Up in the Air: John Higgins is one of the nation's most visible, wanted—and loathed—basketball referees
John Higgins returns the voicemail message from an airport, naturally. He is standing in a terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International, hoping to get to Hartford, Conn., despite an impending blizzard. The night before, he had been in El Paso. The night before that, in Waco. The night before that, in Stillwater. That followed a western swing of five straight days that took him to, in order, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Spokane, Tucson and Salt Lake City. It was just another week in the vertiginous, sleep-deprived, sensory-overloaded, itinerant life of one of college basketball's most in-demand referees. "I'm a professional traveler," Higgins, 54, says with a laugh. "The games are the easy part."
With his sturdy, 6' 3" frame, his perma-tan, light brown floppy hair and, most of all, his high-profile assignments—including six Final Fours and the 2013 NCAA championship game—Higgins has become the most recognizable referee in college basketball. That is not always a good thing. His familiarity to television viewers, combined with his penchant for calling technical fouls, have subjected him to considerable mockery and loathing. Higgins knows all too well that this scrutiny comes with the territory, especially in the social media age. He tries not to pay much attention to it. "If I looked at everything people wrote or said about me, I'd be a basket case," he says.
Much of the teasing is done in good humor—the Twitter account @JohnHigginsHair has more than 3,600 followers—but some of it is not. Higgins has received harassing phone calls at his home in Omaha, Neb. He has seen pictures of his kids posted online by angry fans. Soon after he worked the epic triple-overtime game between Kansas and Oklahoma on Jan. 19, he received a threatening email at his business. He forwarded it to the FBI.
According to the website bbstate.com, Higgins had worked 59 games this season. That put him in a three-way tie for second among all Division I officials, with David Hall's 61 setting the pace. Unlike NBA refs, who are employed by the league, college officials are independent contractors who are free to put together their own schedules. Higgins does his best to stay in one area of the country, but there are times when his itinerary gets downright silly.
For example, during a particularly brutal stretch in early January, Higgins worked a game at Stanford that tipped off at 6 p.m. local time. Later that night, he flew on a redeye to Minneapolis and landed at 4 a.m. He drove to his hotel, slept a few hours, worked a game between Minnesota and Michigan State, and then drove back to the airport to catch a 5 p.m. flight to Phoenix. The next day, he worked the Arizona State-Arizona game, during which he ejected Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley. The following night, Higgins was in Allen Fieldhouse for Kansas-Oklahoma. If you're keeping score, that's 4,800 miles traveled over three days. And it is hardly unusual.
There is an understandable economic incentive at work here. Higgins often gets paid more than $3,000 per game. The more games he refs, the more money he makes. Though he could work every single day if he wanted, he gives himself every Friday and most Mondays off, and he disagrees with the suggestion that his performance suffers because he calls so many games. "I'd ask you, do you work five days a week?" he retorts. "I work five days a week for two hours a day. That's less than most people. Yes, I spend a lot of time on airplanes, but if you keep yourself mentally and physically healthy, it's no big deal."
Though Higgins is available to work for any league, his home base is the Big 12. That league's officiating coordinator, Curtis Shaw, has heard occasional complaints about Higgins's heavy workload from coaches. Yet, he continues putting Higgins on the most important games because Higgins is among the very best at what he does. "A coach will say to me, 'He's working too many games.' So I'll say, 'O.K., I'll take him out of your game.' Then they say they don't want that," Shaw says. "John is a tremendous play-caller. When push comes to shove, in our business it's about getting plays right."
As is the case with many of Higgins's colleagues, becoming a fulltime basketball referee was never in his plans. He grew up in Omaha as the second-youngest in a family of nine children. His father was a football and basketball coach at the local high school. Higgins attended Kearney State College, an NAIA school in Nebraska, but he returned to his hometown after graduation and never left. He founded and currently operates two fulltime businesses—Weatherguard, Inc., which is a roofing, siding and gutter company; and a real estate company that manages residential properties. During basketball season, Higgins stays on top of his businesses, but he does not manage day-to-day operations.
While he was in college, Higgins was asked to fill in for a referee who couldn't make it to a freshman game. He made 20 bucks. After he returned to Omaha, Higgins continued to referee local rec league games as a hobby. In the summer of 1988, he heard about an officiating camp being conducted by the Missouri Valley Conference and decided to attend. He was surprised to get a call offering him a job for the following season. A year later, Higgins was hired to work in the old Big Eight, and his career has steadily ascended ever since. His first Final Four assignment came in 2009.
