Yesterday I heard from some loyal readers - as well as some new ones - regarding the blog being a little too tough on referees, that blaming others for our failures has become an all too frequent means of justifying our own shortcomings. I recalled another post from days gone by (3/6/08) and thought it might shed more, and perhaps, a different light on the subject.
Mamas, if you want your babies to grow up to be loved, do everything in your power to discourage them to be … referees. If there’s one area of agreement by fans from Anywhere U. to Everywhere State, it’s that the refs have, at one time or another, screwed their beloved team (and some will swear it was done intentionally). The majority of coaches share an identical belief and, depending on the team’s record, it may have been many times they were subjected to the “bad whistle.”
I was in charge of communicating with the conference’s supervisors of officials in each of my last three college positions (Toledo, USC, Fresno State) and when people tell me I have good people skills (an area in which I take a great deal of pride), never did those skills come in more handy than conversing with the head of a league’s officials.
To begin, I would always start the conversation with how tough a job basketball officiating is and how, when taken into account, the game is made up of players, coaches and officials, and the last group makes the fewest mistakes in any given game. That wasn’t just blowing smoke - I truly believe it … but, as I’ve told every supervisor of officials, including Bob Kayajanian, who oversees high school officials in the San Joaquin Valley (and who invited me to speak to his group while I was coaching at Buchanan (CA) HS), the biggest difference in the first two groups and the refs is that, when the game is over, players and coaches have it on their record and will watch videotape of it until their eyes bug out … while the officials go on to referee a game the next night.
In today’s world of officiating, there is more and more training for officials in the off-season (on the court and video as well) and the true “homer” of yesteryear has gone the way of the buffalo (especially in college) because of the inordinate number of televised games there are. You’re putting your tenure as an official in serious jeopardy if you’re seen in replay after replay, game after game, blowing call after call. Reputations are difficult to shake in all areas of life, but try to keep your job when you’re known as the guy who doesn’t have the nerve to make the big call against the home team in front of a hostile crowd - or you’re known as the opposite - the guy whose ego is such that he takes pleasure in inciting the home team’s side.
Why is basketball such a difficult game to call? Number one is the athleticism of the players, who are getting bigger, stronger and more talented each year. Throw in that you’d better be in outstanding physical shape to keep up with kids who are decades younger than you (a coach hates nothing worse than a referee who misses a call because he’s out of position). Also, has it ever crossed the fan’s mind that players get to sit down at times out while referees have to stand? Or that, if a player’s tired, he signals his coach for a sub? Some referees don’t even get water! And - officials don’t get subs - except in NCAA Tournament games. How about the games that go into an overtime (or several) period or those played at altitude?
Fresno State had a semi-final WAC Tournament game in Albuquerque during Jerry Tarkanian’s first year of coaching at his alma mater. It was against the hometown Lobos, a tough enough task in and of itself, but made more difficult by the fact that the winner was to play Utah (who’d won earlier in the evening, was resting at their hotel and already knew it was in the NCAA Tournament (due to having a gaudy record and winning the regular season league championship) and possessing the best talent of any WAC team, the following night. As if that wasn’t enough, it was widely known the WAC was definitely going to get two teams into the Big Dance and just as certain was the fact that it definitely was not getting three invites.
The game was extremely high-paced and physical, making for a super tough assignment for the evening’s trio of men in stripes. UNM prides itself on playing at high altitude, advertising it as the teams (and referees) exit the playing floor with a sign claiming you’re at 7,000 feet. The “Pit” is thusly named because it’s dug into the ground, i.e. you enter at the top row of the arena. Everything’s downhill from there. The crowd noise descends at an ear-splitting decibel level. A nip-and-tuck game, the Bulldogs were ahead by three points with seconds to go when one of the Lobos cast a three-point attempt from the corner. Fresno State’s defender contested the shot, but by no means, came anywhere close enough to foul the New Mexico shooter.
The official, a gregarious and well-liked, but terribly overweight and older gentleman, called a foul. To this day, I sincerely believe he was breathing so hard because of the pace of the game and all of the above-mentioned factors, that his huffing and puffing caused his whistle to make a sound. I’m dead serious - I don’t think he meant to make that call. Either that or he’d lost so much oxygen to his brain that it affected his vision. To the Lobos shooter’s credit, he knocked down all three attempts, the ‘Dogs barely missed a half court shot at the buzzer and eventually lost … in three overtimes! I coached for a total of 35 years and it was the single greatest game I’ve ever been associated with - and we lost because of an official’s mis-call.
One day, a few years ago, I was sitting with a highly successful coach who had just announced his retirement. We were watching our kids (my son and his grandson) play and when I asked him why he retired, and he looked at me and said, “I love coaching as much as I ever did and would still be doing it, but I just couldn’t put up with those guys anymore (he pointed to one of the refs ).” There may have been an adjective between “those” and “guys,” I’m not sure.
Another difficulty coaches have with the officiating crew is how insulated they are (see yesterday’s blog). Hey, they’re an integral part of the game, they’re getting paid (pretty handsomely at the Division I level) and often, they have a tremendous influence on the outcome of the game. They should be fair game for the media - and I think the day is coming where that will be the case.
Earlier in the blog I mentioned I had the responsibility to communicate with the officials’ supervisors. After a particularly bad call or calls (especially ones which had a major determination on the game’s outcome), I’d have to get together a series of film clips (in the early days, spliced by me, but later on, with the position of video coordinator, by whomever filled that job) and send it in to the conference office. More times than fans know, the supervisor would agree (maybe not on all the clips in question, but a majority). Of course, by that time “the horse was already out of the barn” and I’ve yet to experience an overturn in any college game. Officials have been reprimanded, however, to the severity of not being allowed to work conference tournament or post-season games (case in point, the St. John’s-Rutgers fiasco).
This stings more than the ref’s rep since those are the higher paying gigs. On an interesting note, one of the WAC supervisors told me, “Jack, when Jerry complains I listen, because he does it so seldom.” Tark’s game focus was legendary, but that’s what led the guy to make such a bold statement.
As difficult as it is for fans, but especially players and coaches, when it comes to the officials and their calls, they all need to remember John Wooden’s famous line:
“Although you may lose, no one is defeated until he starts blaming someone else.”