By Jon Bible
If you’re used to working on a crew with the same people from week to week, you know that you can quickly reach a comfort level. Everyone knows what to expect from each other on and even off the field.
I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of some great crews on which everyone got along well, had fun and officiated beautifully. On the flip side, I’ve been part of groups that didn’t get along so well and a couple that were dysfunctional nightmares off and on the field.
As has been written many times, a good referee is more than a penalty announcer — he is a crew chief responsible for setting the right tone and getting the best performance out of each crew member and the crew as a whole. A vital aspect of that role is handling new additions to the crew. The new member may be coming on board for one game or for longer. As officials move on and off the roster from year to year, coordinators have to balance crews in terms of years of experience, meaning that, in a given year, one or more crews might be reconstituted. Injuries, family responsibilities and other issues may lead to changes as well.
How I deal with new additions depends on whether it will be for one game or the foreseeable future. I want a temporary replacement to feel comfortable, but the substitute is not really becoming a member of our family and need not have the sense of ownership. I will telephone or email him a few days in advance, tell him we’re looking forward to working with him and make sure that he knows our plans — when we will meet for dinner, go the stadium, have our pregame and do film review, etc. If we need to meet somewhere to drive to the game site, we’ll work out the logistics of that as well.
I will also ensure that we have a more comprehensive pregame than might otherwise be the case. My attitude on pregames is that I assume each person knows his keys and position mechanics so that our focus can be on how we will communicate and intersect with each other. At the start of the year, we are very thorough because there will be rule and mechanics changes to deal with, and even if some or all of us have worked together in the past, we must refresh our memories on what we have been doing and discuss how we could do things better. But as the year wears on, we don’t go through the A-B-C’s of the kicking, running, passing game, etc. each week; instead, we concentrate on what did and did not go well last week.
When a new official joins the crew as a temporary replacement, however, we pretty much go back to the first-game type of pregame. Even though everyone in the conference or association who works each position should have the same keys and mechanics, we still need to cover things like when the referee or umpire will spot the ball, who watches whom on free kicks, which officials key which receivers when there are three or four receivers on one side, etc. To make the newcomer feel a part of things, I assign him some topic to address, same as the other crew members. I stress that if anything seems amiss on the field, I want him, just like anyone else, to stop the game if necessary and raise the question. I also ask him what he feels he needs from each of us.
My experience is that younger one-game substitutes are always going to adapt to our way of doing things because they’re too scared to do otherwise. If they haven’t been around the track that many times, they may need a bit more coaching than a veteran, but they never make waves. As for veterans, 98 percent are willing to adapt to how our crew handles things like relaying new balls in, enforcing penalties and communicating. That is as it should be, for it makes far more sense for one person to change things to accommodate six others than vice versa. On a handful of occasions, however, I have had someone come in with the attitude, “I’ve always done it this way and I’m not changing.” Then I have to decide which way to go. If it’s something minor, like how a linesman communicates with me between downs, I have generally adapted on the theory that it’s not worth giving blood over. If, on the other hand, it’s something that could really affect how we work the game, I will tell him as politely as possible (privately if feasible) that I think we need to handle things our way and that he needs to come on board. Ultimately, the referee is the final authority and on occasion must exert that authority. If the new person refuses to go along, we’ll get by as best we can and then I will take it up with the coordinator.
If the new member is joining us for the year, I think there is more of a “family” aspect involved. We are going to be together each week for several months and will have many ups and downs along the way. It is important that we get off on the right foot. In that instance, I will go further than I would with a temporary substitute and find out what I can about our new addition’s family, background, job, likes, dislikes, etc. That will help me figure out how best to integrate him into our crew given the other personalities. If he has been in the conference before, I may talk with other referees to find out what I can about him. Officials tend to be Type A personalities with healthy egos. A bunch of middle-aged folks with such attributes who are pretty well set in their ways is going to have any chance of functioning harmoniously only if each member recognizes what makes the others tick and is prepared to do some giving and taking. Those who have been together for a while will already have been through it, so the key is to figure out what must be done to accommodate the new addition. If he tends to get down on himself, we know we may need to try harder to build his confidence than we may with someone else.
When a newcomer appears, a true test of the crew chief is his ability to effectively integrate that person into the crew so everyone is immediately clicking on all cylinders. If the chief does his homework and is sensitive to the needs of everyone involved, he will almost certainly succeed. If, on the other hand, the chief takes a cavalier approach to things or is too negative, dismissive or dictatorial, the results can be disastrous.
Jon Bible is a veteran football official from Austin, Texas. He is a referee in the United Football League.