MARTINS FERRY - The Ohio Valley is filled with some of the best football officials, at all levels, in the tri-state.
Unfortunately, the number of those retiring is starting to surpass that of new ones entering the special fraternity.
In an effort to stem that tide, the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference decided to be proactive and developed the OVAC Football Officiating Academy.
T-L Photo/RICK THORP
OVAC Football Commissioner Dave Clutter holds a copy of the national football rulebook during the first session of the OVAC Football Officiating Academy on Wednesday night at Martins Ferry High School. The 10-week program is aimed at training new officials in hopes of helping replenishing a roster that is dwindling locally.
Piggybacking on the success of ones conducted by the National Football League the past two years, the OVAC's, which began Wednesday night at Martins Ferry High School, is a 10-week effort aimed at introducing the profession to a new group of folks.
''You guys are going to go through everything that all of us, that any football official you meet in Ohio and West Virginia, you're going to go through the same thing they've gone through,'' said Dave Clutter, OVAC Football Commissioner and head of the Academy.
''We understand what it's like to sit in your position. There's nothing you should feel uncomfortable about about asking or inquiring about ...we've heard 'em all.''
The academy is free to attend. Clutter said anyone who missed the first week and still wants to join next Wednesday can. Just show up at the school at 5:30 p.m.
''Not only will you see football differently, but it's our job to make sure that you see the game from an official's perspective, instead of a fan's perspective,'' Clutter, who officiated for 38 years, said.
''When you finish this course you will learn to see the game in a different light and it will be a good thing.''
Joining Clutter were his predecessor with the OVAC, Don Zinni, along with Jimmy Sperlazza and Larry McCoy.
Sperlazza, a Brooke High School graduate, has been officiating for 15 years and is a member of the Weirton board of officials. He also works college games, including those inside the Mountain East Conference.
In addition, he has worked in the NFL since 2006 and currently serves as a field communicator for the replay department, working games in Pittsburgh and sometimes contests in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
''The OVAC is where it started for me and I still work in the OVAC,'' Sperlazza noted. ''I'm a back judge in the OVAC. Dave and I have been involved in some (officiating) academies the NFL has sanctioned and they've gone really well.
''Our area has really benefited from some of those young guys who are moving up to their first year of varsity now.''
Clutter is in charge of assigning officials to OVAC varsity contests. In all, that's about 250 officials. And, because numbers are dwindling, he said he's finding himself having to reach out to Boards from places like Columbus, Zanesville and Columbiana to obtain quality officials. Most are from Wheeling, Weirton, Parkersburg, Morgantown and East Liverpool.
''You guys have a great opportunity,'' Sperlazza told the prospective officials. ''We are really going to be hurting for officials the next three to five years. Really, we're hurting now. We have a lot of guys on the verge of retiring. If you guys stick through this and you find out you really like it, there's a good chance you'll be on a varsity field within three years.''
McCoy, entering his 22nd season wearing stripes, is a rules interpreter for the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletic Commission. He said the academy is about teaching officials to be fair, consistent and thorough.
''We cannot teach you everything about officiating in 10 weeks,'' he said. ''But we we can do is give you an overview and an introduction to officiating.
''When you finish this course, you'll be able to go out in mid August and call a youth game, call a middle school game, call a junior high game.''
The Academy will feature classroom instruction and hands-on work, which will include live action in a controlled environment with players. Near the end of the course in July, participants will take in the Rudy Mumley OVAC All-Star game, have lunch with those game officials and take in their pregame conference. It will be a graduation so to speak. Or a beginning to a career, in a sense.
Along the way, students will work with veteran officials and hear from a variety of guest speakers.
''You guys are associated with the cream of the crop,'' Clutter said of the folks involved with the Academy. ''There's no group better to be associated with.''
For more information, contact Clutter at (304) 280-6670 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thorp can be reached at email@example.com