Former Central player to officiate BCS title game
For just a moment on the evening of Jan. 9, Brad Van Vark will allow himself to think about the fact that he's stepped onto the green, plastic grass field of the Louisiana Superdome for the BCS title game.
He'll temporarily succumb to the intoxicating atmosphere that accompanies having a spot perched on big-time college football's grandest stage as a back judge, part of an all-star Big 12 Conference officiating crew selected to work the Jan. 8 championship game in New Orleans. His eyes will scan the hyperventilating crowd of 72,000 and he'll think about being a former backup Central College quarterback from Pella, Iowa, about to spend the next 3.5 hours being seen by more television viewers than Oprah.
"I'll take a look around and think about how blessed I've been," Van Vark, a 1978 graduate, said. "And then get down to it."
To a dwindling handful of fans with a sane perspective, the breathlessly hyped LSU-Alabama matchup is just a game. Yet to Van Vark, it's even less than that. He can't afford to think of it in broader terms than the small sliver of field that is his responsibility to monitor.
"You are so focused on what you're trying to do and what you're trying to watch," he said. "After every play, I need to be able to tell myself what happened to the guys I was watching. Sometimes after the game someone will tell me about a great play and I don't have a clue. You're so focused on your area that you miss that fan's perspective."
But while he doesn't see the same game America sees on the TV screen, he's well aware of the big picture.
"We did the Iowa State-Oklahoma State game this year (a monumental ISU upset overtime victory at Ames, Nov. 18)," he said. "You're really focused on your job but you can feel what's going on around you. It's pretty cool."
It's the 12th straight year that Van Vark has been involved in a postseason game. He's worked three Big 12 title games and nine bowl games. And this will be his second national championship, having served as a side judge in Ohio State's overtime upset of Miami (Fla.) in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.
"The first time was kind of a blur," he confesses about the 2003 game. "I'm way better equipped this time."
Van Vark said he's become more prepared to handle stressful situations.
"You kind of feel the excitement around you," he said. "You've got to try to stay under control. When everything comes apart at the seams, you need to be the one that remains calm."
Van Vark's love for officiating is inherited. His father, Leo, is a long-time high school official.
"He did it for 40 years," Van Vark said. "I'd tag along when I was growing up. I spent more time going to games at places like Mingo, Baxter or Lynnville-Sully than I ever did watching Pella (High School).
"He got me going when I was a senior at Central, officiating basketball and some low-level football."
A taste of life as an ordinary spectator removed any doubt he had about the profession.
"I remember after playing, my first time watching a game in the stands," he said. "What a helpless feeling. I didn't like it. I wanted to have a little control of what's going on."
Following graduation Van Vark spent seven seasons as an assistant football coach at Central for hall of fame coach Ron Schipper while also working at Pella Corp., where he now serves as senior sales manager, national accounts division. But then officiating took on a bigger role. He became an Iowa Conference official before gaining a spot in the Big 12.
The position has evolved in that time. Maintaining concentration throughout the game was always the biggest challenge in officiating and that's become even more daunting in recent years because of the development of frenetic no-huddle offenses.
"You just don't get an opportunity to settle in between plays," he said. "Now it's just go-go-go. After the game you're worn out as much mentally as physically."
Pass-happy offenses also change the activity level for a back judge, particularly in dealing with pass interference calls.
"Before you might get 20-30 plays with nothing and then boom," he said. "But now they can come on almost every play. You just have to stay ready for it."
That's one reason Van Vark spent a little time as an official in the high-octane Arena League as well.
"Having that experience helped me," he said. "It slows the outdoor game down a bit."
Like many fans, Van Vark is spending much of the postseason watching bowl games, but making mental notes rather than eating pizza. He's trying to stay sharp after not working a game since late November.
"You're better when you work every week," he said. "You get in the flow. It hurts to have a month off. You try to watch film and we've got our weekly rules tests from the Big 12 office. I'll watch a lot of games through the holidays. It's a little different than baseball or basketball, where you work lots of games. There just aren't as many games in football and the only way to supplement that is to watch video of other games. You can get better by doing that."
He also draws on his experience at Central as a player and a coach.
"Playing the game helps you have an understanding of what the players are trying to accomplish," Van Vark said. "It helps you determine advantage/disadvantage. Coaching gives you an appreciation of that as well."
And that means more than just knowing the rules.
"It's like a police officer with guidelines," he said. "If you don't apply logic along with the rulebook, you're not going to be any good. The same thing applies when you're officiating. If you only look at the rulebook and not advantage/disadvantage, you're not going to help young men decide the game."
That's knowledge that would have been useful to Van Vark on the playing field more than 30 years ago.
"With all the things I know now, I wish I could go back and play," Van Vark laughs. "I'm way smarter than I was then."
But while Van Vark no longer tries to score touchdowns, he can still quietly experience the euphoria of reaching the end zone, albeit anonymously.
By the time the BCS trophy is hoisted skyward by one of the game's high-profile head coaches, either LSU's Les Miles or Alabama's Nick Saban, Van Vark will already be safely tucked away in the officials' locker room beneath the Louisiana Superdome. He'll have a DVD of the game in his hands before he leaves the stadium, with grades from his supervisors soon to follow. But he won't need an expert's evaluation or a cheering crowd for him to know how he feels.
"In any kind of business, you know when things have really clicked," he said.
That's among the things that continues fueling his desire to wear a striped shirt.
"It's an opportunity to go out there and perform at the highest level," he said. "If I do a good job, when we're finished, it's pretty satisfying."
And when he's not as sure, the DVD is especially helpful. Van Vark can accept being wrong, but wondering about a play can be draining.
"If you think, 'Wow, I wasn't in position on that play,' or 'I want to see that one again,' we can instantly get feedback," he said. "It helps you put things behind you and move forward. Some stuff stays with you a long time if you don't get to see the play again."
Which is why Van Vark doesn't fear instant replay.
"I like it because, A, it helps us get things right, which is all we're trying to do and B, it supports, for the most part, the fact that we do a pretty good job," he said. "The thing I don't like is that it disrupts the flow of the game."
Getting it right is what matters because Van Vark's bottom line is helping kids have a rewarding experience playing the game. That's something that drew Van Vark into officiating — and keeps him there.
"I can sincerely tell you that if I got fired tomorrow, the next day I'd go back to officiating high school games if they'd have me," he said. "I still enjoy it."