Higgins realized early on that his distinctive look was becoming, well, a thing. He remembers about 15 years ago spotting a sign during a game at Missouri State suggesting he should be on TV show Baywatch. Higgins laughs at his portrayal as a vain beach babe. His dark complexion results not from hours spent in tanning beds, but from his family's roots. (His father was Bohemian, and his mother was part Native American.) His hair turns blonde in the summertime, but it's not like he spends a lot of time coiffing it. "I've gotten s--- about my hair for 20 years, so it doesn't bother me," he says with a laugh. "If you saw me at home, every day I wear sweatpants and a T-shirt. I drive a truck. I'm low-profile. That's me."
Higgins has been involved in more than his fair share of confrontations over the years. One of his most memorable tiffs came in December 2011, when he tossed Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey from a game against Northern Iowa. More recently, his brouhaha with Hurley brought a great deal of scrutiny, not least because Higgins teed up Hurley twice even though Hurley was arguing with another ref, not Higgins. Higgins was scheduled to work Arizona State's home game 13 days later against Washington, but he and Pac-12 officiating coordinator Bob Dibler decided it would be best if he sat that one out. Dibler says Higgins will not be assigned to work any more Arizona State games this season, but that does not mean Higgins won't work some ASU games down the road.
There is no outlet that tracks the number of technical fouls called by individual referees (although there should be), but Higgins does not dispute the impression that he calls more technicals than most of his peers. "I'm not disagreeing, and I'm not apologizing," he says. "We're supposed to enforce the rules as written, right? The NCAA is always preaching sportsmanship, sportsmanship, sportsmanship. You can eat a little crow if you know you probably screwed a play up, but when you let coaches and players and coaches act like idiots, you lose all credibility. I try not to let it happen in my games, that's for sure."
If anything, Higgins believes that other refs should follow his lead. "I saw a game last night on TV and I thought both coaches deserved a technical foul, but nothing was done," he says. "The younger guys have a hard time doing that because they're afraid they're going to lose games. Once you gain a little status, you can be more of a harda-- and do the things you're supposed to do without losing assignments."
In this respect, Higgins is well served by having Shaw as his primary assigner. By his own admission, Shaw regularly called "the most [technicals] in the country" during his 21 years as a Division I referee. He has Higgins's back, and Higgins knows it. "I see it the way he does," Shaw says. "We're told to enforce sportsmanship. It's no different than fouling the jump shooter. You break the rule, you pay the penalty."
Higgins's jam-packed schedule points to a larger, more vexing problem. The travel burdens on referees have been lessened by the recent emergence of regional consortiums among leagues, but until the NCAA develops a national staff, there will be no mechanism in place to curtail assignments. John Adams, the NCAA's former national coordinator of officiating, is a big fan of Higgins, but he believes the number of games college officials work during a season should be capped around 72, not including the postseason.
In each of the last four seasons, Higgins worked more than 90 games. "There is what I call a law of diminishing returns in that you cannot possibly be 100% physically and mentally sharp 10 nights in a row," Adams says. "But because they are independent contractors, you can't limit their ability and you can't collude. These referees are like professional athletes. Their high-earning window is not open very long."
Thus does Higgins represent a central dichotomy regarding top officials. The reason why fans dislike them the most is because the fans recognize them, and that's because they work the most important games. If Higgins weren't so widely respected, he wouldn't have so many high-profile opportunities. "I think he's one of the great refs. He understands the pressures coaches are under, and he has a really good feel for what's happening in the game," says one Big 12 head coach.
Another coach in the league concedes that he has to mind his manners when Higgins is working his games, but he still likes having him between the lines. "He's quicker than some of the younger guys to tee you up if you complain," he says. "So as a coach, you have to know that going in."
Being the most traveled, most recognized, most wanted, most mocked and most loathed referee in college basketball can be exhausting and unsettling, but for Higgins it remains great fun. "I'm a basketball junkie, and I enjoy the camaraderie I have with all my referee buddies," he says. "We're kind of like police officers. They hate us, but they have to have us. If you can't take everything that comes with it, then you're not going to last long in this business."