The critics claim games such as Thursday's Pinstripe Bowl hold little meaning. Explain that to the Kansas State Wildcats, who were heartbroken after their 36-34 defeat. Explain that to a Syracuse team which celebrated hardily on the Yankee Stadium field afterward. And explain that to the numerous people -- members of the media, fans, athletes and even celebrities -- who witnessed a penalty call by the Big 10 Conference officiating crew that may have decided the outcome of the game, and afterward spoke their minds.
Mostly, explain that to K-State receiver Adrian Hilburn, the victim of an officiating call that sadly received more attention than the game itself, a contest that may have been the hardest-fought, most competitive game so far this bowl season.
With the Wildcats attempting to tie the game in the final minutes of Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx, Hilburn took a pass from quarterback Carson Coffman, slipped one would-be Syracuse tackler and dashed 30 yards to the end zone. Once Hilburn came to a stop in the back of the end zone, he offered a quick salute to the crowd and headed immediately toward the bench.
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With just 1:13 remaining in regulation, K-State had pulled to within two points, and would attempt a game-tying two-point conversion to possibly force overtime. That should have taken place from the 3-yard line. Instead, the application of the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for the salute moved the ball back to the 18, making the two-point attempt exponentially more difficult.
After the game, Hilburn met with the media, the first time this season the receiver has been requested to attend a pregame or postgame media gathering. He bravely showed up.
"I was hurt, I was devastated. I was just saluting. That's something you do out of respect, I guess, for your teammates or for your fans," Hilburn said.
It was only Hilburn's second career touchdown as a Wildcat, who transferred to K-State prior to the 2008 season from San Francisco Community College. The senior from New Braunfels, Texas, started the year as the fifth receiver in K-State's rotation, but injuries to starters Brodrick Smith and Tramaine Thompson pushed him into the starting lineup by midseason.
This game meant something to Hilburn. It was his football career's last gasp, and he scored a significant touchdown in the biggest and best game of his career. Damn him for being happy.
And yet, as gut-wrenching as the penalty was, it was what took place immediately afterward that is more sickening. As Hilburn and fellow receiver Chris Harper headed toward the bench, back judge Kevin Schwarzel said something to Hilburn.
An explanation of the call? Sort of, but one could describe Schwarzel's words as distasteful trash talking from someone entrusted to not, well, call attention to himself with his actions.
"Soon as it happened, (the official) said, 'Wrong choice buddy,' and looked at me," Hilburn said. "And I ran off and I'm like, 'Uh, OK.' And then I see a flag, and I'm like, 'Oh, really? For that?'"
Yes, for that. Many are quick to recognize that the call was indeed correct.
"It was something that was spontaneous, and I think the official did make the right call based on the rule that we have," said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, chairman of the NCAA football Rules Committee. "I think it is always tough because everybody knows there is no gray area. We're not saying you can't celebrate or you can't have fun. There is a way to have fun. And that was one where it was more individualistic rather than a team."
The defenders of the officials' penalty call want to say it fits the letter of the rule, but it's fair to ask if it actually does. Here is the definition provided by the game's referee Todd Geerlings: "Excessive celebration is rule 9-2-1d, which states a penalty is called for: 'Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself (or themselves).'"
Was Hilburn's salute delayed? No.
Was Hilburn's salute excessive? No.
Was Hilburn's salute prolonged? No.
Was Hillburn's salute a "choreographed act by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself?" There's the dispute. The officiating crew told K-State coach Bill Snyder exactly that.
"Yes, (an official) gave me an explanation. He said the young man did something to call attention to himself," Snyder said.
"It was the salute, which was the judgment of the calling officials, which were the head linesman and the back judge. Two officials threw the flag, both judged it to be drawing attention to themselves, and that's what the flag was for," Geerlings told a media pool reporter following the game.
Did, however, Hilburn do that? The player said that wasn't his intention.
Still, this is about judgment, and in the judgment of Schwarzel and head linesman John Quinn, Hilburn did exactly that. So, even if you want to claim that a simple, quick salute violates the letter of the rule, two questions begged to be asked.
One: Do you apply it at a game-changing point of the game? Two: Why wasn't it applied at other times in the game when such actions clearly took place?
Those who would make the argument that you apply the call the same in the final 73 seconds of the game must then answer the second question. Why weren't actions by other players that drew attention to themselves throughout the game subject to the same application of the rule?
K-State's players would like to know.
"I didn't see it. I heard all he did was a salute, which is a little bogus," Coffman said. "Their players were holding up 'The Roc' after they scored. They got us. It's something we can't do, and we know that. Adrian is our guy, and we're not mad at him for it."
"The Roc" is a hand signal made famous by hip-hop icon Jay-Z and can be seen being flashed by football players at all levels. "The Roc" was certainly flashed by Syracuse receiver Marcus Sales at least once following a Pinstripe Bowl touchdown. Sales scored three touchdowns in the game, and his flashing of the diamond-shaped hand signal was in the open and surely witnessed by someone on Geerlings' crew.
"That was horrible. I mean, I feel bad about it. Adrian played his best game in a Wildcat jersey and had that happen. That was awful," Harper said. "There were worse things going on. They were doing the same kinds of stuff after they scored. I want to know why they only called that one."
No one will ever know if K-State would have converted its two-point attempt from the 3. Moving the ball to the 18 certainly took negated the use of the jump pass from running back Daniel Thomas, which has never failed Snyder's Wildcats when used as a two-point conversion.
Furthermore, there's no knowing if Syracuse would not have won the game if it went into overtime. It can be easily argued that Syracuse played the better game and may have been more deserving of the victory.
Still, K-State deserved a chance to fairly decide the outcome, but two officials intervened and applied "judgment" when discretion would have been better served.
Hilburn's career is now over, and he will strangely now be more remembered than he would have without the flags being thrown. Still, the judgment of an officiating crew stole his moment, leaving with him a sour memory that will likely linger for a lifetime.
"A lot of them came up to me and told me that think the call was bull. They were backing me up for the rest of my life," Hilburn said of the support he's received from his teammates. "That's the last game I ever had at K-State. They're going to back me up forever."
Hilburn broke down in tears after the game, fully understanding the weight of the judgment call.
"(My teammates) put their arms around me and took me in," the receiver added. "That made me feel a whole lot better. I appreciate them for that because I don't know what I would do without them."
One lingering question remains: What will happen to the game's officials, most notably Schwarzel? Even if the Big 10 Conference wants to claim the rule was applied correctly, what about an official verbally admonishing a player in such an unprofessional manner? The game's back judge will almost assuredly never honestly confess to what he said to Hilburn, but he is clearly seen on the ESPN broadcast of the game racing in and saying something to the receiver.
"Wrong choice buddy."
Maybe Hilburn's brief salute was the wrong choice, but Schwarzel's words should lead to his suspension or dismissal by the Big 10. Whether it was a good call or a bad call doesn't really matter. Schwarzel's decision to seek out a player to speak those three words were the worst choice made in the game.
But that's just my judgment.