There is nothing new about a basketball official becoming a fan-base flashpoint. The ACC practically pioneered the concept with controversial figures like Lenny Wirtz and Dick Paparo. Not much has changed.
Saturday night was yet another chapter in that particular novel, Tony Greene provoking Jim Boeheim’s center-court tantrum by calling Syracuse’s C.J. Fair for a charge instead of Duke’s Rodney Hood for a block with 10.3 seconds to go, all but securing victory for Duke even before Boeheim was ejected. Boeheim insisted it was a block under the current rules and he appears to have a legitimate gripe.
It was a tough week for Greene, an experienced official with impeccable credentials – Final Fours, the Carrier Classic, an Air Force veteran. On Monday at Florida State, he called North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo for his fourth foul for no apparent reason. Fortunately for Greene and the Tar Heels, it proved immaterial to the result.
Add it to the list. There was the no-call on Rakeem Christmas as Hood attempted a go-ahead dunk late in overtime in Duke’s first meeting with Syracuse. There was the T.J. Warren paradox at Syracuse, where a foul on the N.C. State forward during a breakaway was ruled to be neither intentional nor in the act of shooting. The chart-topper remains Karl Hess ejecting Wolfpack legends Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta in 2012. (The ACC certainly hasn’t. Hess has yet to work another N.C. State game.)
The overall quality of officiating in college basketball and the ACC has never been better, fan complaints to the contrary. You’d be hard-pressed to put together a better crew of young officials than the ACC’s Roger Ayers, Mike Eades and Ray Natili, and the dozen or so officials who work the majority of ACC games annually work deep into the NCAA tournament, the ultimate badge of honor.
And yet the job has never been more difficult. Officials are graded and scrutinized like never before, both internally and by fans and broadcasters. With every game on TV, there’s nowhere to hide. In the message-board and Twitter era, fans have taken more of an interest. They pay attention. They know the names.
Through it all, top officials continue to assume extremely heavy workloads. Jamie Luckie, another of Saturday’s officials, was working his eighth game in eight days. Friday night, he was in Chicago. Ayers, the third member of Saturday’s crew, was working his seventh game in eight days.
You wouldn’t expect any college or professional team in any sport to endure that kind of travel and perform at its best. And yet college basketball officials, who face a difficult task that requires extreme physical and mental fitness, routinely work six or seven days in a row, traveling extensively. Even the best referees can have a bad night under those circumstances.
It’s the unavoidable result of a system that incentivizes officials to work as often as possible. They’re independent contractors, paid by the game. The better the referee, the heavier the workload, some exceeding 90 games over the four-month regular season.
Perhaps it’s time for the ACC to lead the way forward. The conference’s supervisor of officials, John Clougherty, is a respected and influential figure in the officiating world. It would be innovative to create a core group of 10-12 staff officials who work exclusively ACC games – although not cheap. Smaller conferences occasionally would be deprived of those officials working their games on off nights.
It would be worth the expense to give the ACC the power to create better conditions for its most important games and officials, who in turn would be duly compensated for their reduced workload. It’s not the only solution, but it’s one that makes sense.
The ACC’s officials too often have been the center of attention lately. They certainly don’t want it that way, and just because it always has been that way doesn’t mean it should stay that way.