By Mike Wade | Photo courtesy of David Epperley
They are the Rodney Dangerfields of the sports world, constantly criticized and scorned by coaches, spectators and broadcasters alike – even when they’re right. Yet, it would be difficult to imagine a sport like college football without trained officials to regulate the games we love to watch.
While almost all football fans have been guilty of directing their ire toward an official at some point, very few of us truly know the amount of work that goes into officiating. As a matter of fact, the time that we see them on the field is just a fraction of the hours that collegiate officials spend on each game. The level of dedication is even more impressive when you consider that many officials – like David Epperley of Newport – also have full-time jobs.
“Once the start of the season approaches, it’s really seven days a week,” explains Epperley. “The three hours we spend between the white lines each week are a blast, but we spend another three days answering questions about what we did and didn’t do.” Epperley, an official with the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), has been working Division I college football games for 25 years. He owns a successful property management and appraisal business. “For me, it comes down to a love for the game and the profession of officiating,” declares Epperley. “It gets in your blood. The first time I stepped on the field 37 years ago for a scrimmage, I was hooked.”
ACC officials are considered independent contractors, and their performances are closely evaluated. They must attend regional and national clinics and meetings throughout the year and pass annual written rules examinations and physical tests. The day before each game, ACC officials are expected to attend a 6 p.m. meeting at the game site where they review films and discuss rules and mechanics of the game. Officials arrive at the stadium three hours before kick-off.
Games are monitored by the ACC’s Game Day Operations Center. Each penalty is recorded, in addition to a selection of plays throughout the game, to ensure the integrity of the game. Epperley notes that video reviews are made available to officials after the game for weekly reviews and grades. “I’ll start reviewing film on my I-pad on the flight home,” he says. “All in all, I spend about 12 hours a week watching game films and doing prep work.”
To get to Division I, most officials start working recreation league and high school games. That experience and training from peers are key to an official’s development. “We’re doing pre-season clinics and study groups as early as April,” Epperley continues. “It requires a lot of self-study, and you can’t survive at this level unless you put a significant amount of effort into it. With all the years I’ve been doing this, I still see things I could do better.”
Although he only lives 20 minutes from Lane Stadium, you won’t see Epperley at any Virginia Tech games. In order to prevent potential issues of “home cooking,” Epperley says the ACC purposely avoids scheduling officials for games in their own backyards. “Nothing good could come of me working a Tech game,” he says with a chuckle. “This is too small an area; an official in Miami might be able to get by doing a Miami game, but that wouldn’t work here.”
While he’s done his fair share of big games, Epperley admits that it’s hard to single out which moments are the most special for him. “I remember the first time I did a game at Notre Dame. I was standing on the sideline thinking how surreal that was because when I was a kid, Notre Dame football was the only college football we could get on TV. Three years ago when I did the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game, that was pretty neat. It was a night game – and the biggest crowd to ever see a college football game. My son got to come on the field; it was quite a night. Those experiences and the memories you make are the special moments that stand out.”
Some refs have tracked their activity using FitBits and estimate somewhere around five miles per contest. To keep up with the physical demands of officiating, Epperley makes working out a priority and hits the gym three or four times per week, year-round. “It’s been a good, long run, but as you get older, you begin to wear down quicker,” he explains. “Plus, the stress level of officiating has increased significantly because of the money involved. Accountability is very high now, and everything is under a bigger microscope.
“There was a time when I might be doing a televised game maybe two or three times a season,” he says. “Now, every single game is being broadcast – even if it’s ESPN3, online, or whatever – and social media has only increased that exposure.”
Now that his son, Hunter, is beginning his collegiate playing career at Emory & Henry this season, Epperley says his days in stripes could be numbered. “You know, you can’t get those days back. It might be time for me to start watching games from the stands again.”
Mike Wade is a lifelong resident of the New River Valley. He has worked as both a journalist and public relations professional for more than 20 years. He freelances as a writer, graphic designer, and portrait artist.