You may not know the name of that one--that one there--but you
know you've seen him before. In Bloomington last night. In
Chapel Hill the night before. In Lexington and Columbus and
Providence earlier in the week. And in the NCAA tournament the
last dozen years or so, bearing witness to--and influencing the
outcome of--every critical moment in college basketball.
This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1996 issue
You can't name the players anymore, what with the best ones
gone, lemmings over the cliff, to sink or swim in a sea of
premature adulthood and NBA lucre. Coaches? They're peacocks,
preening on the sidelines, ready to strut off at a moment's
notice for another campus or some NBA job. That leaves only one
familiar species on the college hoops veld. That leaves the zebra.
And the breed is thriving, thanks in no small part to the
nurturing warmth of television. Aside from Ralph Kramden and
Lucy and Ricky, a handful of referees are now the most
ubiquitous black-and-white presences on TV. Can this be good?
To Hank Nichols, himself a former top ref and now the NCAA's
coordinator of men's basketball officials, the growing
prominence of referees is a necessary evil. "It's a natural
evolution of what TV does," he says. "We couldn't avoid it
unless we put hoods over their heads."
As officials have ascended to their new status as the most
stable element in the game, the competition among conferences
for the best ones has become intense. "It's a marketplace," says
Nichols. "If somebody's good at what he does, he's going to be
in demand. And if he's in demand, he's going to take advantage
of it. In the long run, if the top officials do more games, the
games will be better."
Some coaches aren't so sure. "I've known guys to call four games
in four different time zones in one week," says Weber State
coach Ron Abegglen. "How can that be fair to players--or to
Adds Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, "You see the same guys on
TV over and over. They act like, The fans came tonight to see me
officiate, not, I'm here to be the least-seen guy on the floor."
Regardless of who's right, Nichols or the kvetching coaches,
much of the 1996-97 season--like every season before it--will be
colored, for better or worse, by the men in black and white. We
offer this compendium of ref-erence material as a guide.
WHY THE ACC IS THE BEST-OFFICIATED LEAGUE
It used to be that the job of conference officiating supervisor
was a patronage appointment, a sinecure for some semiretired
administrator, ex-ref or good ol' boy. But in 1981, largely at
the urging of N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, the ACC hired Fred
Barakat, who had coached at Fairfield from 1970 to '81, to
direct its referees. He took control of the hiring of officials
and their assignments and gave them a raise.
Many of Barakat's whistle-blowers are now in demand all over the
country. Most are products of the officiating camps that he runs
each summer to scout and develop talent. In 1988, when the NBA
needed an infusion of bodies to populate its new three-man
officiating crews, it paid Barakat the highest compliment by
raiding the ACC for seven of its best. Yet the conference hardly
suffered, its "jayvee" was so good. "Barakat is Big Brother from
1984," says one officiating evaluator. "He's always watching.
That's why the same ref who's twirling his whistle in Storrs on
Thursday will be minding his p's and q's in Winston-Salem two
Says one former coach, "Barakat has to answer to the most
knowledgeable fans in the country and two of the game's
immortals in [North Carolina coach Dean] Smith and [Duke coach
Mike] Krzyzewski. So he makes sure the refs answer to him. And
that's good for the refs. That way they don't have to kowtow to
any of the coaches."
WHAT REFS ARE LOOKING OUT FOR THIS SEASON
Rules are rules, as we know. But before every season referees
are given points of emphasis--sections of the rule book that the
rules committee feels merit the most stringent enforcement. For
example, two years ago, after Arkansas rode its tenacious
defense to the national title, the hand check became a point of
emphasis. Among this season's targets are traveling and palming:
Jitterbug point guards had best be careful when they begin a
move to the basket or try laying a crossover dribble on a
WHAT COACHES DON'T LIKE ABOUT REFS
Ask a coach what he wants in a ref and of course he'll say,
"Consistency." But the other thing you'll hear again and again
is "Approachability." There will always be tension between the
guys in Armani gabardine and the guys in cotton-poly prison
stripes. Coaching is a coach's livelihood, whereas most refs, as
seriously as they may take their duties between tip-off and the
final horn, are moonlighting. As Barakat says, "When you have
someone in a vocation who has someone in an avocation in his
vocation, you have a problem: The guy in the vocation doesn't
think the guy in the avocation puts enough into it."
