Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Refs: Can't Live with 'Em, Can't Kill 'Em

Like most lifelong basketball fans, I grew up being a ref baiter. I gathered with my friends in junior high school, screamed childish taunts and embarrassed the heck out of my parents. I came from a high school where basketball was a town-wide ritual on winter weekends, and we developed a very creative student section. If we weren't picking on specific players from the opposing teams, we were working over the officals -- all of whom we knew by name, of course.

Then it was off to Northwestern where the athletics were terrible, so making fun of other teams' athletes -- and the officials -- was really the only relief. The older we got, the more clever the taunts became, of course. At least, that's what we thought.

When I became a sportswriter, all "taunting" was over, but when I switched to news reporting, I was back in my seat at Holt Arena, giving the stripes what-for. I've managed to embarrass two wives during that time, and I dare say, I'm not alone. Next time you're in Holt or Reed for a men's basketball game, watch how many men are red in the face from screaming at an official -- and how many of their wives are red in the face from embarrassment.

I've observed a number of different coaches work the officials over the years, too, and they all have their different approaches. I'm told that Vergil Fletcher, who won two Illinois state championships and over 700 games at my high school, was a real ref baiter in his younger days. By the time I saw him, in his 50s and 60s, he never said anything to the officials. He did his best John Wooden imitation -- sitting quietly on the bench with a rolled-up program in his hand, occasionally pointing out an instruction or two during play, but essentially leaving the players -- and the officials -- alone, at least until there was a time-out.

I also sat behind the Indiana bench when the soon-to-be undefeated national champions beat Northwestern in 1976 and listened while Bob Knight turned the air blue with epithets -- some at his own players, many at the men in stripes.

As an announcer, I've had to battle my demons. The Big Sky usually issues friendly notices once or twice a year to the league announcers, reminding us that we're not supposed to criticize officials. When I first started working Idaho State games in 1994, I still spent a lot of time squeeling about officials' calls and, every once in a while, my broadcast partner Jim Fox would have to remind me to shut up. Of course, Jim was a big homer, too, and he got his hand slapped more than once by the league. I got more than a few comments during those days from former Bengal offensive lineman Kent Marboe, who went on to be a prominent high school official in Idaho Falls, imploring me to "lay off the officials."

Russ Eisenstein, my play-by-play partner a couple of seasons ago, was adamant about not ref-baiting. He felt it was unprofessional and detracted from the broadcast. I have to admit he's probably right, especially judging from the amount of criticism I read on other team's message boards about the "home announcers" whose feeds are used for Big Sky TV. But at times I can't help being swept away in the emotion of a hard-fought game, and I will always be a homer at heart.

I guess I can't say much has changed in basketball in my four-plus decades of watching it as a fan, sportswriter and sportscaster. Men and boys still scream, women still cringe, and the officials still get an occasional call or two wrong. In the Big Sky Conference, you might be led to believe they get a lot of calls wrong. You can go on most any fan web site in the Big Sky and see threads like this one on the Weber State board, authored by a Northern Colorado fan: "Big Sky Refs...Are They the Worst?"

Frankly, I doubt it, but then how do you measure such things? One thing I do know is that many "Big Sky officials" aren't just Big Sky officials. In fact, if you go to a cool little web site entitled Stat Sheet.com, select Big Sky Conference and click on the refs tab, you'll get a listing of the most active officials employed by the league. If you click on the names of those officials, you'll see the other conferences that also employ them: principally, the PAC 10, West Coast, Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences. You'll see, for example, that ten of the 14 most active Big Sky officials work in other leagues. Probably the two busiest are Chris Rastatter, who also works PAC 10 and Mountain West games, and Michael Greenstein, who refs in the West Coast and PAC 10.

Why is this important? Well, for one it illustrates that no league "owns" its officials. They are independent contractors who cut their own officiating deals on a game-by-game basis. I don't know this for a fact, but I wouldn't be surprised if some entry-level Big Sky officials are also working community college or lower division games while they try to earn their "stripes" (pardon the pun) in the big leagues. I do know that three Big Sky men's officials also work women's games for the league: Bob Scofield, Ty Elkin and John Weeks.

Yes, the Big Sky Conference does have a coordinator of basketball officials, Marla Denham, who is based in the Phoenix area, and she is charged with overseeing the assignments, training and assessment of officials who work Big Sky games. She got to recommend to Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton, for example, that he suspend former Big Sky official Eric Curry a couple of seasons ago, when Curry made his famous "non-call" on what should have been a technical foul against a Montana player for signalling a time-out the team did not have.

Of course, Curry's "suspension" from Big Sky games meant little to him in the grand scheme of things. He continued to work for other conferences, got an NCAA tournament assignment that year, and has now moved on to "bigger and better things," working for the Mountain West and Big Ten conferences. And Curry's particular situation points out how difficult it is for a league like the Big Sky Conference to manage its officiating crews.

The best officials, and despite his gaffe, I did consider Curry to be one of the best in the Big Sky, move on to more lucrative assignments in more prestigious conferences. For example, Pocatello's Scott Thornley, who has worked several Final Fours, used to work in the Big Sky Conference in his younger days, but he's doing only Big 12, WAC and Mountain West games now. When I checked the Stats Inc. PAC 10 officials listing, I found a total of a dozen refs there who at one time worked in the Big Sky. Of that 12, only Ratstatter and Greenstein still take Big Sky assignments. If they continue to improve and move up the seniority ladder, there may well come a time when they will stop taking Denham's phone calls, as well.

Bottom line is that when it comes to officiating (much like it is with coaching), the Big Sky is a developmental conference. It is taking young officials on the way up, mid-career officials on the way out, and older officials on the way down, and trying to meld them all into cohesive crews that work together and enforce a relatively similar style of play. Good luck with that.

