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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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The average college football fan on the East Coast has probably seen Dennis Hennigan '75 in action but won't be penalized for not noticing.

Fans have seen him running up and down football fields in Boston, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Miami, and elsewhere in the Big East Conference.

They've seen his face and heard his voice.

"Holding on the offense: 15 yards from the spot of the foul. Repeat first down."

Sound familiar? Maybe hand gestures would help. Or a shiny yellow flag? Or a black and white striped shirt?

Hennigan, a Syracuse attorney who played defensive end for the Yellowjackets when he was at Rochester, spends his fall Saturdays as a head referee for games involving Big East teams.

He's the one with the "R" (for "referee," not "Rochester") on his striped jersey. He wears the white hat (the other six on-field officials wear black hats), and he stands behind the offensive backfield during the action.

For his part, he would just as soon remain anonymous when it comes to his gridiron work. If players and fans pay little attention to him and the other officials, that means the game has been well played, he says.

"When I played at Rochester, I never gave the officials a second thought," he says. "And that's the way you want it. You don't want to be noticed."

Hennigan's work, however, has caught the eye of the administrators in charge of Big East officiating.

In 1998, his first year in the conference, he was chosen to head the officiating crew at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. And last year, he was selected as head referee for the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of the collegiate post-season system played in Pasadena before 94,000 fans on New Year's Day.

The bowl appointments are the culmination of a 25-year career as a football official.

After his graduation from Rochester, Hennigan's officiating career began with high school games, the first stop in a hierarchical system that resembles the minor league system in professional baseball.

In 1983, he moved to the college level, calling games in Division III. He soon advanced to Division I-AA, and then to Division I-A, the big leagues of college football.

As Hennigan says: "You pay your dues."

In the Big East, he's one of 38 officials, divided into crews of seven members each.

Unlike baseball, where umpires rotate from position to position throughout the season, football officials keep the same assignment throughout their careers, so at each level Hennigan has been a head referee. As such, he is the "spokesperson" for the on-field officiating crew. He oversees the work of the other officials, and he's the one who announces penalties on stadium public address systems and on live television when the games are broadcast.

In his life off the field, Hennigan graduated from law school at Case Western Reserve University in 1980. He moved to Syracuse in 1982, where he now is a partner with the law firm of MacKenzie Smith Lewis Mitchell and Hughes. He specializes in commercial litigation.

Despite frequently finding himself in the middle of conflicts between often aggressive disputants--on and off the field --Hennigan doesn't see much overlap between his two roles.

"You have to deal with people, but that's about it," he says.

He also tries not to get too wrapped up in the off-field hype that surrounds many games, particularly bowl games.

"You don't think about it as the Rose Bowl because if you did, you would lose your focus," he says.

"Once the game starts, you treat it as just another game."

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