Big 12’s first female official will be watching game, not your language, Coach

Catherine Conti's pursuit of her passion -- officiating football -- brings her to the Big 12 on Saturday.

Bob Leverone/AP

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hey, just because she’s wearing black and white out there doesn’t mean she’s mother superior.

@#*&^ is all-clear, Charlie.

So is *(+%.

"Let me put it this way: There’s no reason for them to feel like that can’t continue, because that’s the spirit of the game," Catherine Conti said with a chuckle.

#*& is a go.

And &>#^*&@*?

Fair bleeping game.

"That’s why this game is so exciting," Conti, the first woman referee ever assigned to work a Big 12 game by the Big 12 Conference, told last month. "And if they feel like they have to curb how they coach in order for me to be out there, No. 1, that’s unfortunate, because I want them to be able to do their job."

Meanwhile, she’ll do hers.

Conti was referring, of course, to a comment by Kansas football coach Charlie Weis earlier this summer at Big 12 media days. When asked about Conti working on the crew assigned to the Jayhawks’ season opener Saturday against Southeast Missouri State at Memorial Stadium, the veteran coach cracked that "I believe in the old-fashioned way, so I’ll try not to use as many bad words."

Don’t worry. It’s nothing she hasn’t heard already.

This isn’t Conti’s first rodeo, either. In 2010, after more than a decade of youth games, high schools and small colleges, she became the first woman ever to officiate a game in the Football Championship Subdivision’s Southland Conference. The next year, she became the first female referee assigned to the Mountain West. In 2012, she was a Big 12 alternate. In 2013, she worked the USC-Hawaii game, as well as a date with BYU. Every year, a new rung climbed, another level crossed off the career bucket list.

Besides, the California native — who goes by "Cat" — is plenty familiar with Weis and KU already, having worked the Jayhawks’ spring game this past April.

"If I am going to be sensitive," Conti continued, "I don’t belong on a football field."

Sensitive? No. Ambitious as hell? Yes.

"When she first started," said George Contreras, a longtime football coach — currently on the staff at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School — who helped put Conti on the officiating path some 15 years ago, "I saw her somewhere, and she goes, ‘I’m going to be the first woman to do this in the NFL.’ I said, ‘OK.’"

That was a decade earlier; maybe 11 years, maybe 12. At first, Contreras figured she was kidding around.

Now, he knows better.

"She’s really serious about this thing," the coach said, "and once I saw (the Big 12 assignment), how she’s kept working up the ranks at the officiating thing … I don’t know if (an NFL gig) is going to happen. But I wouldn’t bet against her, the way she’s going."

Like a lot of unlikely roads, this one had an unlikely start. Some 15 years ago, Conti was waiting tables at a sports bar in Camarillo, Calif., called Cronies, a watering hole that Contreras and his fellow coaches would frequent to kick back and unwind. One conversation led to another, and Conti — who grew up in a house full of Los Angeles Dodgers fanatics but had few ties to football — asked Contreras if he would help train her and coach her up for a tryout with a women’s football league.

"I clearly was not impressive athletically or physically because I didn’t make the team," Conti recalled. "I said, ‘OK, maybe I’ll give this officiating a try.’ I think that’s really where it came from. ‘Well, I want to be involved in this game, how do I become involved in this game?’"

She asked about joining a chain gang; Contreras countered that if she wanted to do that, she might as well just get certified to officiate. One morning, Contreras found a notice in his morning paper for a local referee clinic; he tore it out, left it with Conti, "and little did I know where this thing was going to lead."

In 2000, Conti worked as an unpaid line judge at prep and youth games. She taught English and drama at a local high school to pay the bills, but her heart — her passion — was in the football rulebook. She got the bug.

She studied. She networked. She honed her craft. When her principal told her one day that she was going to have to make a choice between football or instructing, Conti bagged the teaching gig and took a job as a personal trainer.

When Cat got the bug, she got it bad.

Contreras has a slew of Cat stories, but one of his favorites is from four years ago, during a Division III football game between Pacific Lutheran and Menlo College. The coach and his wife were in the stands at the behest of an old friend; unbeknownst to them, Conti was on the officiating crew. Eventually, Contreras worked his way down to field level, and set up at a spot where he figured Conti could hear his voice.

"(At Cronies), they have something called a Big Daddy Burger — it’s a big pastrami hamburger," the coach recalled. "And I go, ‘Hey, I need a Big Daddy Burger, now!’"

With that, Conti straightened up, quickly. But she didn’t turn around. She kept her eyes on the action.

Contreras chortled to himself. Almost gotcha. Almost.

"She was being professional," the coach said. "She was not going to look. She was not going to acknowledge that I said something."

With that, Contreras laughed again.

"If you’re going to be the first woman and doing this thing, I think you’ve got to be really good," the coach said. "And I think she knows that. I think she understands that. ‘I just can’t come up here and be average.’ I know she knows she’s not the only one, but there aren’t many."

Conti is one of four female officials to work major-college football games in recent years; two from that group — Sarah Thomas and Maia Chaka — have recently been a part of the NFL’s developmental program.

"I know that I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve got a lot of learning to do," Conti said. "The reality is, in my heart of hearts, I’m hoping that I will get another opportunity to work another Big 12 game in my life."

So be yourselves, coaches.

Just not your worst selves.

"But at the same time, if my presence out there kind of reminds them that they’re not Neanderthals, I’m kind of OK with that," Conti said. "If they don’t have to be Neanderthals to do their job, I’m OK with that."

Your serve, Charlie.

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