At NCAA Tournament, Refs Also Compete To Reach Final Four

Download Audio
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The NCAA basketball tournament is underway, and if your brackets aren’t already busted, you’re a member of an exclusive club.

Win and you go on; lose and you go home. That’s the way these tournaments work for the teams, and it’s also the way they work for the officials, as John W. Adams, national men’s basketball officiating coordinator for the NCAA, explains:

It’s a thankless job. But if your bosses are happy and they’re writing your name down, assigning you to another game next week, then you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.

Curtis Shaw, seven-time Final Four referee

“Advancement in our tournament is merit-based,” Adams told me. “We have an on-site evaluator kind of doing an eye test on the officials during the game, and they make recommendations on advancement, as well as we have eight experienced - what we would call - tape graders. And then I’m in a control room watching all or part of every game, and I make my own notes.”

Obviously, Adams is looking for officials who get the calls right. Positioning is also critical. But Adams also told me he pays attention to how the refs handle the stars of the show.

“I look for interactions between the official and the coaches of both teams," he said. "And more importantly, maybe even, the players. I think the players know if officials are right or wrong. You can judge that by looking at their body language and their expressions and so on.”

[sidebar title="The Life Of A College Basketball Ref" width="630" align="right"]"The Whistleblower" by Bob Katz examines the career of former referee Ed Hightower. The author joined Bill Littlefield.[/sidebar]Adams surprised me a little with that contention. Perhaps I’ve seen too many players called for fouls respond with astonishment.

“Me!? What?! I didn’t touch him!”

Throughout the tournament, the excitement of the players on the winning team is obvious. The excitement of the officials who’ve been judged worthy of another assignment is less apparent, but according to Curtis Shaw, who’s worked seven Final Fours, it’s just as real.

“When I went to my first Final Four, it was, ‘Oh, man, I’m in the Final Four!’ And then it was, ‘Oh, shucks. I’m a standby,’” he said. “And then I went back and ‘Oh, man, I’m in the Final Four, but, oh, shucks, I’m in the semifinals and not the finals.' And so until the day that I was the crew chief in the national championship game, that’s probably the only day any referee can ever be truly happy, ‘cause you can’t do anything else. So we’re the same competitive edge and the same amount of ‘Wow! This is great, but I want a little more,’ that I think the coaches and the players have.”

Shaw is now the coordinator of officials for five athletic conferences. He has also been involved in mentoring young officials who dream of working the games everybody’s watching. His advice? Don’t ever worry about what the players, the coaches, or the fans have to say about your work.

I’m a practicing Catholic, and I swear, in this job I’ve worn out three sets of rosary beads.

John W. Adams, NCAA national officiating coordinator

And if one of those referees who’s handled the games well enough to make it all the way to the Final Four misses an obvious foul or sees a violation nobody else can find, no matter how many times they re-run the video, check out YouTube, and follow the tweets of their kabillion fellow fans, how does the guy who’s been grading that official “A+” since round one of the tournament feel? According to Adams, that’s just one of those things you hope doesn’t happen. And you hope real hard.

“Well,” he told me, “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I swear, in this job I’ve worn out three sets of rosary beads. I mean, I’m constantly thumbing ‘em.”

As the tournament goes on, lovers of underdogs will be pulling for the longshots and gamblers will be hoping they’ve correctly figured the spread. Beyond the members of their immediate families, few will be rooting for the refs. But as Shaw recalls, that doesn’t mean those refs don’t get excited about what they’re doing at the Big Dance. If he hadn’t had butterflies in his stomach, he’d have figured something was wrong.

“When you’re standing there, they're doing the lineups, and you’re four minutes away from the biggest game of the year on the national stage where if you mess up, everybody in the world will know it, yeah, you gotta have those butterflies and those nerves,” he said. “And so as long as they were always there every game, I felt like, ‘OK, we’ll handle it.’ So it was pretty good.”

This segment aired on March 21, 2015.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live