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR REFS NEED A MAKEOVER
Remember the Texas-Arkansas game in 1990, when a disgusted
Richardson walked off the floor with 14 seconds to go? The
incident earned the Razorbacks' coach the sobriquet Strollin'
Nolan but somehow failed to earn him a technical, an oversight
that the late Edward Steitz, then secretary-editor of the NCAA
rules committee, called a disgrace to officiating. That episode
is only one example of how bad things had become in the
Southwest Conference, in which the top coaches--particularly
Richardson and Texas's Tom Penders--made their displeasure known.
The league responded by bringing in Metro Conference supervisor
Dale Kelley in 1993 and empowering him to banish the ticky-tack
foul. Just before Kelley arrived, an SWC tournament game between
Houston and Texas A&M was marred by 51 free throw attempts (the
Cougars shot 40 of them) and the ejection of an A&M broadcaster.
But by the end of last season the number of touch fouls called
in the SWC had plunged, and even Penders was mollified. "Before,
it was nothing to see these guys in girdles, they were so fat,"
Penders says. "Now they look like officials, act like officials
and call the game the way it's supposed to be called. They're
not just blowing whistles to catch their breath."
Kelley's good works did not go unnoticed. Now that the SWC has
disbanded and four of its teams--Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and
Texas Tech--have joined the Big 12, guess who's the coordinator
of officials for the new superconference.
WHY OFFICIATING IS EASIER THAN EVER
It's still a nightmare to call a game in which neither team has
a decent point guard, both sides play hellacious defense and the
ball isn't going in the basket. But here are five reasons that
the job, on the whole, has never been easier:
1. Arenas are better lit. (And they're bigger--so taunting
spectators are farther from the action.)
2. Players are more skilled and more agile and thus better able
to avoid contact.
3. Institution of the alternate-possession rule and elimination
of the five-second closely guarded call have reduced by two the
number of things a ref has to worry about: jump balls and
counting to five.
4. The 35-second shot clock has created more possessions per
game, thus lessening the pressure to get every call right.
5. The three-point shot has reduced the number of times players
take the ball to the hole. Thus the toughest call in
basketball--block or charge?--doesn't have to be made as often.
WHY SO FEW FORMER PLAYERS BECOME REFS
Because there's not an ex-player alive who wants to be
remembered as a referee.
WHY REGIONAL DIFFERENCES IN OFFICIATING ARE DISAPPEARING
Not so long ago the Big Ten had a reputation as a
scratch-and-claw conference and the Pac-10 one as a touch-foul
league. Nichols, the chairman of the department of education and
human services at Villanova who became the first national
officials coordinator in 1986, has worked hard to eradicate
sectional peculiarities. Before he came aboard, says Nichols,
"the supervisor for each league was king." Every October he
convenes six regional seminars; all officials and a
representative of every Division I coaching staff are required
to attend one or to observe a presentation by videoconference.
At each meeting Nichols goes over rules changes and highlights
points of emphasis for the coming season.
Nichols's insistence that all leagues hew to the same set of
standards has helped make games more uniformly whistled through
the regular season and, ultimately, the NCAA tournament. All
conferences now use the three-man rotation, in which members of
a crew move around the court in concert according to where the
ball goes. And conferences are no longer permitted to keep a
"scratch list," which coaches formerly used to blacklist
officials whom they didn't want to work their games. "Things are
more consistent," says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. "You don't
feel unprotected when you go on foreign turf now."
HOW MUCH REFS MAKE
Not much; usually about $400 a game, $600 in the top
conferences. But refs, most of whom are self-employed or work
part time, do get travel expenses and a per diem.
