Making the right moves in assigning isn’t easy. Assigners must make sure all the pieces are in the right position. Find out what strategy is involved in the assigning game.
By Matt Moore
It takes a special person to be a good assigner. You’ve got to find the right people, send them to the right place and do it at the right time. Look what happens if you don’t:
• Send a crew (the wrong people) to a game that is above their skill level, and all hell can break loose. The game will end up out of control and there will be many angry people. Two second-year officials were randomly sent to a girls’ basketball game on a Monday night. The only problem was it was a rivalry game that would decide first place. The game was intense from the word go and the officials weren’t prepared, individually or as a crew. By halftime coaches, players and administrators were upset. Both officials were out of their league that night. Problems caused, not problems solved.
• Send a great crew (the right people) to a game where they aren’t needed (the wrong place), and a lot of hard feelings will exist. An ex-professional baseball umpire worked a small college game and was offended when a coach called him, “Blue.” After the umpire’s reaction, the coach was so annoyed that the umpire had lost all credibility in the coach’s eyes and the coach was on the phone to the assigner that night. Problems caused, not problems solved.
• Send a great crew to the right game and sometimes that’s not even enough. There are too many variables to know for sure in advance if things will go well on any given night of the season. All it takes is one misstep, one coach having a bad night and one official not handling one situation correctly. Look at any game in the highest professional level and see ejections in baseball or technical fouls in basketball. The crew was “right” for the game, but maybe not that night, for whatever reason. Again, problems caused, not problems solved.
So what makes a successful assigner? Simply put, it’s the one who more often than not gets the right people into the right place at the right time.
That topic was explored during the 2013 NASO Sports Officiating Summit with an expert panel of assigners, past and present, weighing in on what they believe were the keys to their successes.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
For high school and college basketball assigner Donnie Eppley, the first key is to be patient. Eppley assigns for 42 high schools and 38 colleges and universities throughout the Northeast.
“I have to wait for other levels to assign,” he said. “And on my staff, I have about 200 basketball officials at the collegiate level. Many of them work at other levels to include Division I, II and III.
“What I’ve got to do is to wait for those levels to come out. So the Division I assignments will begin to come out in early August. It takes about a month for that entire process to take place. And then the Division IIs will take their opportunity to grab some of the officials. And then it’s crunch time for me because our season starts around mid-November and guys want to know where they’re going to be working. So I have to be patient.”
Once Eppley, the associate executive director for IAABO, starts scheduling his games, he does each official individually.
“I pull up somebody’s name, match it against their availability, and then I make an entire schedule,” he said. “It takes about 20 minutes to do a schedule, anywhere from 20 to 30 games for my officials. After I finish my college assignments I have to get busy with the high schools.”
Because he assigns at multiple levels, Eppley is able to develop officials for the next level. “We’re able to identify young talent and keep the people going through the system,” he said.
Eppley also makes it a point to balance veteran officials with younger officials).
“As I’m hiring new people, and last year I had turned over about 31 new officials for Division III, I take those officials and give them a variety of preseason assignments, some tournaments and various levels of assignments that actually balance somebody that’s been around for a while with a rookie to get them some experience at the collegiate level,” he said.
Time management is a big key for Eppley, whose full-time job with IAABO comes first.
Marty Hickman is the executive director for the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), so the only assigning his office does is playoff games. But because those are the games with the most importance in his state, it’s still critical to get the right people on the right game.
“It’s important that for us at the high school level certainly to know the teams in the rivalry type games and to know the personalities of the coaches and the officials and try to get a good fit in there,” Hickman said. “And that’s one of our toughest assignments, especially in a situation where we have a lot of officials and a lot of games and having to identify some of the games that might be more troublesome than others.”
Hickman and his staff got an up-close-and-personal experience in dealing with a troublesome situation at the 2013 state basketball tournament. “I can tell you,” he said, “if the executive director is getting involved, something’s gone horribly wrong.”
