ACC commissioner John Swofford was at home last Halloween night, watching the end of the Miami-Duke game unfold in real time on his television screen.
He saw what everyone else did: Miami scored on an improbable eight-lateral touchdown to win the game with no time left. Then two replay reviews lasted nine minutes, leaving both coaches in the dark on the sidelines. A flag was picked up, but the head referee gave a poor explanation, leading to more confusion. Finally, the referee announced that the winning score would stand, even though replays showed Mark Walton's knee had touched the ground on one of the laterals.
Miami celebrated. Duke coach David Cutcliffe, incredulous, walked into the locker room and told his team, "I'm not going to pretend that I can tell you anything. I don't really totally understand what just occurred. What I can do is tell you that we've got to move forward regardless. We're not going to go back out on that field and re-play this.'"
Swofford had a problem on his hands. He went into the ACC office in Greensboro, North Carolina, early the next morning and met with ACC coordinator of football officiating Dennis Hennigan. They went over the replays and saw clearly that their officials had made mistakes. Hours later, the ACC put out a statement: the on-field officiating crew, replay official and communicator were suspended two games. Four crucial mistakes had been made, and the ACC detailed each one.
The play went viral; the ensuing national debate centered on whether the outcome should be reversed. Days later, Cutcliffe sat in his office and lamented what had happened to his team, saying repeatedly he had yet to receive an adequate explanation for what went wrong. Swofford, meanwhile, knew the status quo could not hold. Officiating mistakes had come under increased scrutiny in recent years across the country, and in some instances cost teams victories. The Duke-Miami game showed in glaring technicolor how one botched call could directly impact the outcome of a game and stain an entire conference.
So the ACC took action. In January, it announced it had hired Ted Jackson as assistant coordinator for football replay, the first such role among FBS conferences. Hennigan decided to pair replay officials and communicators with on-field crews, allowing them to work together as a unit week to week.
Then in May, the ACC became the first conference to announce plans to use collaborative replay on an experimental basis this season, via a command center in the conference office. Shortly after, the SEC also announced plans to use collaborative replay.
Those conferences will be the only two using a command center model when the season kicks off next week. The ACC had overwhelming support from its coaches to use this model.
"We had one really big-time foul-up that the world saw," Swofford said. "Fairly or unfairly, that paints a picture, so optically I saw that as a problem, and substantively I wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could do to have the best possible officiating on the field and in the replay booth for our teams. I felt it was very important that we take the strongest steps that we could take and be on the cutting edge in terms of anything, whether it was experimental or not, that could make officiating the best it could be."
The goal is simple: "To do everything we can do to make certain that every call is correct or get as close to that as humanly possible," according to Swofford.
How does a command center help? Here is a glimpse into how it all will work:
The ACC already had a command center in its offices, with eight stations set to monitor every game each week. To prepare for collaborative replay, the league made a "significant" investment in technology. (Swofford would not disclose the figure.) There are now 11 work stations outfitted with a "quad view" screen, allowing the replay officials in Greensboro to look at four different camera angles at the same time.
It is the same setup the replay official has at every ACC home stadium and at Notre Dame. Upgrades in bandwidth also were made in the command center because so much video will be streamed into the office in real time. Encoders and decoders had to be installed as well, allowing for easy communication between each home venue and Greensboro.
Jackson will work in the command center every single week, along with up to two more replay officials, depending on how many games are happening at once. Every play up for review will be looked at by the replay official at the game and the replay officials in the command center.
Only ACC home games and games worked by ACC replay officials will use collaborative replay. In Week 1, for example, the Big Ten is handling replay for the neutral-site game between North Carolina and Georgia in Atlanta; the Big 12 is handling replay for the Florida State-Ole Miss game in Orlando. Therefore, neither game will feature collaborative replay.
In games where collaborative replay is used, Jackson will have the ability to put on a headset, turn a nob and communicate with any replay official at an ACC stadium. So, say he is watching Charlotte versus Louisville on Thursday night, and there is a replay review in Tulane-Wake Forest. He can flip a switch, call up the Wake Forest replays on his screen and start talking with the in-game replay official.
Hennigan reiterated repeatedly that the ultimate decision rests with the replay official at the venue. Jackson and the officials in Greensboro are merely there to assist.
"Implementing a collaborative replay system does not change the way the officials in the stadium operate, whether it's on field or in the replay booth," Hennigan said. "I want the replay official to do the job that he's done in the past in the same way, and if Ted or another replay official who is in the game-day center feels the need to get involved in the process, he will. If he thinks the replay official isn't looking at a certain view that gives a better view of a catch or not a catch or a foot in bounds or out of bounds, the person in the game-day center will say, 'Hey, have you looked at view B or view C?'"
During meetings in Charlotte this past July, replay officials spent several days reviewing protocols and working on the best way to communicate with the command center once a play goes under review. They spent hours reviewing replays from last season, debating whether the proper calls had been made on simple reviews and those that proved more difficult to judge.
Targeting in particular drew a lively discussion, especially since the replay official will now be able to stop a game and call a targeting penalty that they believe the on-field crew missed. Jackson led the discussion and reviewed more than 22 targeting plays from last season, explaining his rationale for the way replay was handled for every call. Is the player defenseless? Was there forcible contact? Is there indisputable video evidence? Did the defender make contact with the helmet? Was the player hit in the shoulder or the neck or head?
The discussion in that room will be similar to the conversations in-game replay officials will have with Jackson and other replay officials in the command center once the games begin. According to Hennigan, the replay officials are completely on board with the collaboration and have not expressed any concerns about being second-guessed or overruled in Greensboro.
"Their response is the same as on-field officials' response is to replay. We all just want to get the call right," Hennigan said. "When we went to replay 10 or so years ago, I was on the field at that point and my reaction was if it helps to avoid a mistake or correct a mistake, let's use it. Everyone has the same attitude here. If it helps us avoid a mistake, why not use it?"
There are some concerns. Nobody wants to slow the game down with unnecessary replay stoppages, nor do they want reviews to drag on because more people are involved from the command center. Having multiple replay officials in the command center will help with workflow, especially if there are multiple reviews happening at the same time.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists who could holler about the league dictating which way the replay should go. Again, Hennigan stresses that the final call will rest with the in-game replay official.
Though all the officials have talked about how collaborative replay will work, nobody knows for sure how smoothly everything will go in Week 1, especially on the communication front.
"I'm intrigued to see how it plays out and how our replay officials in the venue work with replay officials in the command center -- what that dynamic is like, how smooth the conversation and communications and how effective and efficient," said Michael Strickland, senior associate commissioner for football operations. "Our goal is to get it right. That's why we're doing this."
After the season ends, the SEC and ACC will present a report to the NCAA football rules committee on how collaborative replay worked throughout the 2016 campaign. Depending on how things go, collaborative replay could be approved for use on a full-time basis starting in 2017.
"Something is experimental because you want to see if it's what you think it is and if it will positively affect the game," Swofford said. "Our expectation is that it will positively affect the game for everybody concerned because we're all after the same thing, and that's to get the calls right."
And to therefore avoid the ultimate nightmare scenario that unfolded at Duke last year.