As for those stories about referees carpooling in Rent-a-Wrecks,
then cashing in unused plane tickets and not reporting the money
to the IRS--well, those stories just aren't true. We know this
because all referees are honest.
WHY OFFICIATING IMPROVES AS THE NCAA TOURNAMENT PROGRESSES
To staff the 32 games of the first round of the tournament, the
NCAA has to muster 96 referees. Alas, there aren't that many
first-rate zebras in captivity. Imagine, too: Three refs are
dispatched to, say, Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, N.Y. (a place
they've never been), to officiate a game between Arkansas and
Coastal Carolina (two teams they've never seen). The players are
skittish and adrenaline-stoked. Meanwhile, the officials are
competing among themselves, in a tournament within a tournament,
to get a good grade from the NCAA evaluators so they may advance
to the regionals. None of this makes for good whistling.
But through dogged evaluation, Nichols and a panel of conference
supervisors and tournament committee members pare the 48 who
have been chosen to work the second round down to the best 40
for the following week. Ten of those 40 then advance to the
The crew that works the final could be called the Thurviving
Nichols sees more than 100 games per season, in person or on TV;
directs four in-season conference calls with league supervisors;
and tracks compliance with the points of emphasis. His work
seems to be paying off: Two years ago, for the first time since
the rules committee began postseason polling of coaches, the
percentage who said refs were doing a better job went up. And
last season those approval ratings held steady.
Were those coaches expressing their sincere sentiments or
shamelessly sucking up? You make the call.
THE MAYHEM SCALE
Even though efforts at standardizing officiating have reduced
some of the stylistic differences between conferences, there are
still distinctions in how much contact the leagues tolerate.
Here's how they'll stack up.
THE INCREDIBLE DISAPPEARING CALL
When was the last time you saw a player whistled for a
three-second violation in a college game? One Big East assistant
coach says he went through an entire season two years ago,
watching hundreds of hours of tape, without seeing it called
once. "There really aren't as many three-second violations as
you'd think," says Hank Nichols, the national coordinator of
officials. "And the three-point shot keeps everything from being
pounded inside." Still, former Duke assistant Pete Gaudet has
claimed to have on tape a 12-second violation that went uncalled.
THE STARS IN STRIPES
Their names may be known only to college hoops sickos, but their
mugs are commonplace on courts everywhere. As you peruse this
gallery of eight guys who each work 60 to 70 games a
season--that's twice as many as Deano and Knight and Coach K
work in a year--keep this in mind: A high profile does not
necessarily a good official make.
Jim Burr, a 50-year-old finance and insurance executive, has
whistled two of the last three NCAA title games. One coach cites
him for "an attitude problem," and another says, "He's always
giving you those dirty looks. But he calls a consistent game."
Yet another says, "The best, I have no doubt. We've had a couple
of head-bangs, but he's always the same. His only deviation is
how tough he's going to be--not if he's going to be tough." On
occasion Burr's pugnacity has led him to, uh, chat up a heckler.
Usual habitat: Atlantic 10, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA,
A 52-year-old stockbroker who lives in Raleigh, N.C., John
Clougherty has worked nine Final Fours dating back to 1985 but
only one title game since '89, when he made the call that put
Rumeal Robinson of Michigan on the free throw line to win the
championship. Temple coach John Chaney once fixed Clougherty
with a stare for an entire timeout. "Consistent and reasonable,"
says one coach, but some--like the fan who once told him,
"You're on TV more than Gunsmoke!"--think he spreads himself too
thin. Usual habitat: Big East, Conference USA, SEC.
For a sales VP with a construction supply firm, Tim Higgins, 50,
is quite a magnet for drama. He worked the Duke-Kentucky epic in
the final of the 1992 NCAA East Regional, and he made two
controversial calls in the '95 tournament, one correct (a
technical against Syracuse for excessive timeouts, which led to
a loss against Arkansas), the other incorrect (after a North
Carolina-Kentucky fracas he gave a T to an innocent Wildcat,
even after checking a TV monitor). Usual habitat: ACC, Big
East, Big Ten, SEC.
