Big Ten's Carollo: Rules evolved since 1997 hit

Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials Bill Carollo remembers the hit. Whoever saw that hit will never forget it. The collision that took place between Michigan safety Daydrion Taylor and Penn State’s Bob Stephenson back in 1997 resonates today. “And you know what?” says Carollo. “Back then, it was a legal hit. But today, it would be a penalty.”

That’s how the game has changed in the 15 years that have passed since the devastating intersection of these players who each saw their lives changed forever on that November day back in 1997. On Saturday’s “Big Ten Football Pregame Show” at 11 a.m. ET our TV show profiles both of these players and covers the effects of that hit.

Since then, football has become safer. Or at the least it’s in the process of becoming safer in how official enforce rules. That’s the hope of Carollo, who spent 20 years as an official in the NFL and worked two Super Bowls before being appointed to his current Big Ten post in 2009.

“If we don’t take charge of the game, we will lose the game,” said Carollo, a Big Ten official from 1980-88. “If we don’t enforce these rules, we won’t have a game to officiate down the road. We have to adjust the rules each year and put emphasis on safety.”

[RELATED: Learn more about Saturday's profile on the Taylor-Stephenson hit.]

Some coaches and fans may not like some of the measures that have put more emphasis on hits to the head. After a hard—and presumably legal—hit, we sometimes hear fans cry: It’s football, for crying out loud. It isn’t soccer. There are supposed to be hard hits.

But a concern over head injuries and concussions has caused administrators at every level of the sport—from Pop Warner to the NFL—to examine the game and how it’s played when it comes to hitting.

People at every level of the sport are involved in trying to make the game safer. Team trainers and physicians are taught procedures to better check for concussions and head ailments. Coaches are shown the proper way to teach blocking and tackling. Players are shown what’s legal and not legal from a hitting standpoint. And it’s the job of Carollo and his army of officials to enforce those rules.

“You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand the rule book,” says Carollo. “It is complicated and we make mistakes occasionally interpreting the rules. But our No. 1 focus has been put on player health and safety. And it’s not just lip service. We have done some things dramatically to try to change it.”

The speed of the game has made officiating more difficult. Players are getting bigger, faster and stronger—and the field obviously has stayed the same size. So, it’s harder to officiate and slow these players down.

[RELATED: Read Dienhart's Q&A with the Big Ten Conference's Kerry Kenny on concussion research.]

“Even if it’s close (to being an illegal hit), we are going to throw a flag,” says Carollo. “You probably have seen two or three this year in the Big Ten where we have thrown flags and it turned out to be a shoulder-to-shoulder hit (legal). And my defense on that is: If we are going to error, it is going to be on the side of safety.”

It’s all about safety. Carollo, 60, thinks the Big Ten has called more illegal hits in recent years than any other league. Still, changing how the game is coached and played takes time, it takes years. Heck, it may take a generation. Carollo and his officials aren’t gonna budge from how they call a game. But they have had to change how they approach their job, too.

“In the past, if you have to think if it was a foul, you didn’t throw the flag,” Carollo said. “You didn’t want to make a mistake. But when it comes to player safety, if you have to think about it, throw the flag. It’s contrary to what we normally do in officiating.”

Carollo admits officiating is more of an art than a science. Plays happen so fast and can look different depending on your angle. Sometimes, referees aren’t sure where or how a hit was delivered. And in addition to looking for an illegal hit, officials also are looking for other infractions during the course of a play. It’s a lot to process in a short period of time.

“What we were officiating and calling, and what was being coached and taught 15 years ago, isn’t legal today,” Carollo said. “It’s hard for people to rethink and relearn how to throw a flag for roughness. That looks like a football play. Coaches say that’s football. Well, it’s not football in 2012. It might have been football in 2002, or in 1997. But not today.”

***

GRID BITS: Iowa has played seven true freshmen. … In Big Ten play, Illinois is averaging 9.5 points. … When Illinois and Ohio State played last year, the Illini were 6-0 and the Buckeyes were 3-3. Since then, Ohio State is 12-4 and Illinois is 3-12. … Under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 4-0 after defeats, outscoring foes 142-66. … Indiana hasn’t won consecutive Big Ten games since 2007. … The Nittany Lions have recorded 10 scoring drives of 80 yards or longer in eight games. They had three such drives in 13 games last season. … The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten with 60 tackles for loss and are fifth with 19 sacks. … This will be Michigan’s first trip to TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009. The Wolverines beat the Gophers, 58-0, last year in Michigan. … Taylor Martinez has 7,801 yards of total offense, leaving him just 114 shy of Eric Crouch’s school record. And with 5,501 yards passing, Martinez is only 349 yards short of Zac Taylor’s career record for passing yards. … Allen Robinson needs 12 catches in Penn State’s final four games to take over the school’s single-season receptions record–63. … Indiana is the only FBS team that hasn’t lost a fumble this season. The teams with the most lost fumbles are Nebraska and Memphis with 14. … Montee Ball leads the nation in most rushing yards (316), first downs (18) and runs of 10-plus yards (12) in the fourth quarter this season. … The Wolverines have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown since the season-opener against Alabama. … Michigan State is 13-3 in November under Mark Dantonio and has won seven in a row in the month. Bo Pelini is 12-4 in November as Cornhuskers coach. … The Golden Gophers haven’t won two straight Big Ten games since 2010. … Purdue has scored on its first possession in each of the last three games only to be outscored 111-44 the rest of the way in losing each. … In the last two games, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller has hit just 41 percent of his passes (16 for 39) for 256 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. … Philip Nelson became the first true freshman to start a home game for the Gophers last week since Rickie Foggie did vs. Ohio State on Sept. 28, 1984. … Illinois has been outscored 194-62 during its five-game losing skid. … The last time Robert Marve started a conference game was Nov. 29, 2008, at North Carolina State when Marve was at Miami. He’ll start against Penn State tomorrow. … The Gophers are the only team in the nation that has started three different quarterbacks and three different centers this year.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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