Bill Hass on the ACC: Behind the Striped Shirts and Whistles, Officials are Humans, Too
March 14, 2008
By Bill Hass
CHARLOTTE - A whistle blows and play stops during any game of the ACC men's basketball tournament.
Eyes turn to a man in a black-and-white striped shirt. He makes the call - a foul or a violation - and it's not uncommon for Bobcats Arena to be filled with boos from fans, protests from coaches and stares of disbelief from players.
Officials do a job in which they are often berated, sometimes reviled and, unrealized by many people, constantly scrutinized and evaluated. Yet without them bringing order to potential chaos, basketball games might as well be settled on the asphalt of a neighborhood playground.
Friday morning, before the first game of the tournament's second day, ACC coordinator of officials John Clougherty said he was pleased with the way things went Thursday.
"We saw some excellent officiating because they were on top of their game, they were focused and they took care of small things," he explained.
He expects it to continue because the 13 officials who worked the eight games of the Thursday and Friday sessions were selected by Clougherty on the basis of their performance during the season. After today he will pare the list to six, plus one standby, to call Saturday's semifinals and then three, plus a standby, for Sunday's championship.
"People have a hard time believing this, but none of them have an agenda," Clougherty said. "They don't care who wins a game. They know they're being evaluated and they want to get as many calls right as possible and do the best job they can."
This is the best time of the year for officials. At stake are spots in the NCAA tournament, where referees will advance round by round. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be chosen to work the Final Four.
"It's a feather in your cap, like any profession," said veteran ref Karl Hess, who called last year's Florida-Ohio State national championship game.
Clougherty has a sharp eye for evaluation. He called games for 30 years, including 12 Final Fours and four championship games. He watched some 50 games in person this year and he has reports from evaluators at every other game.
There's no such thing as an "ACC official" per se. Instead, all the officials who work in the league are NCAA officials. The ACC carries 64 referees its roster, and about 40 of those are primary for the league. That means they can work games in other leagues, and they do, but their first priority is to fill the 30 or so ACC dates they're offered.
It's no surprise that Clougherty believes the officials who work in the ACC are the best in the country, but he backs it up.
"I offer 30 games to some guys and other leagues offer them 50 more games," he said. "So somebody else thinks they're pretty good. They're all in demand."
Hess said that he was told early in his career that "the ACC will expose you as a player, coach or referee. If you don't know what you're doing, you won't last."
Clougherty likes "his guys," as he sometimes calls them, to keep the lines of communication open. Players are the least of the problem, he said, because they get over missed calls and go back to playing. Coaches aren't as eager to let something go.
"I don't believe in being adversarial," Clougherty said. "It's better to defuse a situation and make it better by explaining a call. Once it gets confrontational, it's going nowhere. You have to tell a coach, `I've got to get back to business.' I want our officials to be approachable and civil, but you can't explain every whistle."
Another point of emphasis for him is taking care of the small things. That includes such seemingly trivial matters as making sure there are 10 players on the court after a time out.
"You always count players to make sure you have 5-on-5," he said. "Sometimes a player doesn't realize he's being subbed for and when you come out of a time out you might have a 6-on-5 or 5-on-4 situation.
"Also, you want to make sure where the ball is being put in play, on the sideline or baseline. Coaches draw plays up depending on where the ball is. You also make sure who the free throw shooter is and how many free throws he's shooting. Time outs are not a rest period; they're a time to think of the next thing you have to do."
Clougherty, who worked in the bond and investment department at Wachovia before taking his position with the ACC three years ago, has a better perspective than most on a revelation that can be downright shocking to fans - officials are human beings. They have wives and children and, usually, other jobs.
Gary Maxwell and Bryan Kersey work in insurance. Les Jones works for the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Brian Dorsey is an elementary school physical education teacher. Mike Eades works for the Department of Education in West Virginia.
Then there's Hess, who has a PhD in marriage and family therapy and makes his living with a private psychology practice in Virginia. A four-year hoops player at Liberty University, he's married and has two children and coaches a 13-under baseball team that won a national championship two years ago.
"I never thought about being an official," Hess said. "When I played I thought all officials were nuts and a pain in the neck."
He was going to play professional basketball overseas, but a knee injury in the days before arthroscopic surgery ended his career. He thought about coaching and rejected that notion. While attending graduate school a friend suggested calling games as a way to earn extra money.
After trying it, and gaining a decidedly different perspective, Hess began calling high school games and quickly moved on to college. He has been at it some 25 years, the last 20 in the ACC. He also works in the Big East, Southeastern, Big 10, Atlantic 10, Colonial and Southern conferences for a total of about 80 games a year.
Hess said he has a naturally thick skin, so he isn't bothered by verbal insults from the stands. He believes fans paid to see a game and can yell what they want, as long as they stay in their seats.
"You're a fan and you're entitled to your opinion," he said. "You have to be able to deal with that when you put that black and white shirt on and become an official. If not, you need to go home."
Every game, in Hess' view, is a new day.
"I've been to two Final Fours and called the championship game last year," he said. "And today, nobody cares. It's only what you do now that counts."
Although he has been at it long enough not to worry about the evaluation process, Hess is his own worst critic of how he calls a game. There's no such thing as a perfect game, but he wants to be close.
"I want to grade out at 95 percent or higher," he said. "My idea is somewhere around three misses - a foul call, a violation, being out of position. That's a pretty good game. Coaches don't make three mistakes or less and neither do players."
Clougherty put it another way.
"In 40 minutes, are we going to get every foul or every travel? Absolutely not," he said. "We want to get a high percentage, in the high 80s or low 90s. All games are graded and every whistle is broken down on DVDs. We're getting about nine out of every 10 calls right. Of course, what we hear about are the 10 percent we miss."
If you think about it, what basketball fan would want perfection? Calling games with 100 percent accuracy would reduce officials to being robots, not human beings. And surely it would be no fun yelling at robots.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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