The Class 2A championship game was marred with accusations of racial slurs, leading to technical fouls and an unprecedented demand from Hickman himself at halftime.
“(We) expressed our concerns to the schools about what had occurred in the first half, including three technical fouls, a player ejection and a bench warning,” Hickman told the Chicago Tribune at the time of the incident. “The onus was put on the coaches to provide the necessary leadership to change the tenor of the game. We also made it very clear that if things did not change, we would take the unprecedented step of canceling the game.”
Hickman and the staff knew the game had potential to be rough, but probably not as rough as it was.
“We’ve got a north/south kind of rivalry, we’ve got a very rural school and a city school,” he said. “They’re 350 miles apart and cultures apart. And from the very tipoff the game really didn’t go well.
“We thought we had done literally everything right in terms of looking at this game. We knew this was coming. We thought we had the right officials.”
Hickman praised the officials, but said that the game just got out of hand early, resulting in his unprecedented intervention.
“So this is just an example of how even with a lot of preparation, things can go wrong,” Hickman said. “But it also provides some very teachable moments for us as we move forward in our assigning process.”
ARE THEY BUYING WHAT YOU’RE SELLING?
Getting officials to buy into the vision of the person leading the staff — whether it is a state office or a college conference commissioner — is critical for success and not always easy.
“I think it’s really important that you have your top people understand the path that you’re going to travel, and it takes a lot of communication,” said Ed Rush, who officiated in the NBA for 31 seasons and was the director of officiating for the league for five years. He’s also the former coordinator for officials in the Pac-12 Conference.
“I had been with the Pac-12 for six years, and I worked on the side of development,” he said. “And then in the last two years we actually developed a sense of measurement, and we had a program where we did game grading. And it was a system that was strong enough that it was 45 percent of their ratings.
“There were a lot of folks that were loving that, and they just seized the moment. And then there were a handful of guys, that’s a pretty dramatic change, and they really had trouble with that.”
Rush ran a three-and-a-half day camp for his staff, spending a full day on the NCAA-mandated topic of sportsmanship and bench decorum.
“We talked about principles. It was very successful. As a matter of fact, 10 out of the 12 coaches actually went out of their way to say this is the best,” he said, because the coaches knew the boundaries and that officials were consistent with those boundaries.
Rush resigned as the conference’s coordinator a week before the 2013 Final Four because of an incident in which he made a joking reference during a pregame meeting with his officials in an attempt to ensure coaches would receive a technical foul if they didn’t behave better on the sideline during the next game of the tournament.
Rush said he learned a lot from the experience as it relates to working with officials and developing a staff.
“The takeaway from that for all of us in leadership is that when you’re in leadership and basketball is an emotional game,” he said, “you really have to be very careful about what you say, who you say it to, how you say it.”
Sometimes, getting the right people on the floor can be made more difficult because of the rules that restrict who can be assigned.
Joan Powell, the NCAA’s national coordinator of volleyball officials, assigns the officials for three national tournaments — a difficult job for sure to be responsible for officials across the country and across three levels.
“I have four great regional advisers,” Powell said. “One actually is a retired volleyball coach, two are veteran officials and one is a conference coordinator. And with those people I’m able to travel quite a bit in the fall and also evaluate and see a lot of officials.”
Complicating matters for Powell is that the NCAA Division II and III staffs no longer want to wait on Division I to assign playoff officials. The Division III Volleyball Committee selected officials in February for the season, and the Division II committee selected its officials in March.
“Officials (weren’t) being evaluated for their body of work for 2013, (it was) actually 2012,” she said. “But that’s what Division II and III want to do. Nominations come from their conferences and from volleyball coaches.”
The rules and the assignments are different in Division I. Powell assigns line judges as well, something she doesn’t have to do at the lower levels. Also, she is limited to a 400-mile radius. However, she does get to fly some officials when necessary at that level.
There can still be problems.
