Despite what many college-basketball fans seem to think, Karl Hess is one of the best referees in the game, with a resume that speaks for itself: nine ACC championship games, five Final Fours, and more than 40 NCAA tournament games.
His authoritative style sometimes grates on fans, earning him the nickname "King Karl," but with Hess, you almost always know what you're going to get. There's a lot to be said for that.
The ACC has some of the best referees in the country - according to statsheet.com, six of the 10 officials who have worked the most games this season are ACC refs, a reflection of the demand for their services - and Hess is the ACC's alpha dog.
"If Karl Hess sees it and he thinks that it's a foul, you know what, it's probably a foul," John Clougherty, the ACC's coordinator of officials, said before last season. All of which only makes what happened Saturday at the RBC Center all the more inexplicable.
Hess' decision to stop the game and eject former N.C. State stars and Officially Sanctioned ACC Legends Tom Gugliotta (2007) and Chris Corchiani (2004) from their seats behind the scorer's table was within his rights as a referee but not without some kind of explanation.
Corchiani maintains he and Gugliotta said nothing inflammatory and the ACC's statement late Saturday night was a masterpiece in willful misdirection, offering no clarification whatsoever.
The ACC statement, which said that Hess should have worked with N.C. State's game-management staff to remove unruly fans instead of police, was like saying, "When we hit your parked car and didn't leave a note, we should have driven away more slowly."
In response, N.C. State has suddenly decided to honor the 1989 team that included Corchiani and Gugliotta before Tuesday's North Carolina game - a deliberate and pointed thumbing-of-the-nose at the ACC. N.C. State fans are unusually sensitive to the capriciousness of officials, with a long memory for alleged misdeeds perpetrated by the charismatic referees from the ACC's glory days like Charley Eckman and Lou Bello as well as their present-day counterparts.
There was Larry Rose's technical foul on a manager wiping the floor after a timeout during the 2004 ACC tournament. There was Rick Hartzell's traveling call on Corchiani against Georgetown during the 1989 NCAA tournament. There was Tracy Smith's one-game suspension two years ago for publicly criticizing an officiating crew that included Hess.
Throw in the simmering discontent over the decision to de-emphasize N.C. State's rivalry with North Carolina in the ACC's new 18-game, 14-team schedule, and Wolfpack fans are at this moment unusually sensitive to conference slights both real and perceived.
Hess was part of a Big East crew that missed what appeared to be an obvious goaltending call on what would have been a game-tying basket for West Virginia in a game last month against Syracuse. It's easy to write that one off as an honest mistake, a bang-bang play at the end of a game. When refs blow their whistles, they're almost always right, and it's the non-calls like that one they more often miss.
It's harder to explain what happened Saturday.
If ACC referees are going to start insisting upon the removal of every heckling fan, there are going to be some empty buildings around the league - and more than a few coach's wives watching the second half from the family lounge.
If Corchiani or Gugliotta threatened Hess, used profanity or were otherwise offensive, Hess and the ACC should acknowledge those grounds for their ejection. If they were no different from any other fan in the building, Hess and the ACC owe them an apology.
The power to eject unruly fans is not one to be used lightly, especially against two of the ACC's greatest players. Hess has that right, but not without the responsibility to explain himself.