Excerpt from THE WHISTLEBLOWER: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball by Bob Katz, published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Used with permission.
Check out Bill Littlefield's conversation with the author.
The One We Want On The Road
The first nationally televised college basketball game Ed Hightower ever refereed was Michigan State versus the University of Iowa, in Iowa City on January 5, 1983. He was thirty-one years old and just beginning to work his way into a regular rotation of choice assign- ments in brand-name conferences like the Big Ten and the Mis- souri Valley Conference. An ebullient man with a welterweight’s compressed muscularity, he’d come up the hard way — harder than almost anyone could imagine — and it pleased him to know that friends and family back in southern Illinois could tune in to watch him work. At least someone would be rooting for him.
All sporting contests are to some extent a stage, and there’s nothing quite like national TV coverage to emphasize this point. Players like to say they just ignore the extra attention, and more power to them if they actually manage to do so. Top-tier coaches, like skilled actors, know precisely where the camera is and how to play to it. As for the referees, well, nobody much likes to consider what they’re thinking since the whole experience of organized sports is neater, cleaner, and infinitely more palatable if the ref- erees can be altogether ignored. In a perfect world, they might not even be needed.
The game was hard fought throughout. Michigan State was one of the nation’s top teams and featured three athletes — Sam Vincent, Scott Skiles, and Kevin Willis — who would go on to careers in the NBA. Iowa, led by future pros Bobby Hansen and Greg Stokes, kept the game close. The pace was fast and furious, yet Hightower had no difficulty keeping up: the elite-conference supervisors who’d finally begun assigning him some important games understood that his promising set of skills included the ability to run, to really flat-out run. Although never a star in his own playing days, Hightower retained an athlete’s capacity to accelerate without warning, maybe not always quickly enough to match the swiftness of a nimble guard speeding away with a steal but fast enough, when combined with shrewd anticipation of the plausible patterns of developing plays, and the implausible ones as well, to arrive in the nick of time at the optimal vantage point. Players hustle to beat their man down court; refs hustle to get properly positioned for whatever happens next.
Hightower was certainly not one to be left lagging. A driven man with a ferocious work ethic, he was keenly aware there were no guarantees in this profession and plenty of potential pitfalls. It had been several years getting this far. The path to advancement in basketball officiating parallels that of other professions. The lower rungs are denoted by grade-school and rec-league games in under-heated gyms with nobody but a handful of rankled parents watching. The next steps involve working high school and lower- level college contests where the pace and pressure quicken. Any flaw in an official’s skill set, be it temperament or judgment or the intangible aptitude for managing the mayhem, soon gets exposed. The top rung consists of working marquee matchups between Division 1 teams in elite conferences. These assignments pose greater levels of difficulty and promise greater rewards, including compensation and prestige. Successfully ascending the officiating ladder involves all the elements that contribute to success in other fields — talent, dedication, perseverance, ambition, timing, and a certain amount of luck.
Prior to the 1983 season, Hightower had been refereeing junior colleges in Illinois and Missouri. Those assignments had been a distinct upgrade from the high school contests he’d been working previously in the basketball-crazed towns on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, towns like Belleville, Alton, Collinsville, East St. Louis, and Granite City. Until this season, his officiating career had been spent entirely in dimly lit, under-heated, claustrophobic gyms that rarely seated more than a few hundred. None of the games in those venues were televised.
Not all refs approach their career with a burning determination to make it to the top. The chances of getting there are slim, and plenty of satisfaction, along with some supplemental income, can be had in the lower circuits. But for the ambitious ones, the goal is to be selected to officiate the most important games, where the stakes are highest, where the pressure is greatest. Getting there is always a long shot. Staying there is often a greater challenge than getting there. Working a national TV game, as Hightower was well aware, can amount to a big career break. Such occasions provide an aspiring ref with the opportunity to be seen looking the part, acting the part, proudly comporting himself in that crisp and authoritative manner that declares to all relevant stakehold- ers — players, coaches, fans — worry not: the rules tonight will be fairly enforced, and the playing field will not be allowed to tilt in either direction.
On the other hand, screwing up on national TV can trigger a quick trip to oblivion.
