Get Control of the Game

Lisa and I are headed to the 100th Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena with our good friends from Idaho, Dan and Colette. As we pack up for the road trip south, I am reminded of a great life lesson learned during a prior Rose Bowl experience—get control of the game! This is part one of a three-part series.

The 1998 Rose Bowl Game, a culmination of the 1997 NCAA Division I football season, pitted the University of Michigan Wolverines against the Washington State Cougars. This, the 84th Rose Bowl, was the last year the Rose Bowl was neither corporately branded nor part of the Bowl Championship Series (“BCS”). The game has long been known as the “granddaddy of them all”—the most spectacular bowl game in college sports. The Game Manager that year was my oldest brother, Bill Lewis, who managed the Rose Bowl on behalf of the City of Pasadena for over a decade.

Washington State was coached by Mike Price, head coach from 1989 to 2002, and featured Ryan Leaf, a promising quarterback who was a finalist for the Heisman trophy in his Junior year. Leaf was the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, yet only played four seasons, primarily with the San Diego Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys between 1998 and 2001.

Michigan, coached by Lloyd Carr from 1995 to 2007, had two prominent players: Charles Woodson and Brian Griese. Woodson won the Heisman the prior year as a Junior, and was selected by the Oakland Raiders with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft. In 2007, Woodson was ranked #11 on ESPN’s Top 25 Players In College Football History list. Griese, later drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 1998 NFL Draft, was selected as the MVP of the Rose Bowl, passing for 251 yards and three touchdowns.

The 1998 Rose Bowl as a fight for the National Championship in a system that relied on coaches and writers polls to rank college football teams. The “official” National Championship game was played in the Orange Bowl where Nebraska defeated Tennessee 42-17. Based on Nebraska’s defeat of Tennessee, favored to win the top spot, the AP poll named Michigan and Nebraska co-national champions.

I had the good fortune of attending the game and participating in the pre-game effort at my brother’s invitation. The head referee, Dick Burleson from the Southeastern Conference, was set to retire. The Rose Bowl was his final game. An amateur photographer, Bill asked me to spend some time before the game with the officiating crew, showing them around the facility and taking a few pictures to memorialize the event for Burleson. It was a lot of fun hanging out with the crew the day before the game. To my surprise, Burleson asked me to join the crew in the locker room on game day as they prepared to take the field.

I brought a change of clothes and my camera gear into the locker room and watched for photo opportunities as the men went through the referees’ version of a pre-game ritual. These were not high-profile individuals. Rather, they were typical, everyday citizens from various small towns across the south. As I recall, for example, one was a furniture salesman. I was intrigued by the intensity with which these men prepared to execute their duties.

As kickoff was approaching, Burleson called the crew together. He gave a simple yet highly impactful charge to his crew, “Let’s get control of the game!” He went on to remind the officials that this was a high profile contest with the national championship probably riding on the outcome. The coaching staffs and players were excellent at their respective games, and, as always, the Rose Bowl would be a long, hard fight. He wanted a penalty flag thrown by the third play of the game. Find some legitimate reason to let the coaches and players know we intend to have control of the game!

A few final words were spoken and we walked out through the tunnel and onto the field. It was a beautiful day in Pasadena. My brother and his talented management team were in high gear, setting in motion all of the key, pre-game activities on a very tight schedule to make absolutely certain that the military flight squadron waiting offshore was cued to fly directly above the stadium at the exact moment the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner would be played. Dick Burleson had the honor of leading the final ceremony, the coin toss by the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses, Carol Burnett.

Given my charge as officiating crew photographer, I had the very unique opportunity to be at mid-field as the coin was tossed and on the sideline throughout the game. So I was on about the 20 yard line in the south east corner of the stadium when the ball was kicked and the game was underway. I watched all of the officials carefully curious as to how they would justify throwing a flag by the third play. Both teams were playing, at least initially, with discipline. The first two plays passed without incident. There were no infractions. At the conclusion of the third play, a sideline official reached into his back pocket and tossed the yellow, cloth rectangle high into the air. Both coaches were in protest mode almost immediately. No one saw what had gone wrong. And then came the call … equipment violation! One of the players’ knee pads was extending below the hem line of his pant leg. The looks of disgust on the faces of both sidelines symbolized a yielding of control of the game to the officials. This first penalty made it clear to the coaches and players that this would be a tightly called game. Dick Burleson’s crew had accomplished their first objective, to get control of the game!1

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1 You can read more about Dick Burleson’s approach to officiating in his book You Better Be Right!

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