This is the first of two parts on the pressures on officials in college and high school sports. Read the second part here: Abusive fans make it tougher to recruit high school sports refs.
When the game is over, when Roger Ayers has taken off the compression tights and mock turtleneck he wears under his standard-issue striped referee’s shirt and black slacks, when he has showered off the sweat that comes from running 5 or 6 miles and trying to keep up with players 30 years his junior, only then does the ACC basketball official check his cell phone.
“If there are 40 text messages from other referees saying, ‘You guys are on ‘SportsCenter,’ ’ you screwed up,” Ayers said. “If I get to my phone and there’s just a couple, we did a good job.”
Ayers, 50, has been an ACC basketball official since 1998, easily recognizable for the pomade in his slicked-back hair. His official evaluation will come later – first when he reviews the game on his iPad the next morning and later when his grades arrive from the ACC – but his phone is a pretty good barometer.
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On the vast majority of nights for the vast majority of ACC officials in football and basketball, the phone stays quiet. It’s the nights that it doesn’t that get all the attention.
At no time of year are they under more of a spotlight than the NCAA tournament, not only from fans but NCAA officials. Referees, like teams, advance through the tournament on merit. Two ACC officials were among the 10 selected to work the Final Four last season after the conference was shut out in 2014. This tournament, six officials advanced to the second round, and most, if not all, of them figure to be among the 36 selected to work this weekend.
It has been a difficult few years for the conference’s football and basketball officials, from the mix-up at the end of the Duke-Miami football game in October to the dismissal of veteran basketball official Karl Hess last season to, most recently, the freeze-frame from the end of the Duke-Virginia basketball game that showed Grayson Allen’s foot landing on the floor while the ball still was in his hand; a winning shot that was, technically speaking, a travel.
That single play also highlights how difficult the job has become. The fraction of a second where Allen’s foot hit the floor was almost imperceptible to the naked eye at game speed, but clearly captured on video. Football officials face the same issues, with more eyes on the field but more players to watch.
“We’re never going to be perfect,” said Gary Patterson, an ACC football referee since 2002. “We understand fans and coaches expect us to be perfect and we want to be perfect. It’s become more difficult with all the accountability and scrutiny and cameras that we have. But we can use that to our benefit, too.”
With the widespread television coverage of games, consumer access to DVRs, Twitter, Vine and other methods of quickly capturing and disseminating a controversial play or an incriminating screen-grab, the perception of officiating has perhaps never been more negative – and fans have never been more hostile.
Yet officials in both college football and college basketball receive more training now than they ever have, and technically speaking they are as accurate as they have ever been. Independent contractors on one-year contracts, their thankless job has become ever more thankless.
“It’s unbelievably hard and it gets harder every year,” North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams said. “The players are bigger, stronger, quicker, there’s more collisions, there’s more activity, more action.”
From the bottom to the top
There’s no express lane to the ACC in either sport. Before an official gets the call to work his first ACC game, he’s almost certain to have a decade or more of experience at lower levels. He’ll have to shine when given a chance at a summer camp in basketball or spring scrimmage in football. And he’ll have to be a little bit lucky, because jobs in the ACC are among the most coveted in college sports. They don’t often come open.
With all the technology, we have to be really good.
ACC basketball official Mike Eades
Patterson, a State Farm agent in Columbia, S.C., played quarterback at Wofford. His opinion of officials, as a player, was not particularly high. Nor were his expectations when his wife’s boss talked him into becoming a high school official.
“I just thought they showed up on Friday nights or Saturday mornings and went out there and did it,” Patterson said.
He quickly discovered all the Xs and Os he knew so well as a player were completely meaningless. Football officials speak a completely different language on the field and when discussing plays – “Team A” and “Team B” and “catch/no catch.” He spent six years officiating high school games, three in the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Conference and three in the Southern Conference before he worked his first game in the ACC in 2002.
Basketball officials follow a similar career progression. Of the two ACC officials who worked the Final Four last season, one never imagined getting to that level. The other was born to it.
Mike Eades started out working grade school games in West Virginia in 1988 to make an extra $7.50 a game. His career goal as an official was to work in the old West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the local Division II league. Working in the ACC never crossed his mind, but he moved steadily up the ranks, to the Big South and the Colonial, until he was hired into the ACC in 1999.