With five seconds left, Iowa prepared to pass the ball inbounds, trailing 61–59. Throughout this seesaw contest, Hightower had been getting it in measured doses from the two coaches — a stifled squawk, a pantomimed plea, an expertly timed howl of exaspera- tion. Their full-bore, enraged bull, hell-hath-no-fury protest was, he knew, being saved for later when it would matter most. Later was now.
Millions were watching on TV. It was the dawn of the cable explo- sion. ESPN was still in its infancy. There was no Fox Sports with its sprawling Pacific, Central, and Atlantic coverage, and conference- specific networks like we have now in the Big Ten, ACC, SEC, and Pac-12 had yet to be devised. Whereas local stations often had ar- rangements to occasionally televise local college games, the network TV weekend broadcasts were, prior to the year-end NCAA tourna- ment, the only national telecasts that afforded college basketball fans from around the country a chance to view important non- regional games.
Billy Packer was the CBS announcer for Hightower’s TV debut that early January afternoon in Iowa City. During a span of over thirty years, stretching until 2008, Packer was the voice most closely identified with college basketball. And his was quite a voice — mellifluous, enthusiastic, opinionated, articulate, careen- ing wildly as the game itself careened, professorial one moment, fanatical the next. These days, a referee’s worst nightmare is to suffer some momentary lapse in judgment, or simply an unavoid- able bad bounce of the sort that are rife throughout all sports, and have it memorialized in seeming perpetuity on ESPN’s SportsCenter replays. Back in the day, it was having Billy Packer’s cocksure voice second-guessing a questionable call, gnawing away at the alleged malfeasance.
Every ref knows he could be one ugly sequence away from the purgatory of everlasting castigation. Officiating blunders that affect the outcome can become a spiraling descent into perpetual vilification straight out of Dante: mess up an important call, get pummeled by the broadcasters during the ensuing break, get flayed by TV recaps following the game and, these days, wind up endlessly crucified by Internet bloggers who don’t know the meaning of the statute of limitations.
Lute Olson was the Iowa coach. He would eventually move to the University of Arizona where he’d go on to win a national champi- onship. Olson had risen in the coaching ranks the old-fashioned way, one humble step at a time. His first thirteen years as a coach were spent far from the main stage, at Mahnomen and Two Rivers High Schools in rural Minnesota.
The Michigan State coach, George Melvin “Jud” Heathcoate, was cut from the same cloth, having spent fourteen seasons coaching high school hoops in Spokane before getting the opportunity to direct the freshman squad at nearby Washington State Univer- sity (at the time, NCAA rules did not permit freshmen to play on the college varsity). Being named Michigan State head coach had marked a huge leap forward for Heathcoate, and he did not waste time. His third season in East Lansing, the Spartans, led by Magic Johnson, would win the national championship in the fabled match-up against Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
Heathcoate and Olsen, it’s safe to say, were each familiar with the tactic known generically as “working the ref,” that is, utiliz- ing an array of communication tools, from silent scowl to full- throated, foot-stomping outrage, with the hope of coaxing the ref into eventually seeing the game, and in particular the alleged subterfuges of the opposing team, precisely the way the coach wants him to see it. Instilling a momentary flicker of empathy into a stubborn ref ’s subconscious just might make the difference at some critical juncture. Or so coaches like to believe.
The relationship between college coaches and the referees work- ing their games is one of the strangest imaginable, fraught with simmering tensions. Coaches are the bane of referees. In any given season, in any given game, at any important interlude, real or imagined, it is the coach who can seem to care the most, who is paid to care the most, and who wants the ref to never forget how desperately he cares. Coaches want to win. They are hired to win. Winning is how they keep their jobs. The obstacles to winning are varied and too often outside their control. The mercurial judg- ments of referees, in the minds of many coaches, represent yet another form of misfortune that’s always threatening to bring them down. Throughout the game, this attitude gets expressed in a series of exchanges that are subtly coded until, without warning, they explode into something so explicit that even spectators in the nosebleed seats understand perfectly well what is being com- municated. What refs and coaches have in common is a love for the game. And that’s about it. Temperamentally, they are nearly opposite.
