Grid officials readying, too

• Preseason prep work not reserved for players

Dave Clutter gets it.

High school football officials are loved and hated.

”If we make a call, half the crowd is cheering and half the crowd is booing,” he admitted.

It’s true.

Officiating football, and officiating prep sports in general, can be a thankless job, filled with ups and downs, just like the players and coaches they oversee experience.

”Absolutely,” stated Clutter, who worked games at various levels for 38 years before becoming the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Football Commissioner four years ago.

”We talk about that at every meeting. Fans expect you to work a perfect game. Coaches expect to coach a perfect game and players expect to play a perfect game. It doesn’t happen at any level.

”There are times where you just have an off night. It happens. That’s another thing that people don’t understand. We’re just regular folk. We’re not that special.”

Like the players and coaches, officials spend the weeks leading up to the start of the season prepping, studying and getting their bodies in shape for the nearly-four month grind that’s ahead. For the men and women in stripes, though, their ”training camp” is less subdued, but no less important.

”There’s a lot of study involved,” Clutter explained, referring to the rules clinics officials in Ohio and West Virginia are required to complete.

”West Virginia has one every year and it’s a face-to-face meeting. Ohio has gone to an online clinic. Also, new officials must take a concussion course online.

”The biggest thing is updating themselves on rules changes, even though, this year, there are relatively few. With the exception of the running clock (mercy rule), which fans in West Virginia will notice, most of the changes this year place emphasis on defenseless players, illegal hits, those kids of things. But major rule changes? None.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is a huge proponent, along with the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) and West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission (WVSSAC), according to Clutter, of promoting three things — safety, safety and safety.

”If you look at major changes that have come down the last five years, whether it be at the high school, college or pro level, it’s all directed at player safety, primarily concussions.

”The concern the federation has is if we don’t clean up the game of football as we know it, it will know longer be what it is now.”

As far as Clutter is concerned, safety is paramount when it comes to the crews he oversees.

”The primary goals of officials is player safety,” he stressed. ”That’s their No. 1 focus. Beyond that, it’s to enforce the rules in a fair and equitable way.

”The best thing you can ask of an official is to have no one know you were there; that you didn’t insert yourself into a certain situation.”

Football rules, while very similar, aren’t the same across different platforms — prep, college and pro. And Clutter encourages fans to take that into account when watching or listening to a game.

”Fans all have an opinion,” he said. ”The officials don’t get to officiate by opinion. They have to officiate by rule.”

And, for some, even the prep rules can differ.

”The rules in Ohio and West Virginia aren’t that significantly different,” he noted. ”The difference officials have to contend with are the mechanics. West Virginia uses national federation mechanics, while Ohio has its own set of mechanics produced by their state office.”

Plus, for those officials that work college games, there’s more pages of rules to remember.

”You have to make sure your head is in the game, and where you’re going today,” Clutter smiled.

About 180 officials are in play locally through officials boards based in Wheeling and Steubenville. Officials from the Parkersburg, Morgantown and Zanesville boards have also been brought in to work area games.

But no matter who is on a local crew, Clutter is confident they’re qualified to do the job.

”We just don’t go out and give everyone a striped shirt and ask them to go out on a field,” he said. ”Every official in the OVAC has been through a minimum two-year training program before they ever see a varsity game. So, it’s something they dedicate themselves to and take the time to do because they love the game.

”It’s not for the money. No one is going to get rich from officiating football, or any other sport, for that matter.”

While it’s true the bulk of registered officials has grown older in recent years, Clutter said efforts to bring in a younger crop is paying dividends thanks to a variety of camps and clinics.

”If we get five quality people every year, we’ll be in great shape.”