Big 12 Will See Huge Turnover in Referees, the White Hats in Charge for Football this Fall

Robert Allen

STILLWATER -- Mike Defee has been putting on the same uniform in college football for over 20-years and 11 of those in the Big 12 Conference. Defee, known for his "Popeye" size biceps wears black and white and sees the game pretty much the same way. Cooper Castleberry has been wearing that same uniform even longer, including the white hat that makes him and Defee the captains of their team of officials.

"I think people just don't understand everything that goes into the result on Saturday," Defee added. "They see it for three and a half hours. There is just so much more to the preparation that meets the eye."

Even Defee didn't realize it until a couple of years ago when he took his dad with him to call a Thanksgiving holiday game between TCU and Texas. The father and son were going to drive west to some land they own to go hunting after Defee and his crew worked the game.

Defee has the biceps to hold players back as he did here between Texas Tech and TCU.USA Today Sports Images - Michael C. Johnson

"He got to sit in and see what we do from a meeting standpoint," Defee related. Afterwards, he said, 'Wow, you guys need some PR. I had no earthly idea as you do and get into as much detail as what you do to prepare for this.' Guys like you that come to clinic and get behind the scenes, you know it."

Don't think that it can't impact the quality of the game. Most fans look at the man in the white hat and his crew of officials as either the good guys or the enemy depending what the last call was and how it impacted their team. However, coaches and those closest to the game recognize that veteran referees like Mike Defee, Cooper Castleberry, and Reggie Smith are vitally important to the quality of the game and the way it plays out. That trio as well as long-time veteran referee Eddy Shelton are all going to be missing with Big 12 football returns. 

Big 12 supervisor of football officials Greg Burks has a big task in replacing those individuals. 

Defee got a late start in officiating when a golf buddy suggested that he loved football so much that he would enjoy officiating like he did. He got into it and after 11-years working high school and college, he was hired in 2006 as a back judge in the Big 12. In 2010 he moved over to the referee position. Defee was outstanding and ended up working all of the major bowl games, he worked in five Big 12 Championship Games, and was the referee in the CFP National Championship Game between Alabama and Clemson on Jan. 9, 2017. 

Defee became known in part for his biceps as he was even more built in the arms than NFL referee Ed Hoculi, known for the same attribute. I can tell you from being on the field that Defee was always in control of his crew and the game. 

"I'm going to miss the guys on the crew, all the coaches, and all the experiences because this is unlike anything else," Defee said with sincerity. "All of us have a tremendous love of the game. I love high school football, college football, and the NFL." 

Defee is going to go to work for the NFL. He was almost an official several years back, but former Big 12 supervisor Walt Anderson has brought him to the NFL to help train the league's referees. He'll actually be working with several officials that he was with in the Big 12 in former college and now NFL referees in Clete Blakeman, a former Nebraska quarterback in college, and Scott Burks.

Like Defee, Castleberry was always in control and was one of the best officials at calming down a frustrated player or coach.

"I'm glad you said that, because I worked very hard at that." Castleberry said. "It is something that young officials need to learn. You can't go out there with a chip on your shoulder and I'm in charge. That is a bad attitude. Those coaches are under pressure."

Castleberry, in the white hat, worked his final game between Wake Forest and Michigan State in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium.USA Today Sports Images

Castleberry is a veteran of 42-years of officiating and started as a 27-year-old working a high school game between Kirby and Buna in East Texas. He has worked 19-years in the Big 12 and has been a part of crews for two national championship games, and a multitude of bowl games including last year's Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium. 

"I've worked at all the academies, Navy, Army and West Point and Air Force," Castleberry said. "I've worked national championships, Big 12 championships, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, and I finished my career, my last game was in Yankee Stadium, That's pretty good. Those guys on my crew, they're the best. I'll miss working with those guys."

He worked just two Oklahoma State games last season, both on the road at Texas Tech and his third to last game of his career at West Virginia. Castleberry will now serve as an observer for the Big 12 on Saturdays. 

"They want me to be an observer, grader, and somewhat of a trainer," Castleberry said. "To this date that is going to be my role and I hope I make it to Stillwater often. We met in February and we have not done anything since. All the scrimmages were cancelled and everything is up in the air right now." 

Reggie Smith is a veteran official from Pittsburgh, Pa. and was thought to be a lock to move up to the NFL. Smith has left the Big 12 to work as a referee in the Big Ten.

Eddy Shelton is a county precinct commissioner and owns an electrical company that has been in the Big 12 since 2011. He is retiring from onfield officiating just like Defee and Castleberry. 

"You really hate to see some of these guys transition after they've been with you for so long," lamented Ed Stewart, the executive associate commissioner for football in the Big 12. "The one thing that I often remind people is that officiating is a real grind for some of those guys and the amount of work that they put into it. The level of intensity that it carries and the impact of their decisions on the outcome of ballgames. Cooper and Mike were tremendous officials for us. You hate to lose that expertise. You hate to lose Reggie."

Stewart feels the conference officiating will remain strong and it has been rated one of the best conferences for officiating in the FBS. 

"We have some  really good young guys in the program, some guys that have been with us for awhile," added Stewart. "I think we're well positioned to absorb the losses with our CFO concept where we have guys coming up through the Southland (conference) and working their way up (Mountain West and Big 12).

The last Oklahoma State game for each of the departing officials included Eddy Shelton's crew working the game at Tulsa last season. Reggie Smith worked the Bedlam game last season in Stillwater. Mike Defee's crew worked the McNeese game but he was on the sidelines as the alternate training Christian Watson, a younger official. Defee's crew had the Texas game a few weeks later, but Defee's home suffered damage with the flooding in South Texas and he could not make the game. So, his last time to officiate the Cowboys was in the 2018 season against Texas Tech. 

"The one thing that I've always loved about being up in Oklahoma is they love their football," Defee said and he's worked a lot of games including a lot of Bedlam games. 

The last Oklahoma State game worked by Copper Castleberry and his crew was the Cowboys win at West Virginia last November. Castleberry's crew worked the OSU-West Virginia game the past two seasons.

"Oklahoma State is one of the places, and people ask me all the time, 'where are your favorite places to officiate,'" Castelberry said. "Texas A&M is one of them and Oklahoma State jumps up there. There is nowhere I didn't like to go, but the atmosphere as much as I liked going to Texas Tech is brutal, but you know it going there. Oklahoma State was always fun. They love their football but they are respectful and I hope I continue to get to go up there."

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Good article. The refs are a huge part of the game. I think they deserve some attention. It is nice to hear that our fans are respectful.