year are expected to run no-huddle offenses. He not only will need to get familiar with the new teams, but with new faces on his team.
Part of a seven-man officiating crew on the field, Steen will have the transition eased through the mentoring program that Conference USA puts in place for newcomers. The study time makes for long hours, but his mentor, Avery Fields, is trying to help Steen through the roadblocks and create an opportunity for success.
Fields, a field judge in Conference USA since 2001 and an 18-year officiating veteran, has been in Steen’s situation. He worked in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for several years before being called up to the next level. The process moving up isn’t always easy. Since Fields has been through it, he is now assigned to help Steen’s on-boarding process, helping with anything from learning how to call for travel, complete reports online, even getting into the small details like which uniform to pack and how to pack for a weekend trip.
“The goal is to make all his new hires successful, so that they come in in Year 2 and their development level is that much further beyond where others are in other conferences,” Fields said.
“You have that matriculation process going up from lower conferences into Division I, and in order to be successful, you have to have success with transition. The uplink, that on-boarding, that’s what makes younger officials stay around to be seasoned officials on the staff.”
Fields also offers other tips on studying, even helping Steen get to know other members of the league’s officiating staff including those he will work games with this fall. That bonding process started as soon as Steen was hired by the league’s coordinator of officials, Gerald Austin. It was cemented further in late July when all the officials came together for the league’s yearly preseason clinic, talking about rule changes and working through best practices in “chaotic situations, which is live football action,” Fields said. The end goal is always to have the squads in stripes finding a level of consistency from week to week and game to game.
Those times together, especially for the newcomers like Steen who join the league and may have never worked a game with many of the other officials, go a long way to making things run smoother on fall Saturdays, the time when they all need to be on the same page.
“We are the third team on the field. There’s offense, there’s defense and then there’s the officials. We’re just the ones who don’t’ come off at any particular time,” Fields said. “And we work as a team. Our responsibilities as far as what areas of the field that we’re covering are very much similar to those as the players who are participating at those particular positions.”
Fields even takes it one step farther. It’s not just a team -- to him and many of the officials around the country, it’s a sort of fraternity, almost a family in itself.
“We look at it like it’s a 14- or 16-week marriage. Once we start, we’re together and we have to find a way to be successful on the field and off the field,” Fields said. “In course of [three days each weekend on the road together], we talk about each other’s families, children, extended families, and we in turn become a family.”
A family that’s always willing to lend a helping hand.