When you see a blown call corrected this season, give some small credit to the Supreme Court.


Joe Paterno's railing against Big Ten officials helped power the replay movement. (AP)
It is the nation's highest court that is more or less responsible for the widespread use of instant replay this year. Drop bread crumbs along the path to this monumental shift in the game's philosophy and it winds back more than two decades. In a landmark 1984 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the NCAA no longer controlled television exposures.

The Board of Regents vs. NCAA case opened up the game to free-market television, allowing schools to make their own deals. While that originally meant lower payouts for schools, as a glut of product hit the market, the advent of cable proved the opposite.

In short, the decision proved the public can't get enough of college football.

"... the NCAA television plan is insensitive to viewer preference," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority on June 27, 1984.

Ol' John Paul would be amazed what free-market football has unleashed. Three college sports networks have sprung up in the last couple of years. This year approximately 400 games will be seen on major cable carriers alone.

College football is the ultimate in niche programming. The clash of technology and insatiable viewing desire made one of two things true: Either the abundance of televised games -- i.e. cameras in almost every stadium -- made replay inevitable or the possibility of replay actually caused more games to be televised.

Some conferences are adding cameras in stadiums this year just so replay can be utilized in games that are not televised.

Throw in parity, more bowl games and the increasing pressure to win and instant replay was the next logical step. The Big Ten used it on an experimental basis last year. It was so successful that nine of the 11 I-A conferences will use it this year.

In a conservative, tradition-bound sport, this qualifies as hippies overrunning the administration building.

"I know people want to use technology to make things better," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "But it came from the pressure on our programs. We had a lot of TV and a lot of close games.

"There's more at stake. It just became really hard to defend the mistakes that were there because you didn't want to take credit away from the winning team."

Numbers from the Big Ten reflect the parity that created that pressure. Big Ten champions went from an average 23.6-point margin of victory in the 1970s to only 11.4 points so far this decade.

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Replay is used in almost every major sport except baseball. Even there, umpires have taken the previously unprecedented step of huddling to review fair/foul calls on home runs. Baseball and the umpires union have stifled any discussion of replay but you've got to wonder how long it will be before it is used, for example, for out/safe calls at first and those fair/foul calls down the line.

It didn't hurt the college football replay process that respected Penn State coach Joe Paterno became an outspoken critic of Big Ten officials this decade -- chasing one referee into a tunnel at Beaver Stadium and questioning the loyalties of officials from the state of Michigan.

"I felt strongly we should have replay," Paterno said, "(but) I don't take credit for it."

College football already had adopted more and more NFL rules over the years. Then you throw in the big-money BCS and the pressure to get it right and replay seemed natural.

"You had a couple of important (NFL) games where it was questionable whether it was the right call," said Chuck Neinas, a former NCAA official and Big Eight commissioner who now is a headhunter for schools with coaching vacancies.

"What's happened is the colleges don't want a (bad) call deciding who goes to the BCS."

Jim Wheeler once worked for a powerful international marketing firm pitching a college football playoff to the game's power brokers. He is now an instructor at his alma mater, Oklahoma.

"Definitely, the stakes have gotten higher," he said. "When you have seven- and eight-win coaches making $1.5 million a year and $40 million (athletic) budgets, there is a lot of pressure."

The Big Ten experiment got rave reviews to the point that technology and rules collided -- almost perfectly. The conference had spent years evaluating instant replay. The 2004 experiment went more than smoothly.

Step 1: Cameras. Because of the Big Ten's popularity and location around major cities, almost all of the league's conference games are televised.

Step 2: Relatively inexpensive replay equipment. TiVo, basically an enhanced VCR, was put to use.

Step 3: Who makes the call? A Big Ten observer, usually a retired official. This year that has expanded to three persons for most conferences in the booth helping review plays.

Step 4: Simplicity. The NFL model is sometimes ridiculous. NFL officials have 90 seconds to review a play but that's only after a referee ducks under the sideline hood. The officials can lollygag on the field, seemingly, as long as they want discussing things.

Fifty-seven stoppages in Big Ten games last year resulted in an average game time of 3 hours, 16 minutes. In 2003, the average length of a game was three minutes shorter.

The Big Ten was able to put the whole thing together for less than $100,000, although costs have shot up. The SEC will spend almost $700,000 on its instant replay system this year.

It's ironic because a few years ago there was little support for replays. Questionnaires sent out to coaches by the NCAA rules committee kept coming back with the same message: Leave the game alone.

Now?

"Everybody in college football has the same goal, that's to get the call right. Why not have it?" said Nick Carparelli, a Big East associate commissioner.

The fun thing is that there will still be those blown calls. It's guaranteed. This is not the NFL, yet. In the interest of time, the nine conferences have agreed that officials will not review plays during the final minutes of a blowout.

"If someone were down 28 points ... we would not replay that in the last minute," said Tim Millis, the Big 12's supervisor of officials. "A receiver touching a sideline before he catches a pass ... probably in the last minute we wouldn't bring it back. We would be very careful of something like that, except in the last minute when the score is out of hand."

That makes sense which, upon further review, is something college football can use more of.