College Football: St. Rita’s John O’Neill serves as lead official in BCS National Championship game
By Pat Disabato firstname.lastname@example.org January 13, 2014 4:04PM
John O'Neill (wearing white hat) was the lead official in the BCS National Championship game on Jan. 6 between Auburn and Florida State. | Supplied photo
Updated: February 16, 2014 6:18AM
John O’Neill was settling into a life of a sales representative at age 25 when his father, a coach at Reavis, asked him if he would like to get involved in football.
It was a valid question, considering O’Neill had played football much of his life and was an integral member of St. Rita’s 1978 state championship team.
“I thought he meant coaching,” said O’Neill, who grew up in Chicago’s Scottsdale neighborhood. “My dad (Bill) was a teacher and coach. My brother (Mike) and sister (Ann) were teachers and coaches. I said, ‘No.’ But he meant as an official. That kind of got me interested. He told me to go to a (official’s) meeting and see what it’s about.”
Twenty-seven years later, O’Neill, now 53, recently reached college football’s grandest stage. The St. Bede’s School grad was part of the seven-man crew that officiated the 2014 BCS National Championship game between Florida State and Auburn, held Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
The game was an instant classic, won 34-31 by Florida State.
“It was unbelievable,” said O’Neill, the director of development at St. Rita. “Just being on the floor of the Rose Bowl during the national championship game. Every college official is watching that game and being able to demonstrate your abilities to your peers is pretty special.”
And what his peers witnessed, along with millions of viewers, was a cleanly officiated game, void of any controversial whistles or flags that might have impacted the outcome.
“We had nothing to do with the outcome,” O’Neill said. “They put it (game) in our hands and I think we put it in the upper deck.”
O’Neill’s officiating journey to the national championship began in 1986 with a freshman “B” game between Reavis and Sandburg. His first college game was at Moraine Valley back when the community college had a football program.
“I remember the first time I ever stepped onto a Big Ten stadium,” O’Neill said. “Another official had to beg off his game on Friday because his wife was having a baby. I stepped in. Cincinnati was playing Wisconsin, and it went into overtime. It was a thrill.”
O’Neill has experienced plenty of thrills officiating. In all, he’s worked 12 consecutive postseason games, including two Cotton Bowls, a Gator and Orange bowl and the Big Ten Championship.
His selection for the BCS National Championship came by way of performance — and a little luck.
“All the guys (officials) who were ranked No. 1 at their position were picked to be in the national championship game,” O’Neill said. “There were eight staffs of seven guys (56 officials). My competition was seven other referees.”
Officiating crews are assigned specific conferences during the regular season — O’Neill’s crew had the Big Ten. Officials are prohibited from working bowl games that involve teams from the conference they were assigned. Thus, officials from the SEC (Auburn) and ACC (Florida State) were eliminated from national championship consideration.
“When Ohio State lost in the Big Ten championship, that knocked them out of playing for the national championship,” O’Neill said. “We (top ranked officials from Big Ten) were next to work the BCS.”
O’Neill was front and center at the start of the big game — he tossed the coin determining which team would kick off. Florida State won the toss and deferred. As referee, he also was responsible for announcing penalties, game management and timing issues.
Along with the coin, O’Neill took home an official hat and commemorative football.
“The NCAA sets the rules for what you can get as far as gifts,” he said.
O’Neill’s wife, Peg, daughters Megan and Molly, and sons Dan and Mike all made the trip.
“It was special that they were there on my big game night,” he said.
What was his compensation?
“It’s less than what we receive during the regular season,” he said. “It’s the honor of doing the BCS Championship Game. Getting to the top of your profession. Representing your conference and your family.”
O’Neill’s father, Bill, died in 2000. O’Neill, though, couldn’t help but think about that fateful day when his father asked him if he wanted to get involved in football again.
“I would not have been where I am if not for that day,” O’Neill said. “The talk came at the right time and at the right place. It was providential, for sure.”