Some people think assigners have an easy job. But the truth is that the demands of assigning coupled with the pressure being applied by coaches, schools and the officials themselves rule out the undertaking for the faint of heart.
By Jeffrey Stern
From the outside looking in, assigning officials sounds like a simple enough task: Make a grid, get the schedule, fill in the dates, put names next to the dates. Done. Just that easy. Just that quick.
As a wise man once said, if it were that easy, anyone could do it. Turns out, there is a lot more to it than that.
Participants in a panel discussion at the 2013 NASO Sports Officiating Summit provided a glimpse of the process that is assigning officials.
“I think there’s a misconception that when you’re assigning, you just kind of put names on games,” said Dana Pappas, commissioner of officials for the New Mexico Activities Association.
For instance, what kind of things do assigners worry about? Bill Carollo, coordinator of college football officials for the Midwest Football Officials Alliance, which includes the Big Ten, Mid-American and Missouri Valley Football conferences, has sleepless nights wondering if he’s covered every possible base.
“I never assigned until a few years ago,” Carollo said. “My biggest worry was always if I missed a game; if I made a mistake. It’s a lot of administrative responsibility. So I would always worry and double check and make sure, and then put the responsibility back on the school to make sure that these are the games that they’ve asked us to assign and have that confirmed. But I’d always worry about maybe someone not showing up because I didn’t assign it.”
Jim Corstange assigns football and basketball officials in the southwest part of Michigan. Despite years of experience, he still frets over possible mistakes.
“Dealing with 50 schools, 50
athletic directors, and they keep changing their schedules constantly, you want to make sure that your game is correct,” Corstange said.
“Then I want to make sure those officials show up. Yes I use ArbiterSports (Internet-based assigning) and yes I send out reminders. But I usually call that same day just to make sure, just to double check, and then I feel comfortable. And if the game time is 7:00 and if my phone rings at 6:30, I get nervous.”
“In our office, I do all the postseason assignments,” Pappas said. “There are weekends when I’ll have 80 games and 240 basketball officials. The entire time I’m just looking at my phone because nothing is worse than a 1 p.m. start and your phone is ringing at 12:30 (with an administrator asking), ‘Are we going to have officials for this first-round state playoff game?’”
In some cases, an official is being offered a reward for good work with an assignment, or is being given his or her first crack at a big game. Assigners like to help up-and-comers in that way, but how do they weigh that against the comfort of the known quantity, the veteran who has handled plum assignments before?
“I like to put the rookie, if you will, in with the veteran crew,” said Tom Lopes, executive director of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials and coordinator of basketball officials for the Northeast Conference. “With three officials, it’s sometimes easy to let that happen.”
As the coordinator of a lower-profile collegiate conference, Lopes sees developing the next cadre of top officials as part of his job. “It’s my goal to lose (promising) officials,” he said. “When I say lose, I mean that they get promoted and move up to, say, the Big East or the Big Ten. If I can give them that foundation, I think that’s an important role that we play as assigners.”
Carollo takes a similar tack. “I think you have certain games and you want a veteran and experienced official on that game,” he said. “I tend more to look at the merits of it. Is he ready for that game? You try to work them in.”
As a football assigner, one advantage Carollo has is the size of the crew. “It’s harder to hide on the basketball court with two or three officials. But you can slide somebody in as an alternate in football as one of the position officials,” he said. “Certainly I think that merit is really important but you have to blend that in with some experience. And you don’t get that experience unless you put a young guy in and match him up with an experienced referee, and you want him to shadow that guy for the day. You put him on the sideline or on the field. I say, ‘You’re going to be on this person’s crew, and I want you to watch how he handles his pregame, how he handles the game, how he handles the professionalism and the communication on the sideline.’ That’s how you learn. You have to give them experience and give them a chance to make a mistake. I’m OK with the young guy making a mistake.”
At the high school level, Corstange encourages crews to work with newer officials on freshman and JV games. But he relies on his own eyes and ears to find out who’s earned a promotion.