Now, Eades is one of the top officials in the ACC and the country, working more than 80 Division I games a season, taking a three-month leave of absence from his job as a counselor for at-risk teens in Princeton, W.Va., during the season. He once went to summer officiating camps hoping to impress; now, he helps outgoing ACC coordinator John Clougherty evaluate other prospective officials while also, with Ayers, running an educational camp of his own.
“With all the technology, we have to be really good,” Eades said. “We still miss plays. I miss plays every night. I just try to keep them to a minimum and hope we get a game-ending play right.”
If Eades never expected to make it this far, Bryan Kersey grew up in stripes. While his father Jess made his name as an NBA and American Basketball Association official, the son preferred the college game. He started working youth games while in high school and pursued an insurance career that would allow him to be an absentee boss during basketball season.
Kersey was only 26 when he made it to the ACC in 1989, a very different time and era for officials of all sports, when few games were televised and many officiating errors went unnoticed even by those in charge.
“You wouldn’t have any clue,” Kersey said. “You wouldn’t get anything from a game except a call the next morning from (former ACC supervisor) Fred Barakat. That would let us know we missed something.”
It’s a different era now. Feedback is instantaneous. Scrutiny is intense. So is the training and evaluation officials receive.
Instant and unerring feedback
For basketball officials, it starts before even leaving the arena. Immediately after a game, a three-man crew can call up any questionable plays on their iPads for quick review. Informal discussions will continue back at the hotel, although the first flight out the next morning always looms. Most officials will watch the previous night’s entire game on the plane, a self-assessment followed by official grades from the ACC’s team of evaluators, retired officials who pass judgment on every single call or non-call in a game.
“It’s a process,” said Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s associate commissioner for basketball. “Summer training. Continuous training. Continual feedback and development. That’s what we all have to do. And it’s ongoing.”
Typically, an ACC-level referee will grade out as correct on about 95 percent of judgment calls. A referee who falls below that standard will find his opportunities to work decrease; more serious are misapplications of the rules or procedures, which are rarer but often result in internal ACC discipline.
The NCAA’s national coordinator, J.D. Collins, issues training videos every few weeks during the season to enforce national standards while the offseason is filled with summer camps, rules seminars and intense physical conditioning to recover from the previous season and prepare for the next. In the fall, just before teams open practice, ACC officials get together for a one-day training camp, while the conference’s top dozen or so officials will have an extra session together in Greensboro.
A group of 16 primary officials was selected to work the ACC tournament. NCAA tournament selection is entirely performance-based. This week, 36 total officials will work the second weekend, either a regional semifinal or final, with nine and one alternate advancing to the Final Four. From the ACC, Ayers, Eades, Hess, Kersey and Les Jones have all gotten the call in recent years.
Football officials work in set groups on a more predictable schedule, which makes their in-season training more routine. Dennis Hennigan, the ACC’s supervisor of football officiating, sends out 45 minutes of narrated video clips each Monday to assess the previous weekend’s games. Within a crew, email and text discussions begin the moment a crew disperses at the airport early Sunday and continue until the crew gathers again on Friday, with a conference call or two along the way.
We officiate at full speed, in a split-second. Are we going to miss plays? Absolutely. For us to be 88 to 92 percent accurate every night, I think there’s a lot of businesses that would appreciate that kind of decision-making.
J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national supervisor for basketball officials
Once gathered on site, a crew typically will review clips from last week’s game and from both teams playing the next day. In the old days, there would be a FedEx envelope waiting at the hotel with a VHS tape and three or four sheets of hand-written notes. Now, referee Duane Heydt usually puts together 90 minutes of video to watch before dinner, and he asks each member of his crew to prepare a play for discussion as well.
After a game, the ACC’s evaluator will come down from the press box to meet with the crew and discuss any issues or controversial plays, the beginning of another week of frank discussion within the crew. Every season, two or three officials are released from the ACC’s roster if their performance falls below standards.
“We are more critical of ourselves than most people realize, and probably more critical than most people are of us,” Heydt said. “We will notice flaws that we wish we could have gone back and fixed. When we mess up, we own it. We beat ourselves up.”
