CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander and Reid Forgrave spent much of July on the road in cities across the country, covering the live recruiting periods. While there, and in the weeks since, they've surveyed coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest schools in Division I. In exchange for complete anonymity, coaches give unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. This is week No. 2 of our results to questions posed to more than 100 coaches.
One of the interesting dynamics in sports is how coaches deal with game officials. Styles vary, from the combative to the cynical, from butt-kissing to aggressive. Some coaches tick like a time bomb, using officials' behavior as means to motivate their players, while others treat officials with an entirely different demeanor from how they interact with their players.
College basketball coaches, on the whole, have an undeniably aggressive mindset toward officials. Watch an NBA game and the difference is glaring. How often do you see an NBA coach attempt to scold a referee or find himself ejected after getting T'd up? Rarely. But on any given college hoops weekend, you're likely to see a coach (or coaches) somewhere on the wrong end of a tech. College coaches, for whatever reason, have conditioned themselves to be more outspoken and pugnacious with referees than their NBA counterparts.
College coaches, by their admission, can become caricatures of themselves when game time arrives. Refs often are on the most exaggerated end of that behavior. And yet, in the heart of the offseason, the coaches we surveyed had plenty to say and lots of respect to throw at a number of officials. That was refreshing (get back to us come mid-February).
With that in mind, we asked more than 100 college basketball coaches:
Who is the best referee in college basketball?
Quotes that stood out
On Roger Ayers ...
- "He has good communications. He'll usually give you a chance to talk to him. You have to respect that. No one's perfect, and he'll admit when [he is] right or wrong. And he does a great job reffing big games."
- "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an egomaniac."
- "He doesn't have a combative demeanor at all. He'll say, 'Hey, sorry, got that wrong' if it's clear he got something wrong. And he doesn't really ever try to make it about him. There are so many of those guys. If they get a call wrong and a coach gets on them, then they'll be shell-shocked or they go the other way on you."
- "I think that he's fair, communicates well and is a great play-caller. What I mean by that: I don't care about managing the game. I want a guy that gets the plays right. He works hard at that. Communication is part of managing the game, so they have to communicate with you, so you don't feel any tension with the way he communicates with you. I think he's the best in the game.
- "Roger Ayers. I might have given it to Mike Eades, but after that championship game performance ... "
On Mike Eades ...
- "He's done a ton of high-level games. He has a great on-court demeanor. I've seen opposing coaches 'motherf---' him, and he doesn't jump off deep end and immediately give guys a technical. He understands basketball and how things flow together. In an off night he may work A-10 games, but he's not looking down on those guys. He's still busting his butt and pouring into the game. He's also willing to have a conversation in between dead balls, timeouts. Some guys only talk to head coaches, not assistants. If you have legit questions, he'll explain."
- "I felt sorry for him -- he had a terrible [national] championship game, but he is very level-headed and communicates well with coaches. This is a very underrated part of being a great official, in my opinion."
- "I think you know you're going to get a fair shot, whether you're home or away. The moment's not too big for him in my opinion. Experienced guy. Doesn't give you the big-time stuff. He's a big-time guy and he never big-times you. You don't expect the out-of-nowhere technical foul when you jump his ass at the end of the game and it's as four-point game. If you do that with some guys, the game's over. I've seen plenty who I do think are good officials and have popped guys in those situations. Moment is too big for them."
"Nowadays it's more personality, more than calls made right or wrong. It's the refs who don't have agenda. A ref who doesn't let his own ego get in the way. Every ref is going to make good and bad calls, but his personality doesn't get in the way. He's out there reffing the game."
On Ted Valentine ...
- "He's so crazy. He's a little long in the tooth, and he's one of the of five best officials of all time, in my opinion, and we've had him a lot. I've had Crazy Ted, I've had Ted on his best nights. He doesn't anticipate anything. He sees the play through, and is going to give you a fair shake. Does not matter who you are playing. To this day I think he's terrific. Now, has he burned some bridges? Probably. But the guy can still manage a game and the stuff that comes along with it."
- "The game never gets too big, intense or even remotely out of control with him. He does not get swayed, home or road. He takes great pride in his ability, conditioning and awareness. He provides reminders throughout the game to players about the line they are close to foul-wise -- and that's something that doesn't happen nearly enough."
- "He's obviously a showman of all showmen. My opinion, he's enjoying the camera and wants to be the show. But we had him once last year, and maybe in the last five years we've had him three times. But I'd lean toward him because he's given us a fair shake against high-major programs every time he's had us. Whether he has something against the other coach, which he certainly could, I don't care because he's giving us a fair shake."
On Verne Harris ...
- "He's strong, for one. He's got a high level of concentration, two. He understands the game really, really well, three. I think he's in good shape, four. And he's a great communicator, five. Those are the five things that come to mind to make a great ref."
- "He talks to the kids and the coaches, and I don't see him get too emotional and respond when a coach responds too emotionally to him: 'That's a foul!' Sometimes they respond in same way. His thing is to come over, say, 'Hey, I'm only going to listen if you talk to me instead of yell at me.'"