Refs are professionally dispassionate, objective, outwardly calm, broad-minded, conciliatory, adaptable, accepting of con- tradiction. Coaches tend to be fiery, visibly tense, high-strung, hyper-competitive type A’s prone to egocentric perspectives on any dispute not resolved in their favor. They are also extraor- dinarily talented influencers of others. The charitable term for these qualities when trained on their squad of young athletes is “motivational” or even “inspiring.” That same talent for passionate fist-pounding insistence on what ought to be done might, when directed at the officials, be called “manipulation.” Or attempted manipulation. From the opening tip to the crucial action at game’s end, the best coaches are trying to get into the referee’s head, to slyly infiltrate his perceptions. And nowhere is this as true as with a neophyte ref just breaking into the big time who might not yet be inured to their entire bag of devious tricks.
It could make a neat setup for a clever HBO drama (or comedy), a wily coach and a veteran ref stranded together in a remote jungle outpost, forced to work through a tangled history of bitter disputes in order to find the common ground and shared values necessary for survival. Can they come together and find a basis for trust? Stay tuned.
Iowa guard Steve Carfino took the inbounds pass. The capacity crowd of over 15,000 rose to its feet, shrieking encouragement. The Iowa fans had been in a celebratory mood all day, as this was the very first game ever played in the brand new $18.5 million Carver Arena. The noise was skull rattling. Frantic players jostled, seeking an edge.
Until this point, Hightower felt he’d had a good game. There’d been a twinge of indecision on one or two calls in the paint, and another on a who-touched-the-ball-last deflection out-of-bounds. These might occasion some reflection later, after the game. But if he’d made mistakes, and it was virtually impossible to work an entire forty-minute game without a few errors, he felt certain none were of real significance, and none had impinged on the balance of the game or bestowed an unfair advantage on either team. Referees approach each game with a very explicit goal in mind. They want to create conditions, though their officiating, that will enable the team that plays the best that day to have a fair chance to win. That elementary formulation is all they can realistically hope to accomplish, and it is a mission in which they take immense pride.
In principle, it sounds simple: to create conditions that allow the team playing best to have a fair shot at winning. And in principle it probably is. It’s the actual practice of administering fairness in such a contentious environment that proves anything but simple. And in the final minutes of a tight game that could swing either way or, as in this case, the final seconds, in which whatever happens next will likely decide who wins, there would be no room for error. And nowhere to hide.
Nor would there be any video review available. That marvelous technological tool, both blessing and curse, would not become a staple of college basketball officiating until a few years later.
Hightower, a gregarious man with a beaming smile that should not be mistaken for an eagerness to please, perfectly understood this was crunch time. Quietly, he did a little Zen-like clearing of his mind. Be prepared, he told himself. Anticipate yet don’t get locked in by assumptions. Think but don’t overthink.
So many calls must be made almost instantaneously. Yet the human capacity to process fragmented information at lightning speeds may not always be fully up to the task. “Referees do not perceive and record things perfectly, like a video camera could,” explained Dan Simons, cocreator of the invisible gorilla experi- ment and a professor of psychology at University of Illinois whose research focuses on the cognitive underpinnings of our perception of the “continuous” visual world. “Refs must make judgment calls about rapid events and in some cases they will have to guess based on partial information. Some of those judgment calls are going to be wrong. We can spread our attention over multiple things at the same time,” Simons added. “But there are limits on that.”
Carfino dribbled furiously up-court, with Hightower just be- hind, tracking the action from the trail position. Under pressure from the Michigan State defense, Carfino rifled a pass to Bobby Hansen cutting toward the sideline. A smooth-shooting 6' 6" guard who would later team with Michael Jordan on the NBA champi- onship Chicago Bulls, Hansen grabbed the ball, rotated, and in one swift, seamless extension of arm and wrist let it fly from just beyond the three-point line, newly instituted that season.
The shot looked true. The crowd — do we even have to spell it out? — went ab-so-lute-ly nuts.
But Ed Hightower saw something. Or thought he saw some- thing. Tracking the play from the trail position, it appeared to him that Carfino’s sneaker had grazed the out-of-bounds line as he was zipping the ball to Hansen. Might have grazed the line is the way most of us would characterize the observation, for under such cha- otic conditions — ear-shattering noise, skittering motion of large frenzied bodies, the unnerving aura of mass desperation — how can anyone be absolutely certain of something so imprecise? Be- fore actually making the call, before tweeting his whistle (not that anyone would hear), before repeatedly chopping his arm to signal that the ball should go the opposite way, there was an instant when Hightower realized that the shot he was poised to nullify, this final attempt by the adored home-team Hawkeyes, was destined to be the game winner.