Only a small fraction of plays in both sports is subject to instant-replay review, and even that does not work perfectly. The vast majority of plays are called in real time, with no safety net. In the end, the goal is inexorably unattainable: digital perfection. There’s no way fallible humans can compete with freeze-frame television replay. And yet that’s the standard to which officials are held.
“We officiate at full speed, in a split-second,” said Collins, the NCAA’s basketball national supervisor. “Are we going to miss plays? Absolutely. For us to be 88 to 92 percent accurate every night, I think there’s a lot of businesses that would appreciate that kind of decision-making.”
‘I’ve never worked a perfect game and I never will’
The ending of the Duke-Miami football game, in which the Hurricanes lateraled eight times on a kickoff return for a winning touchdown with no time on the clock, was a disaster for the ACC. Both the on-field officials and the replay official missed a Miami player’s knee clearly touching the ground while in possession of the ball among what the ACC later identified as four separate errors on the final play.
Afterward, the ACC not only acknowledged the touchdown should not have counted but issued a rare public reprimand of the officials and suspended them for two conference games. During the offseason, the ACC created a position to train and supervise replay officials, but the damage to the ACC’s reputation was done.
The thousands of difficult plays officiated correctly game after game make no headlines. The one, officiated incorrectly, that changes the standings is replayed over and over again on ESPN. Discipline is handed down from the conference office. Eyes are blackened.
“When you sit back and play it over about 15-20 times, it’s easy to get right,” Patterson said. “I haven’t missed one of those calls yet. When you get one shot at it, it makes it a lot more difficult.”
The pool of talented young officials is neither huge nor inexhaustable. By the time a basketball official makes it to the ACC level, he can make as much as $3,500 per game – although that has to cover travel, expenses and, for self-employed officials, insurance and retirement.
The diligence and flexible employment required to get that far up the ladder tends to weed out many talented officials before they get that far.
“If a LeBron James of officiating came along, a 20-year-old, can’t-miss superstar, it’d be tough to find him,” the ACC’s Brazeau acknowledged.
It’s not impossible, though. Ayers didn’t start officiating youth games until he was 28. When he went to his first summer camp, he was told to lose 50 pounds and shave his mustache. In 1995, he went to the ACC tournament in Greensboro and sat in the upper deck, watching the officials instead of the players, taking notes. Three years later, he worked his first ACC game. In 2012, he was the alternate official at the Final Four.
“Now when the game’s over, I take a deep breath,” Ayers said. “My motto is, we survived. These games are so intense and for 40 minutes you’re so focused on not making any mistakes. Players are going to miss layups. Players are certainly going to miss free throws. Coaches are going to make mistakes. At the end of the day, people forget we’re going to make mistakes. That’s the human side of officiating.
“I don’t think the fans and the public see that when the game’s over, we know when we screwed up. Refs know when we make mistakes. We want every game to be perfect. I’ve been in since 1998 and I’ve never worked a perfect game and I never will. There’s no such thing as a perfect game. But I’m going to keep trying.”
Ayers worked the second Duke-North Carolina men’s basketball game this season. Afterward, he had only two text messages on his phone: all quiet, confirmation of a job done anonymously and well.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock
Next: High school refs under fire.
Who blows the whistle?
At The News & Observer’s request, the ACC provided demographic information on its football and men’s basketball officials, all of whom are independent contractors and not conference employees.
▪ The ACC has 27 primary and 28 secondary officials who reside in 19 states. Primary officials commit to working ACC games first, then add games from other conferences to their schedules. The ACC also assigns officials for the Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association.
▪ A few are full-time officials (or take a leave of absence during basketball season), but most have jobs in other industries, including property management, computer consulting, firefighting, sales, teaching, financial advising, insurance and employee benefits.
▪ Of the 16 officials selected to work the ACC tournament, six advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament: Roger Ayers, Bill Covington Jr., Brian Dorsey, Mike Eades, Bryan Kersey and Jamie Luckie.
▪ The ACC has 12 officiating crews comprised of eight officials each that it assigns for ACC, Notre Dame and Army games as well as the Football Championship Subdivision-level Big South. The 96 officials reside in 16 states, from Florida to Indiana to Massachusetts.
▪ All football officials hold full-time jobs. Their professions include: insurance, medical sales, lawyer, real estate, veterinarian, dentist, engineer, law enforcement, pharmacist, accountant, teacher.