MARQUETTE - When the National Football League began scouting possible officials this summer to replace its locked-out NFL Referees Association, the league received a cold shoulder from many of the men in stripes that called games on the NCAA Division I level.
That's because many of those officials supervisors in the Division I conferences are former NFL officials, sympathetic to their former colleagues' cause.
So the NFL turned to the lower levels of NCAA football such as Division II, Division III and beyond.
GLIAC referee Rick Schifter, left, and umpire Mark Valentine confer during a stoppage of play between Northern Michigan and Wisconsin-La Crosse on Thursday at the Superior Dome. The GLIAC has a pool of around 70 officials it draws from during the season to staff its games. The league lost three officials who decided to become replacement officials during the NFL referee lockout. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
The result was Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference Supervisor of Football Officials Mike McCann losing some of his most experienced referees, even if it was only three who made the giant leap to the highest level of football.
"They were good officials with a lot of experience in the conference and you hate to give up that experience," McCann said Thursday at the Superior Dome prior to Northern Michigan University's home opener against Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"We had other guys that received an application from the NFL, but their long-term aspirations are to work Division I football. They realized they would probably have been burning some bridges had they gone to that next level."
McCann supervises a crew of about 70 officials in the GLIAC and is also the supervisor of officials for the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference, which just began sponsoring football this season and had none of its referees leave for the NFL.
Each week in the GLIAC, McCann needs at least 56 referees for a minimum of eight games played and the scheduling for those contests is finalized before Aug. 1.
The NFL requires its referees to be in town for games the night before, meaning college officials who wanted to work NFL games would be unavailable on Saturdays.
With the need for replacement officials being determined on a week-to-week basis by the NFL as the labor dispute drags into the regular season, McCann wasn't able to hold a spot in his rotation for anyone that wanted a shot at the big time.
Replacement officials worked the entire preseason and the opening week of the NFL season, which wraps up tonight with a pair of Monday Night Football games.
According to reports by The Associated Press, the league and its referees' union are at odds over salary, retirement benefits - pension vs. 401(k) plan - and operational issues.
It's been over a week since the two sides last met with no talks currently scheduled in the near future.
"They are in a state of flux right now," McCann said about the NFL. "I have to get the schedules done. I have to have the schedule done and to the GLIAC schools by the first of August. Therefore, we didn't know what their availability would be. So we had to go in a different direction."
McCann has been the GLIAC's supervisor of officials since 2010, and before that was a GLIAC (formerly the Midwest Intercollegiate Football Conference) referee for more than 14 years. His 20-plus years of collegiate officiating experience also included experience at the Division I and III levels, scrimmages at Michigan and Michigan State universities and even numerous chances to work Detroit Lions training camps and scrimmages.
McCann said the GLIAC likes its officials to have at least five years of high school varsity experience in addition to time at the Division III or NAIA level before working league games.
In McCann's experience working with Division I supervisors, he said conferences like the Mid-American Conference and Big 10 prefer at least two to three years of experience at the GLIAC before gaining consideration.
Traditionally, the NFL won't consider an official unless he or she has experience at the Division I level, but the lingering lockout has changed that process, allowing inexperienced referees to fast-track their careers, he said.
"The difference in the size of the athletes, and moreso, the speed of the athletes, doesn't quite compare to what we see play after play in the GLIAC," McCann said about the NFL. "It's not that we don't have NFL-caliber athletes in the GLIAC. We do, but not every play and not an entire team. There is a huge speed difference. Is it a jump? You bet it is a jump."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.