Forget the Wizard of Westwood; the Wizard of Alton, Ill.,
appeared in every Final Four from 1988 to '94. Ed Hightower is a
school superintendent and a doctoral candidate at St. Louis
University in education administration. He flies to and from
gigs in a friend's private plane and is in great shape at 45; he
once worked a Notre Dame-DePaul game alone for eight minutes
until his tardy partners arrived. "He looks like he loses five
to 10 pounds a game," one coach says admiringly. Usual habitat:
Big Ten, Big 12, Conference USA.
Dean of students at the San Diego School of Creative and
Performing Arts, Dave Libbey, 48, is often cited as the "best in
the West." Western officials are rarely in demand east of the
Rockies, but Libbey has been impressive enough that the Big 12
has signed him up. Some coaches like his moxie: "You want him on
the road," says one. "He'll make the tough calls down the
stretch." But another calls him "vindictive" and says, "Oh, he
looks great--pretty boy, athletic, great mechanics. Can hold
that fist up great and points real well. But I wouldn't have him
referee a goat-roping." Usual habitat: Big 12, Conference USA,
Pac-10, Sun Belt.
Nicknamed Froggy because of his deep voice, Dick Paparo, 51,
whistles full-time, unlike most of his colleagues. "He doesn't
fit the flat-bellied, highly educated mold," says one referee
observer. "But he's the best, because players all relax when
they see him. And even if the coaches aren't getting a fair
shake, they think they are." Others fault his flamboyance. Says
one coach, "He makes a lot of spectacular calls, so people
notice him." It works: In a '96 poll of ACC fans, Paparo was
voted the best--and the worst--official in the conference. Usual
habitat: ACC, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC.
Don Rutledge, who recently retired as athletic director at
Valencia Community College in Orlando, is known throughout the
South as the Lefthander for the sinistral way he indicates
charging calls. Coaches rhapsodize about his "fabulous demeanor"
and how he will "talk to the players," and they say that he's
"best at admitting his mistakes." The first of his five Final
Fours was the '85 Georgetown-Villanova championship game. "That
was an ideal game," Rutledge, 56, has said. "The players played,
the coaches coached, and we just stayed the hell out of the
way." Usual habitat: Big 12, Conference USA, SEC.
Like Paparo, 38-year-old Ted Valentine is a full-time zebra. He
has a reputation for being quick with a T. Indiana's Bob Knight
has been on the business end of more than one Valentine
pantomime, but then Teddy Ballgame has the dimensions (6'2",
210) to go toe-to-toe with the Bully of Bloomington or anyone
else. His biggest weakness, his ego, is also said to be his
biggest strength, because he's not afraid to make tough calls.
One coach has no use for him: "Everything's power with him."
But, says another, "he hustles." Usual habitat: Atlantic 10, Big
East, Big Ten, Conference USA.
A Glossary of Official Terms
The stiff-arm gesture that tells a coach, "Enough." Put up too
many Heismans, though, and a ref will invariably get a rep for
The Bird Dog
The j'accuse, finger-pointing gesture a ref makes when booking a
player for a foul.
Kicked a Call
Everyone else says the ref "blew the call," but officials say he
Barreling into another official's territory to make a call.
A Marcel Marceau
A ref with good mechanics who persuasively makes and sells his
calls--but has no real feel for the game.
Named for the invisible six-foot rabbit, an off-the-ball call in
which no one but the whistling ref knows what happened. Also
known as a phantom.
Getting the worst angle on a play. It occurs when a ref's vision
is obscured because he, the defender and the offensive player
are in line. Usually results from the ref's lack of hustle.
A foul call early in a game that a ref makes to set a tone for
the rest of the game. Without one, the ref's credibility will
have a great fall.