Aug. 5, 2012, 9:17 p.m., Des Plaines River Trail, Park Ridge, Ill. (across the street from Big Ten headquarters). Two cars pull up. Two men walk out, dressed in trench coats and sunglasses, despite the fact it's 87 degrees and, you know, dark.
"Did anyone follow you," one man asks the other.
"No, I made sure to circle O'Hare Airport four times before coming here," the other man replies.
"Good. Bill, listen, I need your help," the first man says. "I know you're nationally respected in the officiating world. You officiated two Super Bowls and seven conference title games, plus numerous Big Ten games. You've held the Big Ten crews to an extremely high standard in this role. Your entire career has been built on being fair and honorable, blah blah, blah. Whatever. We need to make Penn State pay this year."
"What do you mean, Jim?" the other man asks. "You mean the bowl ban, the scholarship losses, the lost Big Ten postseason revenue and the transfers weren't enough?"
"No, not enough. They still get to play games. Let's penalize them on the field ... by not penalizing their opponents. Get it? Get it?
"Jeez, you refs have no sense of humor. OK, Bill, here's the deal. I want your crews to ignore every holding call against Penn State. Every borderline call goes against them. Replay guys, too. They're in on this. If a call goes against Penn State on the field, those guys had better uphold it."
"Jim, this sounds like a conspiracy! I thought that was just for angry fans to whine about when their team loses. It doesn't actually happen, does it?"
"Happens all the time, Bill."
"OK, so my crews will intentionally make calls against Penn State?"
"You got it. They'll probably want to run off to the ACC now [devilish laugh]."
"Even in the Ohio State game? They're on probation, too. And they actually embarrassed you more with that Sugar Bowl thing."
"Dangit, don't remind me. You're right. But yeah, borderline calls go to the Buckeyes when they visit State College."
"Um, OK, Jim. Don't you think it'll be obvious?"
"Nah, they'll never catch us, Bill. And just to make sure, I want your crews to blackball another team. Let's see, let's see, how about Michigan State?"
"Er, OK, Jim. Anyone benefiting from all this?"
"You mean besides the rest of college football? We probably owe Nebraska a bit for giving them such tough schedules during their Big Ten baptism. The Huskers will love us after this season. So that's the deal. We'll call it Operation Cowardly Lion, OK?"
"Catch ya later. Remember, Bill, honoring legends, building leaders, it's what we do."
Before you run off to the message boards or the fanboy blogs and then email me demanding a full investigation, let me tell you the preceding scenario is fiction. I repeat, FICTION. I'm 99.99999 percent sure Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo never had the meeting to hatch a conspiracy against Penn State. While I can't be 100 percent sure because, well, I wasn't hanging out on Des Plaines River Trail the night of Aug. 5, the chances are extremely slim.
If you believe it happened, I've got some oceanfront property in Topeka I'd love to show you.
Penn State fans are angry. Penn State players are angry. Lions head coach Bill O'Brien, while saying all the right things publicly, can't be pleased with what he has seen from Big Ten officials, especially coming from the NFL.
It has been a rough year for Big Ten officiating, the worst I've seen it in the five seasons of the Big Ten blog. There have been more questionable calls and more coaches questioning the questionable calls. It's disappointing because officiating should be getting better, not worse, especially with the replay system no longer a novelty.
Penn State has had several calls go against it in recent weeks. There were some in the Ohio State game, but they did not -- repeat did not -- cost Penn State the game. Ohio State was the superior team that night.
Several calls also went against Penn State on Saturday at Nebraska. Linebacker Gerald Hodges was held at least once. And replay officials botched what should have been an overturn on the Matt Lehman goal-line play in the fourth quarter. They said there wasn't indisputable video evidence to overturn the call. Well, there was. Lehman broke the plane before the ball was batted away. They blew it. And it's inexcusable. Would Penn State have gone on to win? Maybe. More than half the fourth quarter remained, and Penn State hadn't stopped Nebraska at all in the second half.
Still, it was a big call and a blown call. Should there be repercussions for the replay crew? Yes. I'll get to that later.
But the growing belief that there's an orchestrated conspiracy against Penn State by the Big Ten is absurd. There have been plenty of bad calls elsewhere. Each week, my inbox fills up late Saturday and into Sunday with fans of at least half the Big Ten teams complaining about officiating. It's part of the deal.
You really think the Big Ten, already embarrassed by recent scandals involving its schools, would orchestrate a conspiracy involving multiple officiating crews to punish Penn State (and, just to cover their bases, Michigan State?) A conspiracy that, in part, would benefit Ohio State, which directly embarrassed Delany more after he lobbied for the so-called Tat-5 to play in the 2011 Sugar Bowl? It's silly talk.
I don't fault Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for saying what he said after Saturday's game. A recent tweet by Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell -- "we legitimately lost ONE game this year...and that was Notre Dame! The black & white team beat us 4 times" -- was ridiculous, but like McGloin, he's a player expressing frustration after an emotional loss. They sound like fans. But their implication that something bigger involved just doesn't hold water.
I've gotten to know Bill Carollo fairly well since he took the job in 2009. In 2010, I spent a Saturday with him in the Big Ten's television command center. Carollo, Delany and other league officials -- as well as college and NFL officials not working games -- spend their Saturdays there, watching all the games involving Big Ten teams. Carollo takes note of all key officiating decisions, especially those involving replay, and reviews them later during his evaluations for each crew (on-field and replay). Coaches send in plays to be reviewed every week. Carollo takes his job very seriously, and he holds his crews to an extremely high standard.
Here's what he told me about replay in June 2010:
"Our expectations on replay are really quite high. They're as high or higher than the NFL's, as far as how accurate do we expect our replay people to be. We're talking 99 plus percent that we need to be right. There's humans and there's mistakes and there's technology problems and pressure. We want to be 99 plus percent accurate. We don't want to make mistakes in replay. We have a little more forgiveness if we miss a call on the field because you've been screened out or you don't see the right player."
The Big Ten doesn't comment publicly on specific officiating decisions, although I made requests following the Penn State-Nebraska game. But Carollo evaluates his crews after every game (on-field and replay). The good crews stay on the bigger games and the ones who make mistakes typically disappear. Unless he saw something the rest of us didn't on the Lehman play, there should be consequences for those replay officials.
The officiating needs to improve around the league. Pass interference calls, in particular, which have sparked complaints from multiple coaches, must become a point of emphasis going forward.
The evaluations should and will continue. The conspiracy theories should not.