Luke DeCock

Often criticized, Clougherty’s real work at ACC has gone largely unseen

Then-Alabama coach Mark Gottfried gives official John Clougherty an earful during the second half of a game against Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002, in Lexington, Ky.
Then-Alabama coach Mark Gottfried gives official John Clougherty an earful during the second half of a game against Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002, in Lexington, Ky. AP

When John Clougherty took over as supervisor of ACC basketball officiating in 2005, Bryan Kersey had worked only one full schedule as an ACC referee and Mike Eades only a partial schedule. A decade later, they worked together on the Duke-Michigan State national semifinal in April, the first Final Four appearance for both.

“John put me in spots to help me succeed, positions to help me succeed,” Kersey said Thursday. “It was my first Final Four after 25 years in the league, the pinnacle of my career, and without him I never would have gotten there. I’m sure Mike would say the same thing.”

“I would not have been in that Final Four without all of his help these past 10 years,” said Eades, who served as the alternate for all three games in Atlanta in 2013.

Clougherty said watching those two work at the highest level, one he reached several times, was as satisfying as anything in his tenure, which the ACC announced Thursday will come to an end when the longtime Raleigh resident retires after next season.

“Those guys have earned that,” said Clougherty, 71. “I put them in games where they had to be tested, hard conference games. They were able to do those games. That has nothing to do with me. That’s a credit to them.”

Clougherty, like the officials who work for him, takes a tremendous amount of criticism – some of it deserved, most of it the vented anger of disgruntled fans and coaches – but what has gone largely unseen is the progress he has spearheaded in technology, evaluation and personnel to bring ACC officiating into the 21st century.

Modernized operation

When he was hired by the ACC after a long career as one of the top officials in college basketball, essentially coming home after working many years primarily in the SEC, he took over from Fred Barakat, who oversaw officiating as one of many duties at the conference office.

Clougherty quickly set out to modernize the entire operation, providing officials with copies of game DVDs for self-assessment (the video is now sent immediately to iPads), hiring retired college and NBA officials as evaluators and installing a comprehensive grading system, a level of oversight that was unprecedented for the ACC but is now commonplace across college basketball.

He also culled the ACC ranks of some longtime veteran referees and gave chances to several younger officials. That includes Eades and Roger Ayers, likely the next ACC official to make the Final Four cut, and later Brian Dorsey and Tim Nestor.

“Myself and Ayers, he kind of put us out there the same year,” Eades said. “It was the same thing with him. We survived and got better, and John continued to have faith in us. He guided us through some tough times and made us better officials.”

After longtime alpha dog Karl Hess was fired in the middle of this season, those officials Clougherty groomed, along with veterans Kersey, Les Jones and Jamie Luckie, are Clougherty’s “hitters,” his term for who he can count on to work big games. Almost all of them will be in Raleigh next week for Clougherty’s induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, as will dozens of other current and former referees.

“He’s been instrumental in helping young referees, people you don’t know, people you’ve never heard of,” Kersey said. “He’s helped a lot of people. He’s trusted a lot of people.”

Still work to do

As Clougherty heads into his final season, and J.D. Collins takes over for John Adams as the NCAA national supervisor, the technical quality of college basketball officiating both in the ACC and across the game may never have been better. And yet the level of dissatisfaction is as high as it’s ever been, with officials closely scrutinized not only by official evaluators but millions of amateur evaluators on couches with high-definition DVRs and Vine and Twitter.

Meanwhile, officials continue to be independent contractors only loosely affiliated with conferences, giving them financial incentive to work as many games as possible, sometimes to their detriment, often against the conference’s wishes. Questions linger over physical play and block/charge interpretations. Clougherty’s successor will have to address those issues directly.

“There will be conversations nationally and conversations regionally,” said ACC senior associate commissioner Paul Brazeau, who oversees basketball. “I would expect, and commissioner (John) Swofford would expect, whoever steps into that role, however it’s structured, to be at the forefront and take an active role.”

Whoever it is will benefit from the groundwork Clougherty laid and the officials he helped develop, some of whom already have advanced all the way to the Final Four and others who still may. No one will be more excited than Clougherty, in retirement, if they do.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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