Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens makes critical decisions at George Mason every day, but the calls he makes on the football field are the ones that can have a crowd of 80,000 people screaming in a heartbeat. Scherrens has been a Division 1A college football referee for 13 years, spending his first 7 seasons in the Big East and working for Conference USA since 1998.
Scherrens serves as the head linesman during the games and is positioned on the line of scrimmage. He rules on false starts, offsides, forward progress on running plays, most fumbles, and pass interference on short passes.
Photo by Evan Cantwell
Scherrens’s officiating career began 23 years ago when he started doing Pop Warner games with 8-year-olds. From there, he moved on to high school freshmen football and eventually junior varsity, varsity, Division III college football, and Division 1A. He now works between 10 and 12 games a year, and in January 2003, Scherrens worked his seventh bowl game–the Gator Bowl between Notre Dame and North Carolina State.
Scherrens, who also has been a high school basketball referee for the past 25 years, played both football and basketball throughout high school and wanted to become an official as a way to stay close to sports. Becoming a referee isn’t easy, however. The football season begins in March with spring scrimmages and lasts into January. Every summer, Scherrens and his fellow officials must complete a clinic that involves physical conditioning, regular weigh-ins, a one-mile run, several agility drills, and an exam to test their knowledge of the rules. They are also given weekly quizzes throughout the year to keep them sharp. Scherrens also notes it’s not unusual for him to spend another two to four hours per week studying the rule book before going to bed.
During a typical game week, Scherrens and the other six men on his crew arrive at the game site late on a Friday afternoon. After eating a quick meal, the group spends the next four hours preparing for the next day’s game by studying the previous week’s film, dissecting possible game situations, and analyzing team tendencies. Learning whether a team runs a lot or is passing-oriented helps the crew get in position to make the right calls. On Saturday morning, two and a half hours before the game, the crew goes to the game site for more review and final game preparation.
When the game is over, the seven officials gather again for another one or two hours of post-game review. The person in charge of evaluating the crew that week joins them at the hotel and provides an overview of what went right and what went wrong. The officials are graded from 1 to 6 on most every play of the game, with each correct call earning a 6. Graded situations include penalties, fumbles, interceptions, pass interference, and touchdowns. The evaluators also examine the officials’ mechanics, which include being in good position to make the call, making the call correctly, and enforcing the penalty correctly. At the end of every season, the supervisor of officials for the conference essentially selects an all-star crew that works the bowl games.
Scherrens and his crew work together all season and form strong bonds, almost like a family, according to Scherrens. “We rely on each other during the game, and the friendship often becomes personal as well as professional,” he says. “When questions come up throughout the week, we will exchange e-mails or phone calls. We talk family, we talk work, and we talk football. We work hard to gain some crew chemistry on and off the field.”
The combination of being mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared is what makes a good official, Scherrens says, along with understanding advantage and disadvantage. “You can call holding on almost every play, but you have to know when it affected a play and whether it was at the point of impact,” he says. “That comes with experience and seeing a lot of plays, but also mentally reviewing the play a second time and asking yourself if it really was a foul.” Other important qualities include having a feel for the game and having thick skin when coaches are yelling. “If we can walk off the field and nobody notices us, that’s probably the highest accolade we can get,” he says.
The coach-referee relationship is a unique one, says Scherrens. Because Scherrens stands on the sideline during the game, he listens to the coach for hours–coaches are constantly talking to the referees. “I think, in general, most coaches respect officials and the toughness of their job, although some are much more understanding,” he says. “There are bound to be plays that are controversial, but you just have to handle yourself professionally.”
Scherrens’ favorite part of being an official is walking off the field after a tight football game knowing his crew did an outstanding job. On the flip side are the rare occasions when he makes a call that he didn’t have a good look at. “There is nothing more disheartening, yet you have to recover quickly and work harder for a better angle at the next play,” he says.
Balancing one’s professional career with such an intense avocation as Division I officiating is always challenging, according to Scherrens. “You have to have some degree of compartmentalization–during the week, there is nothing more important than my job at George Mason University, but to the extent possible, my weekend time I dedicate to the game,” he says. He admits there can be some overlap at times, but during the three hours of the actual game, he doesn’t think about George Mason at all. “I don’t think anybody who does a good job at this level of officiating can think about anything but the game at hand. A lack of concentration for one second during a game can result in an incorrect call and give an unfair advantage to one of the teams.”
Scherrens plans on officiating another 8 or 10 years, but says he has no aspirations to work in the NFL. “I’ve dedicated my life to the university football scene, and that’s where I want to spend my time on a weekend. Ain’t no place else I’d rather be.”