In that fleeting moment, he recognized how very easy it would be to ignore the perceived out-of-bounds infraction. Perhaps he did not see what he thought he saw. A non-call would be entirely plausible. Nobody could doubt his sincerity in abstaining. That rangy Iowa shooter had made an amazing shot, simple as that. Fifteen thousand fans were already erupting with that special euphoric joy that only the improvisational magic of sports can produce. Why spoil the party? Hightower could have been mis- taken. Whatever happened had happened (or not) in a blur, in a flash. Blink of an eye.
Veteran referees with a history of stellar performance in big games enjoy some latitude with league supervisors. Mistakes hap- pen. Refereeing is a consummately imperfect human activity, as is the playing of the game itself. Even LeBron has missed clutch shots. Everybody involved with competitive sports — coaches, players, fans, media — would prefer that officiating be performed with machinelike precision. But until that day arrives, it remains an art, not a science. And newer refs, like fledgling playwrights, are especially vulnerable to negative reviews. Hightower had been warned that one very unfortunate call in one unlucky situation, one bad call in one bad spot, especially at the end of a game, can derail a young ref ’s career. Well, here he was.
But he had seen, or thought he’d seen, a violation. And there was no time to evaluate the ephemeral evidence. Speak now or forever
. . . Hightower blew a shrill tweet. He put air in the whistle, as the refs like to say. With outstretched hand, he emphatically pointed, down, down, straight at the black strip of sideline he was now accusing Carfino’s errant foot of having nicked: out-of-bounds!
The crowd of 15,000 did in fact erupt . . . but not with joy.
A storm of booing swept across the arena. Full-throated out- cries, burning with unquenchable hurt, rained down. Hightower braced for the inevitable next stage of onslaught.
An enraged Coach Olson stormed his way. Shockingly, however, Olson dashed right past him, straight to the scorer’s table. Olson, it turned out, was simply in a rush to determine exactly where the game clock had stood at the precise instant of Carfino’s sideline violation. He wanted to know how much time remained.
Braced for Olsen’s onslaught, Hightower was slow to realize that what he’d received was a tacit concession. There would be no hys- terical outburst from the Iowa bench. There would be no threats, veiled or otherwise. On the contrary, he’d just been exonerated. Olson’s response could not have been more pleasing if he’d joyously slapped Hightower on the back with congratulations. There would be no appeal. He’d nailed the call.
Many of the skills that are instrumental to successful officiat- ing, like knowing the rules and understanding the permutations of the game, can be diligently achieved through enough practice and real-world experience. But the big one, the crucial one, the heart-and-soul skill without which any aspiring referee is forever doomed to mediocrity and all the displeasure that goes with it, is decisiveness.
Later, as his career progressed and took shape, Hightower would look back on this game as a pivotal experience, for the trial by fire he’d survived but also for a new self-image it allowed him to try on and see how it fit. He was now convinced he was very good at this. Refereeing and the attributes it demanded — the physical exertion, the acumen on the fly, the knowledge of the rulebook and the dexterity needed to enforce it, the courage to assert his judgment, the humility to recognize his limitations — represented a sizable challenge, one that got his juices going. No two games were alike. The arena, the play, the players, the coaches, the situ- ational pressures, the host of wholly unpredictable quirks, always required an impromptu approach. Every game required deviation from the game plan. He had to be clear-eyed and alert to the mo- ment, with all senses trained on the ceaselessly shifting jigsaw, ten players, two coaches, one ball. Officiating a basketball game was problem solving of a very high order. Each game presented a new and fascinating chance to succeed. Or fail.
Sportswriters are fond of recounting, almost reverentially, the prophetic words of the legendary baseball slugger Ted Williams, who early in his extraordinary career boldly asserted, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”
What Ed Hightower aspired to was almost comparably immodest. He wanted those rabid, tenacious, monomaniacal, take-no- prisoner, victory-at-any-cost, alpha-male coaches to eventually say of him, “He’s the ref I want working the game when we’re playing on the road.”