With the start of college basketball practice just two weeks away, you can be sure players all over the country are working hard to get themselves into tiptop shape. But there are another group of folks who are also preparing to run themselves ragged -- the referees. Not only are many of them 30 or more years older than the players they're chasing, they will also be involved in a lot more games.
In fact, most coaches will tell you that too many referees are working too many games these days. This complaint is nothing new, yet nobody seems to have figured out a way to do something about it. "I think the general opinion is by far they're working too many games," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says. "The good referees are probably working at least five, maybe six, games a week. I don't know how you can do that."
Adds John Clougherty, a veteran ref of multiple Final Fours who now serves as the ACC's supervisor of officials, "I don't think there's a league in the country where coaches wouldn't rather see their referees work less. At the height of my career, I worked 80, 82 games in one season, and that was hard enough. I can't imagine 100 or 100-plus."
John Adams, who a year ago became the NCAA's officiating coordinator, agrees. "Do they work too many games? In my estimation they do," Adams says. "I hear [the complaint] from coaches all the time. For the same reason that players in their teens and early twenties don't play four or five or six nights in a row, I think officials ought to take a break."
The games themselves are not even the most taxing part. "The travel is what wears you out, not the games," says Curtis Shaw. He should know. According to Statsheet.com, over the last five seasons Shaw averaged 100 games per year, more than any other ref in America. Since 1996, only Steve Welmer, who works primarily in the Big 12 and Big Ten, worked more games than Shaw's 1,195. Last season, Shaw had just three days off during the month of January. During one typical 10-day stretch, he hopscotched from Chicago to Des Moines to Oklahoma to Charleston, W.Va., then back to Chicago before going on to Waco, Hartford, Pittsburgh, Champaign and New Jersey. It gives me jet lag just thinking about it.
Now that Shaw is the supervisor of officials for the Big 12, he won't have to worry so much about the rigors of air travel. But he will experience this problem in a new way. "I think it's an issue we need to face," he says. "I'd like for us to get to a point where we can tell referees, you're going to work fewer games but make the same money, but we're not there yet."
If most everyone agrees this is a problem, why doesn't it ever get fixed? In the first place, coaches are a fickle lot. They might not want refs working too many games, but they still want the best refs working their games. And the best refs -- like Shaw, who officiated in the NCAA championship game last April -- are naturally in the highest demand. "I think you still want the best referee on your game, even though he might be a little tired," Maryland coach Gary Williams says. "Great players find a way to suck it up when they're tired, and I think the same is true with officials when the adrenaline gets going."
Another hindrance is the fact that referees are technically independent contractors who are not employed by either the NCAA or any particular league. They book their own games and travel arrangements. They're even required to provide their own striped jerseys, whistles and sneakers. So if one league supervisor doesn't want to use a referee because he is working too often, that ref is free to turn to another league. Any efforts to restrict those opportunities would undoubtedly face legal challenges. And with the chance to earn game fees of $1,000 plus per diem and travel costs, it's hard to blame a referee for accruing as many assignments as he can.
That financial reality works both ways. A few years ago, an idea emerged at a meeting of ACC coaches to pay certain referees to take a night off before a league game. That would mean higher game fees plus perhaps an extra night in a local hotel room. Not surprisingly, this idea got shot down by the league's athletic directors, who are already under enormous pressure to keep down costs.
Some two decades ago, then-Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt floated the possibility of having his conference hire a dozen or so officials to exclusively work Big East games. This, too, got rejected. Not only would a league have to pay salaries the equivalent of what the refs would make working 90 or 100 games a year, but the refs would also be entitled to health insurance, pension plans and other benefits normally afforded full-time employees.
So why not have the NCAA take over officiating assignments, instead of having everything fractured into leagues? This would have the added benefit of eliminating conflicts of interest when refs are working nonconference games. Well, besides the obvious financial concerns, the NCAA would also be taking on a logistical nightmare. And as Williams points out, schools would lose the benefits of having a single coordinator managing the season. "I think the coaches and referees feel better if you have a supervisor that everybody knows and respects," Williams says.
If the problem of overworked officials is going to get better, the changes will have to be more subtle. For starters, referees are going to have to make sure they're in good shape. Last year, Adams added physical fitness and mobility as part of the official criteria for earning plum assignments in the NCAA tournament. Even before that, Clougherty had noticed a difference. "The culture has changed from when I was refereeing," Clougherty says. "There are no fat referees anymore. Everybody is on some kind of maintenance program."
In addition, the NCAA and the league coordinators are going to have to be more proactive in finding new refs. Adams has been looking for ways to bring the younger guys along more quickly, and Shaw has begun to probe the ranks of the NCAA's lower divisions as well as the NAIA and junior colleges to identify the best prospects. The increased TV exposure over the last decade also helps coordinators and coaches identify good (and bad) refs. Most of all, coaches are going to have to be more tolerant when they arrive on game night and see an official with whom they are not familiar. Because if you keep having the same older referees work 90 or 100 games a year, you won't be able to develop a new generation of zebras.
In the end, though, there's not a whole lot that can be done to shake up the status quo. "Everybody agrees it's a problem but I just don't think it's going to get solved," Boeheim says. Until it does, let's hope the referees are indeed getting ready for the new season. For the men who wield the whistle, the college basketball season has become both a marathon and a sprint.