Sorry about that, I forgot that I had my auto-log in for the WSJ. Here's the story.
The Call of a Lifetime
Being asked to referee the NCAA tournament can make an official's career -- both on and off the court
By RUSSELL ADAMS
March 13, 2006; Page R9
Verne Harris got his phone call on a Monday afternoon in March 2004 during a busy day at his real-estate office in Denver. The caller was an NCAA official launching into what presumably would be yet another "we decided to go in another direction" speech. Only this one ended differently. A week later, some two decades after making his basketball refereeing debut in an intramural game at Arizona State University, Mr. Harris would be one of three officials in the NCAA men's championship game. "That," he says, "was a trip."
His appearance in that game changed everything for Mr. Harris, filling his 2004-05 schedule with premier matchups in the major collegiate conferences, elevating him in the eyes of head basketball coaches around the country, and launching a budding public-speaking career. It even helped with his real-estate clients, who often want to hear more about ejecting a coach than closing on a house.
"It gives you a little bit of notoriety," Mr. Harris says of working the Final Four, to which he returned as an official last year.
Each spring, as the NCAA tournament selection committee is deciding which teams will round out the bracket, a much less public but equally important selection process is taking shape. The contenders don't have camera crews setting up in their living rooms, and they certainly don't affect anyone's office pools. But for the 96 officials who make the initial cut -- three in every game -- getting into and advancing through the tournament provides the kind of exposure, credibility and money that can put their careers into overdrive.
The impact they have on the tournament is no less significant. Indeed, on their shoulders rest not only the fortunes of the participants, but the tournament's very credibility and continued success. In a case that shows just how important a referee's call can be, the University of Michigan won the 1989 championship against Seton Hall when Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson drew a disputed foul with three seconds remaining in overtime. Mr. Robinson subsequently sank both free throws, sealing an 80-79 win. The game immortalized Mr. Robinson in Ann Arbor and launched the career of his coach, Steve Fisher. Seton Hall, meanwhile, hasn't returned to the Final Four since then.
Today, officials face greater scrutiny and accountability than ever. Television and technology dissect their work in real time and can help confirm or negate their decisions. After Kentucky's Patrick Sparks made a game-tying three-point shot in the final second of last year's Elite Eight game against Michigan State, officials spent more than five minutes on the sideline reviewing CBS footage that spotlighted and enlarged the view of Mr. Sparks's right foot; if it was touching the three-point line, the shot would have counted for only two points. (They ruled it a three, but Michigan State went on to win in overtime.)
And this season the Atlantic Coast Conference began supplying referees with a DVD within 10 minutes after each game so they and conference officials can immediately review and assess any questionable calls. Any conclusions and supporting details about those calls are then forwarded to the coordinator of men's officials in the conference, John Clougherty, so that he can be ready with answers if a coach should register a complaint.
"Officials now have to be better than they ever were," says Mr. Clougherty, who retired last year from a 30-year officiating career. "You're always under the microscope."
In recognition of their being subjected to the scrutiny and abuse of players, coaches, fans and a world-wide television audience, the NCAA for the first time in five years has raised the pay for NCAA Tournament officials, to between $800 and $1,400 a game depending on the round. For most, however, it's the benefits that come afterward that really make a difference.
For the nine who go to the Final Four, in particular, the rewards are huge. It makes them more attractive in the eyes of the conferences on which they rely for steady work each season. The major conferences generally pay officials from $700 to more than $800 a game during the season, plus a per diem of about $150 to cover travel and other expenses. A full schedule of close to 80 games pays over $60,000 a year. But few referees will officiate a full season, so basketball is seldom their primary source of income.
There is also the prospect of a career in the National Basketball Association, where veteran referees can earn over $300,000 a year.
Ed Hightower, a 54-year-old superintendent of schools in Edwardsville, Ill., says he was offered an NBA contract after working his first Final Four in 1988. At the time, he was the principal of an elementary school, and he turned down the offer. "I have a love affair with education and a love affair with NCAA basketball," Mr. Hightower says. "To give up on those things, I did not want to do that."
Many NCAA referees start out officiating in intramural or recreational leagues, moving from there to junior-high and high-school basketball and then to college games, where they often start at junior colleges and smaller schools in Division II and III. For many, the bridge to big-time college basketball is attending one of a number of officiating camps around the country where conferences go to recruit referees.
The next big break in the career of an NCAA basketball official arrives in the form of a FedEx package on the weekend before the start of the tournament. "You just sit and hope," says Mr. Hightower, who has officiated in 10 Final Fours during his 26-year career. "You just sit and hope you're going to receive that package."
The Nominees Are...
All season, referees have had their performance at every game graded by conference officials, whose evaluation systems vary. Rich Falk, who supervises officials in the Big Ten Conference, rates every conference official in 10 categories, including hustle, positioning, management of bench decorum and application of the rules. By mid-February, Mr. Falk has calculated an average score (1 through 5, with 1 best) for every referee who has officiated a Big Ten game. He then submits his top-ranked officials as his nominees for the tournament to Hank Nichols, the NCAA's national coordinator of men's basketball officials. Mr. Nichols and his staff spend the next few weeks paring that list, as well as those submitted by Mr. Falk's counterparts from the 31 other NCAA conferences.
While it is mostly a meritocracy, a few official and unofficial rules apply. Mr. Nichols says he always tries to include first-timers in the pool of 96, and most years one of those officials advances to the Final Four. "One of the goals is to get fresh faces when we can, that are good enough," he says. "We always have to have the cycle moving, to get people experience in the tournament so that down the road they have enough experience when you start counting on them."
University of Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson agrees the NCAA has gotten better at getting away from the "buddy system" in choosing which referees go to the tournament and advance. "Every year at the Final Four and the Elite Eight, you see officials that have never done them before," says Mr. Sampson. "In the past, it seemed like the same guys were always doing them."
Officials for the first round of this year's tournament will receive their assignments today, with half of them assigned to work two games and the other half one game. At the end of the first weekend of games, they will return home not knowing until they get a phone call next Monday night or Tuesday whether they'll be among the 36 officials invited back for the Sweet 16 the following weekend.
The wait can be brutal. "A lot of guys don't leave the phone too far away," says Dave Libbey, a veteran of eight Final Fours. Mr. Libbey, a school teacher in San Diego who mostly officiates games in the Pacific-10 and West Coast conferences, says, "It's always a little nerve-racking, I don't care how many times you go."
Still, it's far better than the pre-1986 system, when at the end of each round all of the officials who worked at a particular site that day would huddle in a tiny room and wait for an NCAA representative to arrive and announce who was coming back for the next round and who was going home for good.
"That," says Mr. Hightower, "was no fun."