The NCAA basketball tournament is underway, and if your brackets aren’t already busted, you’re a member of an exclusive club.
Win and you go on; lose and you go home. That’s the way these tournaments work for the teams, and it’s also the way they work for the officials, as John W. Adams, national men’s basketball officiating coordinator for the NCAA, explains:
“Advancement in our tournament is merit-based,” Adams told me. “We have an on-site evaluator kind of doing an eye test on the officials during the game, and they make recommendations on advancement, as well as we have eight experienced - what we would call - tape graders. And then I’m in a control room watching all or part of every game, and I make my own notes.”
Obviously, Adams is looking for officials who get the calls right. Positioning is also critical. But Adams also told me he pays attention to how the refs handle the stars of the show.
“I look for interactions between the official and the coaches of both teams," he said. "And more importantly, maybe even, the players. I think the players know if officials are right or wrong. You can judge that by looking at their body language and their expressions and so on.”
[sidebar title="The Life Of A College Basketball Ref" width="630" align="right"]"The Whistleblower" by Bob Katz examines the career of former referee Ed Hightower. The author joined Bill Littlefield.[/sidebar]Adams surprised me a little with that contention. Perhaps I’ve seen too many players called for fouls respond with astonishment.
“Me!? What?! I didn’t touch him!”
Throughout the tournament, the excitement of the players on the winning team is obvious. The excitement of the officials who’ve been judged worthy of another assignment is less apparent, but according to Curtis Shaw, who’s worked seven Final Fours, it’s just as real.
“When I went to my first Final Four, it was, ‘Oh, man, I’m in the Final Four!’ And then it was, ‘Oh, shucks. I’m a standby,’” he said. “And then I went back and ‘Oh, man, I’m in the Final Four, but, oh, shucks, I’m in the semifinals and not the finals.' And so until the day that I was the crew chief in the national championship game, that’s probably the only day any referee can ever be truly happy, ‘cause you can’t do anything else. So we’re the same competitive edge and the same amount of ‘Wow! This is great, but I want a little more,’ that I think the coaches and the players have.”
Shaw is now the coordinator of officials for five athletic conferences. He has also been involved in mentoring young officials who dream of working the games everybody’s watching. His advice? Don’t ever worry about what the players, the coaches, or the fans have to say about your work.
And if one of those referees who’s handled the games well enough to make it all the way to the Final Four misses an obvious foul or sees a violation nobody else can find, no matter how many times they re-run the video, check out YouTube, and follow the tweets of their kabillion fellow fans, how does the guy who’s been grading that official “A+” since round one of the tournament feel? According to Adams, that’s just one of those things you hope doesn’t happen. And you hope real hard.
“Well,” he told me, “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I swear, in this job I’ve worn out three sets of rosary beads. I mean, I’m constantly thumbing ‘em.”
As the tournament goes on, lovers of underdogs will be pulling for the longshots and gamblers will be hoping they’ve correctly figured the spread. Beyond the members of their immediate families, few will be rooting for the refs. But as Shaw recalls, that doesn’t mean those refs don’t get excited about what they’re doing at the Big Dance. If he hadn’t had butterflies in his stomach, he’d have figured something was wrong.
“When you’re standing there, they're doing the lineups, and you’re four minutes away from the biggest game of the year on the national stage where if you mess up, everybody in the world will know it, yeah, you gotta have those butterflies and those nerves,” he said. “And so as long as they were always there every game, I felt like, ‘OK, we’ll handle it.’ So it was pretty good.”
The 98 officials selected for the N.C.A.A. tournament are randomly assigned, which often means an adjustment for coaches, players and the officials themselves.
There is a chance that a coach will not know all three officials and that the officials themselves have not worked together.
And with seasons, coaching careers and millions of dollars at stake, a delicate process must be played out under intense pressure on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“You have to quickly know what you can and can’t do and adjust,” Fisher said.
The N.C.A.A. coordinator of officiating, John Adams, who assigns referees for the tournament, lives by a simple mantra: “We don’t ever want to be the story.”
An officiating blunder darkened the Big East tournament when three referees missed two calls in the final seconds of the Rutgers-St. John’s game — including an instance when a Red Storm player stepped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds remaining — and hurried off the court into endless video loops.