“When you look at the games you want to make sure you have the right people there,” he said. “And how do they get that? From what they’ve done in the past. At my level, I’ve got 25 games a night. I can’t be at all 25 places (to observe). And I rarely have an observer watching the officials. Some of my officials who get injured want to be involved, and they say, ‘Hey, can I go evaluate for you?’ So I do have a couple people that keep doing that for me, but I rely a lot on my veteran officials to give me input on younger officials to see if they are capable of doing those varsity games.”
Brian Hemelgarn does some assigning and training for the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials and is an active volleyball official. He said mixing veterans with newer officials is common in volleyball. But he also acknowledged that assigners have to balance rewards with the perils of moving someone up too quickly. “I think it’s important that we challenge referees when we give them matches but not put them in a position where they’re not going to be successful,” he said. “So at least in volleyball, for example, giving someone a level of play that they can be challenged yet still find a reasonable level of success is extremely important. We’ve got a lot of younger referees with less experience at least in terms of number of years that call really good matches. And so they sometimes get a primo assignment over a veteran who might deserve the opportunity in terms of experience. But the newer folks coming up are really out there working hard and they get the better assignments at times.”
Whether the officials working games are veterans, newcomers or in between, there are going to be disgruntled coaches or athletic directors. The delicate balance of keeping the customers happy with supporting officials is a challenge for assigners.
“When we took over the league four or five years ago, we had a coaches meeting and we got approval from the commissioner,” Lopes said. “We have two rules with our coaches. One is don’t call me the night of a game. The emotion is too high, they can’t see straight, they’re not objective, it’s always our fault anyway. So with that said the next day go look at the film, jot down the notes you want to make, and then call me.”
Lopes said many coaches found that once they had time to look at video of the play, they didn’t need to make the angry phone call. “Because after they reviewed the plays, our officials were correct. That happens 90 plus percent of the time,” he said.
The second rule, Lopes said, comes into play if he is present at a game. He tells the coaches, “Don’t make any signals to me. I can’t help you,” he said. “I never sit at the press table. I’m in the stands somewhere where they can’t see me. But they know I’m there.”
If the coach is unwise enough to gesture to Lopes, the officials have been instructed to slap them with a technical foul. “It’s been, luckily, somewhat successful,” he said. “The coaches are pretty positive. They like what’s being done.”
Carollo’s philosophy in regard to coach’s phone calls is pretty basic. “I don’t give my head coaches my phone number,” he said. “I make them go to their athletic director first. I don’t care whether it’s after the game or whatever. (After talking with the coach), if the athletic director feels that they need to talk to me, I let them give me a call. And I’ve had that happen several times, but I’ll never take a call after the game.”
“I save coaches’ phone numbers in my phone,” Pappas said. “If it’s Tuesday night and (a coach’s number) comes up on my (caller ID), I scream. Then I’ll call the next day and I’ll say, ‘Coach, what’s going on?’ ‘Nothing, I was just mad last night.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s why I didn’t answer your call.’ You do get pretty good at monitoring those things.”
Identify the Red Flags
It is important for an assigner to not only know the kind of official being sent out to work, but the kind of person. As Carollo put it, “It behooves us to know exactly what the expectations are for an official to be in this conference.”
Background checks are common today at all levels and may or may not fall under the assigner’s purview.
“The NCAA has taken over that responsibility,” Carollo said. “But we also do background checks through the Big Ten office and through my (Football Championship Subdivision) conferences. The guys know that if it’s drunken driving or something out of the court or even financial issues, we get involved in all those and we do a check. And sometimes red flags will come up, and we want to look into that just because it could relate to officiating.”
Hemelgarn said USA Volleyball conducts background screening for all referees and coaches. “Primarily the flags would be offenses involving minors, or drug or alcohol offenses,” he said. The check looks seven years into the past to look for issues.
Pappas and Corstange work with high school officials, so the state association handles the checks.
Some assigners, particularly at the high school level, face the mandate — or at least a strong suggestion — from those in charge to hire minorities.