As hard as it may be to make that work, nobody is offering Denham or her officials any sympathy. That would be un-American, kinda like thanking a homeplate umpire for working hard after he called you out on a borderline pitch with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning. It just ain't happenin'. But I will admit that after reading this ESPN story that followed well-known referee Tim Higgins around the East Coast for a few days, I was almost willing to acknowledge that officials are people too. Almost...

Warning: Old Guy Reminiscence

Mark Liptak, my broadcast partner on ISU women's games, sent me a remarkable link the other day, to a college basketball game played a generation (mine) ago. It marked the 40th anniversary of the LSU-Kentucky game in which Dan Issel (55) and "Pistol Pete" Maravich (64) combined for 119 points in one game. Kentucky won the game, 121-105, but that was secondary to the show Maravich and Issel put on for the fans.

Tom Parker, who was from my high school, played for Kentucky in that game (pauper: he had a mere 18 points and 11 rebounds), and I remember watching it in my living room at home with my brother. The early 1970s were great days for young college basketball fans. The UCLA dynasty was at its height, scoring was at a premium and defense, well defense could be a rare commodity in those days. It was a time of great individual scorers like Maravich (who averaged over 40 points a game during his three-year career), Austin Carr, Travis "Machine Gun" Grant, Freeman Williams, Dwight "Bo" Lamar, and William "Bird" Averitt.

Keep all of that in mind as you watch this ten minutes of soundless video. It was a different game in those days. One thing you'll notice right away is that neither LSU nor Kentucky had any players of color -- nothing but white guys, even in 1970. It wouldn't be until an African-American 7-footer named Tom Payne joined the Wildcats a season later that Kentucky's team would be integrated. Collis Temple was LSU's first African-American basketball player, joining the Tigers the same season as Payne debuted. The Southeastern Conference didn't really begin to fully embrace African-American athletes until the late 1970s.

The other thing you will notice from the video is the emphasis on one-on-one offensive play and the lack of double-teaming and help-side defense. Even though I think of this game as having been played in my modern era of basketball, it really was the dark ages for defense.

Finally, I'll use this as one more platform for pushing for Idaho State's Hall of Fame board to do the right thing and welcome former Bengal great Willie Humes into the hall at its induction ceremonies next fall. Many of you remember my shock when I discovered around this time last year that Humes, who is ISU's all-time career scoring average leader (31.5 points a game) and still ranked No. 10 on NCAA career scoring charts, is not in the ISU Athletic Hall of Fame. I asked if anybody knew where Willie is these days, and some fans e-mailed me links suggesting he is still coaching girls basketball in Columbus, Ind.

When I asked former long-time ISU Sports Information Director Glenn Alford why Humes was not in the Hall of Fame, he said "no one has nominated him." He also noted cryptically that Willie's shot attempts were rather high, and his shooting percentage comparatively low. I get all that, but as you can see from the Issel-Maravich video, that's how college basketball was played in most places east of Westwood in those days. Even if Humes was an unrepentant gunner, I think he's paid for his sins and its time for him to be duly recognized as one of the greatest offensive players in Idaho State history.

By the way, after being told that "no one nominated" Willie last year, I sent a letter to the Hall of Fame committee so nominating him. A couple of months later, I get a letter back saying my nomination was "too late" for that year's class, but they would reconsider him next year. Well, next year is here, folks, and Willie ain't gettin' any younger. Let's do the right thing and bring him back to Pocatello nearly 40 years after he put up over 50 points in a single game on both Montana State and Northern Arizona. I don't care how many shots he put up -- nobody's done it since.


College basketball attendance is suffering around the Big Sky Conference, and the University of Montana is no exception. The Griz, who derive a significant amount of revenue from their women's program, are going through an uncharacteristically mediocre year this season and that, plus the flagging economy, is hitting Montana right in the wallet. UM Athletic Director Jim O'Day cites tough times and what I think is really the root of attendance decline, simply too much basketball on television. When a storied program like Iowa's is drawing fewer than 5,000 fans a game to watch Big Ten basketball, folks have to start asking some questions about how advisable it is to continue to develop new networks and outlets for watching basketball on television....It appears the Big Sky connection to Washington State's athletic program may continue, with the announcement last week that Wazzu has offered its open athletic director's job to former Montana AD Bill Moos. A highly successful AD at Oregon for many years before running afoul of Nike Chairman Phil Knight, Moos has been farming and ranching near Pullman while living off a fat contract settlement from the University of Swoosh. Moos hasn't announced if he'll accept the job yet, but was interested enough to visit campus last week. He would replace another Big Sky expatriat, former Portland State AD Jim Sterk, who is leaving for San Diego State....Sterk, by the way, gets the quote of the day honor with this discussion of how nearly all athletic directors live out their usefulness in time: "I said in an interview in San Diego that AD years are like dog years," Sterk said. "You have to make decisions based on what you think is right for the program and some people may, or may not, disagree. Over time, that may build up with some folks." PS: AD years are strikingly similar to politician, university president or head coaching years.

--Brad B.


Jerry said...

Brad...what a fabulous column. Your comments about officials was attention-getting and relevant, and the rest of the column was fun to read. I agree with you about Willie, too. Our entire high school team drove from Pocatello one night to watch Willie and the Bengals play a game in Reed Gym, and he did not disappoint. He must've shot about 30 times. If there would've been a 3-point shot then, he'd probably be closer to the top five in NCAA scoring.

idaho said...

Thanks, partner, I'm glad somebody is reading this stuff... Oh, and Free Willie (Humes)!

--Brad B.

Anonymous said...

I miss Russ.

tuffgong said...

I LOVE Brad Bugger's weekly blogs.. They are excellent.. Keep them coming, PLEASE!