The visionary interference call that gave Ohio State the championship was an outrage. The noncall that ended the hopes of the N.Y. Giants wasn't.

Published January 10, 2003 8:14PM (EST)

The national championship of college football was decided by a bad call -- by a terrible call. In fact, it was decided by an instant replay that took place in the referee's mind.

Terry Porter, a referee for more than two decades, watched Ohio State receiver Chris Gamble and Miami defensive back Glenn Sharpe go up for a pass in the end zone on fourth down. Neither man came down with it, though Gamble, who was unimpeded by Sharpe or any other Miami player, certainly should have. He jumped, got his hands on the ball, and dropped it. That should have been the end of the game.

It wasn't, and in fact it may never be. Referee Porter then waited long enough to ... (take your pick) A) microwave popcorn, B) fill in the interval between greetings exchanged by Harold Pinter characters, or C) listen to Martin Scorsese reply to a question about why the ending of "Gangs of New York" makes no sense. Porter allowed enough time for the Miami Hurricanes to clear the bench and jump into the stands to celebrate with fans -- one senior linebacker was on his second glass of champagne -- before deciding that the replay in his head showed that Sharpe had interfered with Gamble.

Well, I'm exaggerating by a few seconds, but not about the replay in Porter's head. That's what he said: "I replayed it in my mind."

In his mind.

There is a tendency, I think, to see major sporting events in terms of the theme that has been built up around them. A few years ago, you may remember, Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield had their rematch after an epic first fight in which Bowe knocked Holyfield down and took the title by unanimous decision. In the rematch, Bowe, who was supposedly just coming into his prime, was expected to devastate the smaller, older Holyfield. Instead, Bowe came into the fight 10 to 15 pounds overweight, was a little sluggish and lost a split decision. The decision was a crock. Bowe won the fight going away, landing far more power punches as well as jabs, but no one would stick up for Bowe: He was supposed to have made his move into greatness with a Holyfield rematch, and instead he didn't train hard enough and underperformed. In other words, he didn't live up to expectations -- or in football parlance, he didn't "beat the spread."

A similar thing happened in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami was thought by everyone, myself included, to be the far superior team and a certain big winner -- by as much as 10 points on some betting lines. (Not that I pay any attention to the betting lines, of course.) That kind of dominance never materialized, so most of us (by which I mean viewers with no affiliation to either school) quickly took to rooting for the underdog Buckeyes. The outcome of the game and particularly the controversial fourth-quarter call have been interpreted in that light.

What I'm saying is that if Ohio State had lost the game on that particular play, there would be howls of sympathy and outrage, the kind that we're not seeing for Miami because the Hurricanes, after all, have major reputations as bullies and underachievers. (Despite the school's five national championships since 1981, they've also blown quite a few games against inferior teams that they should have won, such as the 1986 Fiesta Bowl against Penn State and the 1993 Sugar Bowl with Alabama -- both teams, like Ohio State this past season, with little offensive power.) This means that when the big call doesn't go their way, in the general opinion of both fans and the sports press they didn't deserve it anyway. After all, they were supposed to be able to win without benefit of the ref's call.

Well, whatever. I have no stake in the outcome one way or another. But I can tell you that Miami's Glenn Sharpe made a lousy play on Chris Gamble on that fourth-down pass, and it had nothing to do with interference. What I'm saying, after having viewed that play 20 times from three different angles, is that Sharpe didn't interfere with Gamble, but he should have. What I mean is that he should have done anything except get beat as badly as he did. He should have stuck a hand up, bumped him in the air, something -- but he didn't. He let Gamble go up and try to catch the ball, and Gamble dropped it through no fault of Sharpe's.

That is the way the esteemed announcer, Keith Jackson, saw it. Dan Fouts, the color man, even added that "The ball arrived before Sharpe did."

Then, Porter, who initially waved incomplete pass, threw his little yellow flag. After replaying it in his mind. Dan Fouts' comment was, "Bad call! B-A-A-D call!" Keith Jackson was equally puzzled.

Yes, I know. I've said it myself. Every play in a football game is as potentially important as any other, and any referee's decision at any point in the game can be as important as any other. But when two teams play as close as these two played, and you come down to what should have been the last play of the game, with the national championship on the line, and you have a play that's isolated in the end zone, you expect the referee to get the call right, or at least for there to be some mechanism by which the call can be reversed. You also expect the sports media to stop joining in this feel-good fest about what a classic the game was -- to be quite honest, the game was pretty dull for long stretches and is only being called a classic now because of the artificial boost provided by the "offense only" overtimes -- and be honest enough to say what they actually saw on the field.

Yes, people will remember this game for years to come, and whenever they do, they'll hang a mental asterisk on it.

I don't know if Terrell Owens is the biggest asshole in the history of sports. That's too bold a statement for a world that still contains Scottie Pippen, Bobby Knight and Albert Belle. But I do know that his actions toward the end of the 49ers-Giants game last Sunday were as appalling as anything I've ever seen from a professional athlete on a field of play. Here his team has just battled back from a 24-point deficit in a playoff game, and what does this idiot do? He screams and taunts his team into a 15-yard penalty that probably would have lost the game for them had the Niners not had the colossal luck to have the Giants incur an offsetting penalty. Then, 60 seconds later, Owens does it again.

Yes, I know, the Giants' players were equally guilty for responding. But that's not the point. Owens is supposed to be a superstar, a team leader. It is one thing, and a very bad thing, to respond to mindless taunting and put your team in a hole. That's what the Giants did. It is a much riskier and far stupider thing to instigate those confrontations in the first place. Has anyone ever seen such reckless disregard for his team as Owens showed on that taunting call? The only person I think to have ever topped such behavior was Owens himself just seconds later.

Regarding the controversial play on which the game ended, I'll limit myself to this. Yes, Giants guard Rich Seubert checked in as an eligible receiver and should have been recognized as such. But the Giants' Tam Hopkins, who lined up at the left guard spot, was not an eligible receiver and had no business being downfield. The fact that Hopkins crossed the line of scrimmage would, in any sane world, have taken precedent over the play that took place after he moved downfield. It shouldn't have mattered whether Seubert was interfered with or caught a touchdown pass. The sensible call should have been 15 yards against the Giants and loss of down, since the presence of the illegal receiver could easily have resulted in a San Francisco defensive player leaving Seubert and going to cover Hopkins. All that being said, Giants fans should quit bitching. The best deal that New York could have gotten would have given the Giants a third chance to do what they had not been able to do in the previous two tries: kick a field goal over 40 yards.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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