On John Higgins ...
- "I think he's fair. I think he lets the players dictate the game. I think that he's not influenced by any coach. I don't think any coach intimidates him. If you see where he's at every year, you see he's almost always in the Final Four. Like him, don't like him, I think he's the fairest and absolutely the most consistent official."
- "There's some guys out there, John Higgins -- don't get me started."
On Mike Stephens ...
- "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an ego-maniac."
Some top-of-the-resumé information about the poll's big winners:
- Ayers: 11 NCAA Tournaments; seven Sweet 16s; one Elite Eight; two Final Fours (one as an alternate)
- Eades: 12 NCAA Tournaments: four Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; four Final Fours (one as alternate)
- Valentine: 28 NCAA Tournaments: 16 Sweet 16s; nine Elite Eights; 10 Final Fours
- Harris: 20 NCAA Tournaments: 8 Sweet 16s; seven Elite Eights; nine Final Fours
- Higgins: 20 NCAA Tournaments: nine Sweet 16s; eight Elite Eights; eight Final Fours (one as alternate)
- Stephens: 10 NCAA Tournaments; three Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; five Final Fours
All these officials are crew chiefs, and all work the biggest conferences, so it makes sense they would get the most votes. Top-notch officials, for the most part, are not tucked away in small conferences whose games are not on television. It takes years of work to build up a reputation as one of the best, and even if some the names are hated by certain fan bases, these guys are considered elite at their craft for a reason. There are approximately 950 Division I men's basketball officials. The six names listed above represent the top 0.63 percent.
"I guess I got them fooled," Ayers joked, when reached for his reaction to the vote.
Ayers not only won the poll, but his name was broached by coaches who picked a different No. 1. Ayers has been a Division I official since 1998, and said he's still never worked a perfect game.
"It's actually a huge surprise," Ayers said. "But to me, I look at it as: when I started reffing in 1995, the high school commissioner told me, 'Kid, if you want to make it at the highest level, you have to learn how to communicate with coaches.' "
Ayers, a lifelong resident of Roanoke, Va., flirted with making the move to the NBA in 2002 after the league invited him to try out. He worked in the Developmental League for a year, but decided his ultimate goal was to one day work a Final Four. Plus, he said he prefers the college game.
"To hear this, it's a tribute to a lot of people who have helped me," Ayers said.
Ayers has the data to back up coaches' claims, too. In January, college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy declared Ayers the best in the game. Ayers got into officiating on a whim. He was a food broker at a grocery store while in his 20s, when one of his coworkers asked him to help him work four rec games for $50.
"I had no clue what I was doing," Ayers said. "Every parent was yelling at me, but at the end of the night I fell in love with it. When I started I was out of shape, didn't read the rule books. Now, it's of course the opposite."
Ayers, 52, was reached by phone fresh off a yoga workout, and said he's physically active almost every day. He estimates that he works approximately 85 games a season, including the NCAA Tournament,
"I'm getting goosebumps talking about," Ayers said. "I can't wait for November 10. I'm ready to go tonight."
Coaches said Ayers is humble and treats every team and coach with the same amount of respect. That, plus his willingness to admit when he's messed up goes a long way -- and one particular screw-up of his that still sticks with him.
Jan. 5, 2012 -- the infamous six-men-on-the-floor ending. Louisiana-Lafayette won in OT against WKU after it got away with six men on the court on the winning possession. The next day, Western Kentucky fired coach Ken McDonald. Ayers stayed in the locker room two hours after that game and couldn't eat that night because he was sick. His phone blew up with colleagues alerting him to the fact he was continually on SportsCenter.
"It still eats at me to this day," Ayers said. "I took the heat because I was the crew chief. I didn't see the sixth player on the court. Not only did they have six players on the court, but the next morning WKU fired their head coach, and I have to live with that. I remember, I'm embarrassed to say it, but at NC State I stopped a game before a throw-in. They only had five, but I stopped play because I'm so paranoid now. If i could ever see that coach, I would love to apologize. I didn't do it on purpose. I'm still choked up about it, and I'm better than that. It will be with me until I retire."
Ayers, Eades and Valentine represent more than 50 percent of the vote, which speaks to the strength of ACC officiating. Coaches noted that the ACC has a reputation for being the strongest league, not only with regard to crew chiefs, but crews on the whole. The Big Ten, conversely, has the weakest reputation when compared to the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
"At the end of the day, coaches have to buy your act," Ayers said. "You have to fool those coaches into believing they can trust you. Work your butt off, run hard, talk to coaches, and officials need to realize is it is not about us. ... It's a difficult job, fast-paced, but I love what I do. I love what the coaches have to say about me, it's very flattering, but that's all good and fine here in August."
By mid-February, it will be a different story. To paraphrase one coach: The answer I give you now I can almost guarantee will not be the answer I'd give you in the middle of the season.
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.
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.