“It’s very easy for (postseason officials) to talk about how everything’s already pre-determined and that the NCAA already decides who they want,” she said. “It’s not true at all. I have to be cautious of what has happened in the past during the season, whether or not there were conflicts with coaches, whether or not this is a good venue for a particular official to be at. We put them in crews but they don’t necessarily advance as crews.”
There are complications in getting the right person to the right place at the right time at every level. Two that were discussed are officials staying on top of when they are available (since they are independent contractors) and working together with other officials.
“To have the best crew, you have to understand team officiating,” Rush said. “You have to understand that in a three-person system, what you do on the floor has to elevate the performance of the other two officials.”
The decision to become an assigner isn’t an easy one, because in most cases, it means coming off the field or court.
“I miss (officiating) so much,” Powell said. “There’s just some aggravation that comes and some consternation being an assigner. There’s some great pressure. But in officiating you kind of leave it behind. You debrief afterward in the locker room and then you’re able to move on.”
Part of being an assigner, however, is dealing with what happens when it’s the wrong person, the wrong time or the wrong place — it only takes one of the three.
Hickman stresses to officials who work championship games in the future that they are there to take care of business. “We’re fearful at our level that what happens sometimes in a championship game is our officials take the attitude that they don’t want to really influence the outcome, they are going to let them play. They’re maybe going to let the coaches get away with a little more than they should, and it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.”
While Hickman can meet with the officials he assigns, since they are all at one site, Eppley can’t get to his officials with more than a general message through email. But the coaches sure get to him with their opinions of games, crews and calls.
“I have a rule where the coach can’t call me on game night, so they’ve got to review the film and then contact me the next day,” he said. “And that applies to all levels, high school and college. They’ve got about a 24-hour period to get over it. The officials — if there’s a problem in the game — have got to call that night so I’m aware of it.”
Rush liked what Eppley requires, calling it powerful.
“On any situation I encourage people to call, but we have watched everything,” Rush said. “And there were many times coaches would call and I could say, ‘I know why you’re calling. In addition I have a couple more plays you might want to look at.’
“That’s really disarming. They trust you, they know that people are accountable, and it really changed the dynamics.”
Hickman praised the power of video as it related to his situation in the state finals.
“When the little shove happened in our game there was a gasp in the arena because everybody knew you just can’t do that,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in high school sports. But it took until the folks could really see that video for them to believe that what that kid did was inappropriate. At the moment, they weren’t buying that it was just a little touch.”
Eppley requires his Division III officials to register through the ArbiterSports central hub for basketball, because of the training videos.
“I believe all officials at all levels should see those videos because it’s the same game regardless of the level,” he said. “I think they do an excellent job of putting those on the site.”
So far, it’s all been about what happens when one of the three elements — right people, right place, right time — is missing. What about when it all goes right?
“The biggest joy that I get is the postseason,” Eppley said. “Last year at the Division III level, I had 28 postseason assignments in the four conferences, and I had 21 NCAA assignments. And out of the NCAA assignments I was able to send a crew to the Division III Final Four, and that’s very satisfying.”
Rush noted he switched the system in the Pac-12 from opportunity given to opportunity earned.
“We put six new people into the tournament, and every single one of them graded in the top 20 percent during the tournament itself,” he said. “So being able to see them succeed in a higher pressure level in a place that they’d never been before, to lay that foundation to me I think that’s the leaders of the future. That was really gratifying.”
Hickman is very proud of his state’s officials.
“When all those pieces come together and they get an opportunity after many years of service to work a championship game or a state final game, and to see the looks on their faces and to see how much joy they have as being part of that experience, it’s really heartwarming.”
For Powell, it’s the chance to be the bearer of good news.
“I think it’s the phone call telling somebody, especially a first-timer in postseason, letting them know that they have been nominated and they have been assigned to a postseason game,” she said. “It’s just so gratifying to hear that ‘Woohoo!’”
Matt Moore is a Referee associate editor. He has umpired for more than 25 years, mostly at the high school and college levels.