During his 19 years as a college basketball referee, J.D. Collins earned his share of plum assignments. He worked in ten NCAA tournaments, including five Sweet 16 games, one Elite Eight and the 2008 Final Four semifinal between UCLA and Memphis. In 2009, a knee injury forced Collins off the floor, whereupon he became officiating coordinator for the Summit League and the Mid-American Conference.
Yet, when Collins, 52, interviewed for the position of the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating last spring, there was one item on his resume that stood out: His ten years as CEO of Hartford Concrete Products, a manufacturing company based in Hartford City, Ind., where he lives. Collins spent a total of 23 years with the company. As CEO, he was in charge of more than 200 employees, and he had to learn to use technology to manage large, complex systems.
The fact that Collins’s corporate experience was a decisive factor in his hiring says a great deal about where college basketball officiating is heading. Until now, referees have always been independent contractors who form relationships with individual conferences and plan their schedule accordingly. Since refs, like everyone else, want to maximize profits, that often means working a lot of games in a row, regardless of how cumbersome the travel is. Not only does that system leave referees tired, it also renders them unaccountable. Blow a crucial call one night in the Big Ten, and you can still draw a check the next night from the Horizon League. With fees steadily on the rise, the problem was bound to get worse.
The solution that has long been floated envisions the NCAA creating a national staff of fulltime referees. That idea, however, has seemed unrealistic. Not only would such a system be unwieldy, but it would also be expensive because the NCAA would have to provide health insurance and other benefits just like every other major corporation.
Lately, however, this idea is gaining real traction—and Collins’ hiring is a reflection of that. Over the last few years, each Power Five conference has partnered with at least one other league to coordinate officiating assignments in their region. We are still a long way from a single, centralized, national staff, but we are also much closer than we have ever been. “There is no one I’ve talked to about this over the last year who dismisses it out of hand,” says Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president for men’s basketball, who made the final call to hire Collins as national coordinator. “This is a personal goal of mine. There would certainly be more investment from a financial standpoint, but the leap from where we are now isn’t nearly as big as it would have been ten years ago because of the consortiums that have popped up. That’s been organic. It hasn’t been forced by anyone.”
Collins saw the benefits of the consortium model first hand because the MAC and Summit are aligned with the Big Ten. The group has formed an LLC which is managed out of the Big Ten headquarters in Chicago. Other consortiums have been formed between the Pac-12, Mountain West, WAC, West Coast Conference and Big West; the Big 12, AAC, Conference USA, OVC and the Southland; and the ACC, Atlantic 10 and Colonial. The SEC is not technically in a consortium, but its coordinator, Jake Bell, oversees the Atlantic Sun as well. This is another facet of the changing landscape. For example, instead of filtering everything through five separate coordinators, the Big 12’s consortium is run by one person, longtime official Curtis Shaw. “Fifteen years ago, there were 32 coordinators of officials. Now we have 18,” Collins says. “Obviously, it’s easier to get a message across when you’re dealing with a smaller number.”
This movement, and Collins’s hiring, is coming at a critical time. During this off-season, the men’s basketball rules committee issued its most sweeping changes in a generation. While most of the attention has been focused on the shortening of the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds and the widening of the block/charge arc from three feet to four, the committee also put forth points of emphasis in five different areas in hopes of cleaning up the game. They are: protecting the dribbler, cutting down on physical post play, eliminating moving screens, making it harder to draw a charge and allowing greater freedom of movement for players without the ball (i.e., no more bumping cutters).
Not all of the changes were made to benefit the offense. The committee also passed a rule which denies a driver the ability to draw a foul simply by jumping into a defender when he goes up for a shot. Also, post defenders will now be permitted to use an arm bar to leverage themselves against an offensive big man who is trying to bully his way to the basket. “We need to be on physical plays that are displacing opponents, whether it’s the offense or defense,” Collins says. “When I’m leading regional clinics [for officials], that is a major emphasis.”
If just a few of these changes were put in place, it would be a difficult transition. But all of them at once? Get ready for a lot of whistles—and a lot of complaining. “Will it be painful? Absolutely, but the end result will be very positive for the game,” Collins says. Adds Gavitt, “We’re not backing down from this. We can expect that fouls are going to spike significantly this year, and especially in the early going. Hopefully there will be less fouling as the season goes on because players will adjust and coaches will adjust.”
Enforcing and explaining this new paradigm is going to be a huge challenge for Collins. Since taking over in May for his predecessor, John Adams, who announced before the start of last season that he was retiring, Collins has been on a national listening tour. He has also met with outside organizations to learn more about how they use technology to manage and develop their officiating staffs. “Everybody wants officiating to be better,” Collins said. “I agree with that, but in order to make it better, it requires accountability for the officials, and it requires utilizing technology to improve teaching and training.”
Collins and Gavitt are also going to have to manage expectations. Even if the rule changes are put into place efficiently, they are not likely to produce a dramatically different game right away. In March, three postseason tournaments (the CIT, the CBI and the NIT) experimented with the shorter shot clock and wider arc under the basket. The result was barely noticeable: Scoring increased by 1.09 points per team per game over the 2014 tournaments, and by 1.34 points over 2013. The adjustments to the block/charge rule also led to fewer collisions at the basket: 1.96 plays per game, compared to 2.77 in 2013. If nothing else, that is good news with regards to player safety.
Still, even if scoring and pace stay flat this season, it will be an improvement over where the game has been heading. As I pointed out in February, scoring in college basketball decreased in 13 of the last 15 years. Last season’s 67.64 average was the second-lowest since 1952. (The lowest was two years ago, when teams scored 67.5 points per game.) Teams also averaged 64.8 possessions per game, the lowest rate since kenpom.com began tracking that stat in 2002. So even a minor bump in these areas would represent a major victory, especially if they are the beginning of a pattern.
It’s a difficult job, but Collins has spent a lifetime preparing for it. He is a bona fide, hoops-loving Hoosier who was raised in the small rural community of Blufton, Indiana. “Grew up with a hoop on the side of the barn. We played every day,” he says. He first got the refereeing bug as an undergraduate at Indiana Wesleyan, where he made a few extra bucks in his spare time officiating intramural games. As of now, the only assignments Collins gets to make are for the NCAA tournament, but if the game keeps heading toward a more centralized structure, the national coordinator is going to hold a great deal of sway over how the game is called—and played. Collins is encouraged by what he has seen and heard so far, but he knows the hard work has yet to begin. “I’ve been embraced very positively by all parties, but I’m no fool,” he says. “I know this is a honeymoon period. We haven’t missed any calls yet.”