Adams disagreed with the notion that coaches often do not know the officials in N.C.A.A. games, pointing out that most veteran coaches and officials have crossed paths at some point. When he assigns officials, Adams said, he prefers putting together three officials who have not worked together before. If there is a game between Michigan State and U.C.L.A., for example, Adams said he liked to assign an official who worked in the Big Ten and one who worked in the Pac-10, so neither coach feels slighted.
Adams also said there was a strong push by the N.C.A.A., through training and video study, to be sure that games are officiated the same way in the Big East as they are in the Big West, the Big 12 and everywhere in between.
“We’re trying to make it more of a science and less of an art,” he said. “We’re constantly identifying reoccurring plays and saying, ‘This is the way we’re going to referee.’ We’re trying to make it more like calling balls and strikes.”
The retired official Curtis Shaw, who worked the last of his seven Final Fours last year, said that a more uniform approach to refereeing had helped. As an example, he said a team like Wisconsin, which plays a lumbering, physical style, could be penalized if it had an official from the Southeastern Conference who was more accustomed to a free-flowing game; the official might not call the types of fouls the Badgers typically draw.
“Teams got hurt in the N.C.A.A. tournament,” Shaw said.
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said the dynamics of N.C.A.A. tournament officiating could be distracting to coaches and players. Coaches are given the names of officials an hour before a game. An assistant for Brey finds out where they are from, and sometimes Brey asks his assistants during a game, “What’s his name again?”
Brey said he had coached N.C.A.A. tournament games in which his players would return to the huddle after an early timeout and say, “This is a little different.”
“It needs to be addressed mentally by the head coach and verbally by the head coach to his team,” Brey said. “You have to try and let it not be the distraction. I’ve fallen into the trap where it has been a distraction at times. It’s different.”
The Colonial Athletic Association commissioner, Tom Yeager, said that having three officials unfamiliar to coaches and players was not a bad thing. He said high-profile coaches were always searching for an edge and did not like to leave their comfort zones.
“It’s like knowing the home plate umpire is going to give you the outside corner,” Yeager said.
Dick Cartmell will work his 20th N.C.A.A. tournament this year, and his career includes five Final Fours and three national title games. The best compliment he can be paid may be that few people recall him refereeing those games. Cartmell officiates primarily in the Pac-10, but he said that since he had been around so long, he has worked with most of the top East Coast officials. He said that when he was assigned to a game in which he did not know the coach, he made a point to introduce himself.
“Part of being a good official is good people skills,” he said.
Cartmell said the key to officials who had never worked together was adjusting to one another in a pregame meeting. In it, Cartmell emphasized that if an official has a “closed view” of a potential call, he shouldn’t blow the whistle; another official most likely has a better view. He said the officials do not do background checks, but discuss issues like whether a team plays zone or a full-court press, to figure out positioning.
“You hope that everything goes well and the team that deserves to win, wins,” he said.
Shaw said many people do not realize how competitive the process is for a referee to officiate in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Adams and a staff of four cross the country to scout officials at more than 400 games every year. They watch in person virtually the entire list of 350 officials under consideration for the tournament.
Along with prestige for the officials, there is financial reward. Adams said officials would make $1,000 a game in the first three rounds, $1,400 for the regional rounds and $2,000 each for the national semifinals and finals.
“The competition to move on with the referees is just as hard as the teams,” Shaw said.
Shaw and Cartmell agreed that the biggest recent change in officiating is the nationwide scrutiny through advanced technology and social networking.
“Scrutiny was there, but not nearly the magnitude of the last seven years with all the technology and bloggers and 400 different camera angles,” Shaw said.
“It’s a hard game to referee,” he added. “Kids are big and fast and young and athletic.”
Part of Adams’s job is having to call and apologize. He called Mike Rice last year after a flurry of bad calls cost Robert Morris its first-round game with Villanova. He explained to Rice, now the Rutgers coach, the reason behind the referee assignment. None of those three officials refereed another N.C.A.A. game that year.
“I felt that we could have done better for both teams,” Adams said.Continue reading the main story