“I don’t think we have done enough to involve diversity in athletics as far as officiating is concerned,” Carollo added. “And when I say diversity I’m not just talking African-American. There’s a lot of nationalities out here that got excluded in the past. Let’s use females as an example. Most women did not have the opportunity to play football so there’s less women going into it. But today it’s changing. And I think the coaches will buy into it. They understand. It’s a different world than it was in the ’60s and ’70s and where a lot of the coaches came out of when they were playing. So it’s a concern of mine to make sure that we do uncover and identify all the best officials possible.”
Hemelgarn said the volleyball community has been working to be more inclusive of women. “I think there’s really an active movement to keep women involved and get them involved and to challenge them regardless of whether it’s boys’ or men’s or girls’ or women’s big matches,” he said. “I think there’s an effort to put them on those matches. And many of them do quite well, and we’re always looking for that diversity or that strong background and presence on the court to give them opportunities.”
Pappas comes from a state with a great mix of races and nationalities. Exposing athletics to those cultures is a way of recruiting future officials. “We really try to look at the populations of our state and try to get more people involved so that kids of that particular nationality or race are aware that’s a viable option for them,” she said. “We lose so many potential officials that don’t understand how to get involved in officiating. If you don’t see someone who is like you, whether it’s female, whether it’s whatever nationality you are in that avocation or that profession, you’re probably not going to go in that direction because you’re not seeing people. It’s that homologous reproduction thing. If you don’t see somebody who looks like you, you’re probably not going to go into that field.”
To that point, Hemelgarn cited the story of an African-American referee who wanted to move up to a national level certification. “On the USA Volleyball website, we have an officiating page that has pictures of all of the national level referees. And he came to me and he said, ‘I went to that web page and I was looking for a mentor. I was looking for somebody like me. I want to be up at that level because the next guy behind me wants to look up and find another referee just like them.’
“I had never thought of that before, and it was really kind of an eye opener for me,” Hemelgarn said, adding that the referee in question did advance to the national level.
Use Evaluation Input
It is difficult to conduct training sessions during the course of a basketball season. But Lopes has one idea that is along those lines.
“After each of our games, all crews have to report to me at least two plays that they questioned themselves about,” he said. “By the next morning I have an email from each of the crewmembers with the time of the two plays. In the morning we can re-evaluate what took place the night before.”
When it comes to hiring observers, Corstange fights the same budget battle as many assigners: Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but no one wants to pay for it.
“Our state has developed an observers program, and I think that has really helped to evaluate officials and to give us as assigners input to what crews are like, what individuals are like and so forth. But I wish I had more people out there to help evaluate officials to give me more input so I know how to assign properly and do the right thing. I go to the conferences that I work for and say, ‘Can I get $500 to help pay some people to go out and help evaluate?’ And they’re going to say, ‘We don’t have the money.’”
Pappas said her state has tried a couple of different evaluation systems. “We had tried active officials and, of course, that becomes, ‘He said I’m terrible because he wants my games.’ We’re using retired officials and training them through the system and keeping them current in the rulebook and doing more and more with that to make sure that we have eyes on. Because at the end of the day what really does make an assigner’s job so much easier is to make sure that we’re aware of the talents of our officials and the skill level and where they should be as opposed to where they end up.”
Despite the trials and tribulations, assigning is a necessary and important component of officiating. What advice would the panel give someone who is or wants to be an assigner?
Remember that you aren’t just filling games, Carollo said, but building a staff. “If I only can give (newer officials) a couple games, I will call other conferences and try to share officials to give them more assignments. I will call neighboring conferences and say, ‘Why don’t you take this guy?’ We both like this official, let’s help this official.”
Corstange said if he were new to assigning he would check with veteran assigners. “Find out what it’s about, what needs to be done, what are the ups and downs, the pluses and negatives,” he said. “Be prepared for it before you’re thrown into it. I feel I was kind of thrown into it, and so I’m learning as I’m going.”
“What’s important for me,” Pappas said, “is being visible and having people know that I’m out watching and showing up at camps and going to different parts of the state. Because if I’m ultimately the person between the stamp of approval on a state tournament assignment, people will say, ‘It’s not fair. She’s never seen me work.’ If I’m not out working with officials, seeing them … I think people have a skewed perception — they feel like you don’t even know who they are.”
Jeffrey Stern is Referee’s senior editor. He is a veteran high school and collegiate football official. ∗