John Clougherty’s résumé says a lot about what kind of career he had as a college basketball referee, officiating more than 2,000 games over 30 years.
The respect P.J. Carlesimo has for Clougherty, who will be inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame on Friday night in downtown Raleigh, says even more.
“John’s one of the greatest officials ever,” said Carlesimo, the former Seton Hall and NBA coach. “And he’s a first-rate person. His spot in the hall of fame is well-deserved.”
Understand, if there’s one coach who could hold a grudge against Clougherty, who lives in Raleigh, it would be Carlesimo.
Clougherty worked some of the biggest games in college basketball history and officiated in the Final Four 12 times, but it was his call at the end of the 1989 national title game, between Michigan and Carlesimo’s Seton Hall team, that he is most famous for.
“Everybody remembers that call,” Clougherty said. “If your allegiances are with Seton Hall or the Big East, you think it’s a bad call. If you’re from the Big Ten or Michigan, you like it.”
Seton Hall led Michigan 79-78 in overtime when Wolverines guard Rumeal Robinson dribbled into the lane. Seton Hall defender Gerald Green put his right hand on Robinson’s hip, and Clougherty, who was in front of the play under the Michigan basket, quickly blew his whistle.
With 3 seconds left, Robinson went to the foul line. He made both shots, and the Wolverines won the title.
Any regrets? Maybe
Clougherty has been asked about and replayed the call in his mind countless times in the 26 years since. There was undoubtedly contact on the play, but Clougherty will admit, he should have been more patient.
“Given the timing of the situation and the magnitude of the game, would I have been better off to hold the whistle and see how the play finished?” Clougherty said. “Yeah. And I don’t run away from that.”
But, Clougherty said, there was no way to review the call nor was there room for hesitation.
“You do the best you can, and that's what I did,” Clougherty said.
Most Seton Hall fans were irate with Clougherty (and still are) but not Carlesimo.
“The call was made; there’s nothing you can do about it,” Carlesimo said. “You can cry about it, but that would detract from what Michigan did.”
Carlesimo’s calm and rational reaction, he said, was because “it was John who made the call.”
Clougherty, 71, is still thankful for how Carlesimo handled the potentially volatile situation.
“He always took the high road on that call,” Clougherty said. “He is absolutely a dear friend of mine.”
Earning respect, and keeping it, even after tough calls, was a gift Clougherty had, and it served him well, said his son Tim, who followed his old man into the business.
“I don’t know how many other referees would have been able survive a call like that,” said Tim Clougherty, who works Big East and Big Ten games. “But P.J. had such respect for him; they were able to handle it.”
Clougherty had built his credibility and reputation working in the ACC from 1975 until 1985 and then for another 20 years in the Big East and SEC before he retired in 2005.
His on-court career spanned three decades and he worked some of the biggest games, and was in the background for some of the biggest moments in college basketball history.
Clougherty’s longevity can be linked to his ability to remain calm and listen, veteran ACC official Mike Eades said.
“He knew how to communicate with the coaches and the players, especially during the tough times,” Eades said. “He knew when to say something and when to just give a coach an ear. That’s something that’s hard to have as an official.”
There’s another way, more bluntly, to explain his success, Tim Clougherty says.
“Dad wasn’t a jerk,” his son said. “He has always treated people the way he wants to be treated.”
Being a ref wasn’t early goal
John Clougherty loved sports, especially football and baseball, as a kid growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. A man who has spent his life being neutral, Clougherty freely admits his bias for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He played football and baseball but said at 5-foot-8, he was too short for basketball. He went to Youngstown State and studied to be a teacher.
“You don’t grow up and dream about being a referee,” Clougherty said.
But in college, Clougherty stumbled upon his future. He worked intramural basketball games “for $3 a game,” he remembers.
“I knew then I liked it,” Clougherty said. “I found out then I could tolerate the complaining that goes on.”
After Clougherty graduated, he did become a teacher. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Winston-Salem in 1969, and he taught physical education at Wake Forest University. He started refereeing some high school and junior college basketball games, too.
His first break with the ACC was working the freshmen games, when first-year players weren’t eligible under NCAA rules. By the 1974-75 season, he had worked his way onto the regular roster of ACC officials.
The 1984-85 season was his last in the ACC and first working the national title game. That would be the start of an amazing seven-year run.
A witness to history
Clougherty’s incredible career as one of the top officials was like a lost scene from the movie “Forrest Gump.” Like Tom Hanks’ character, Clougherty had a knack for witnessing history.
The beginning of David Thompson’s career at N.C. State? Clougherty was there. Michael Jordan’s launch to superstardom at North Carolina? Clougherty was there.
Villanova’s epic upset of Georgetown in 1985? Clougherty was there. Danny Manning’s miracle NCAA title in 1988? Michigan’s overtime classic with Seton Hall in ’89? Famously, yes, Clougherty was there.
UNLV’s trashing of Duke in 1990 and Duke’s revenge a year later? Yep, Clougherty was there both times.
“I got a little lucky,” Clougherty said of his penchant for being a part of so many historic games.
Clougherty is being modest. Just making it to the Division I level is difficult enough; only the best officials are picked to work the NCAA tournament, which Clougherty did 26 times.
Then the best of the best are selected for the Final Four and national championship. In all, Clougherty worked the Final Four 12 times and called four national title games.
“Twelve?” Eades said. “That’s a crazy number. That’s really hard to attain. I’m not sure you’ll see many more guys get there.”
In 2005, after Clougherty retired from working games, he became the ACC’s supervisor of officials. He will work one more season then retire for good, after 41 years in the business.
About two dozen officials will be in town for golf Friday and then attend the ceremony. Stories will be told, good times remembered. Clougherty’s still putting the finishing touches on his induction speech.
“How do you fit 30 years into 4 minutes?” Clougherty asked.
He can’t. Clougherty can only follow his own advice and do the best he can.
2015 Hall of Fame class
Joining John Clougherty in the 2015 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame class, to be inducted at the Raleigh Convention Center on Friday night:
Jeff Bostic (football)
Joe Bostic (football)
Freddie Combs (baseball)
Rick Hendrick (auto racing)
Gene Littles (basketball)
Jerry McGee (football)
Lenox Rawlings (journalist)
Charlotte Smith (basketball)
Andrea Stinson (basketball)