Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Great crew chiefs are like great leaders because … well, because they are great leaders.

But in officiating, the whole is only as good as the sum of its parts. Even the best crew chiefs will struggle if they don’t surround themselves with a strong cast. Since good crews don’t magically appear, it takes someone in charge to fashion between one and seven other individuals into a cohesive, competent, confident unit. That job falls to the crew chief.

NFL referee Clete Blakeman served as the moderator (or crew chief, if you will) for a workshop at a recent NASO Summit designed to dig down into what really makes for a good leader and help other officials build their leadership and team-building skills.

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Joining Blakeman were Garth DeFelice, retired NFL umpire and now a regional supervisor; NCAA Division I men’s basketball referee John Higgins; NFL side judge Greg Meyer; and NFL trainer and former referee Jerry Markbreit. As in most things officiating, perception is one important aspect of leadership, Blakeman said. “You just can’t proclaim yourself as a leader,” he said. “You really have to earn it. You have to play the part and look the part and really gain that respect from your peers and everybody involved with the game you’re going to work. So we’re talking about really having a presence and taking charge.”

As an example, Blakeman showed the opening scene from the movie Patton. Actor George C. Scott, portraying the famed World War II general, stands before a huge flag and addresses troops who are about to take on the Axis. Although military protocol demands that the soldiers give Patton their undivided attention, it’s clear to the viewer that Patton is in command.

“As soon as (Patton) walks up on the stage, you kind of get the flavor of what it takes,” Blakeman said. “That guy is in charge and (the soldiers) know he is their leader. Then you build upon that.”

Generals are used to having their orders followed because of their rank. But leadership is more than ordering people about. Leadership is getting people to do what you need them to do because they want to and because it’s the right thing to do, not simply because they’re told to by a higher power.

“It’s not automatic,” Blakeman said. “You just can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m your leader’ and expect that you’re going to get a following behind you. It just doesn’t happen that way. I think we all can respect that there is a step-by-step process and it does take time.”

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The best evidence of leadership, Markbreit said, is visual proof. “You prove (you’re a leader) by showing them how good you are,” he said. “You prove it by allowing them to trust you because you are the ethical leader. When you create that environment with the people that you’re working with, they begin to understand that you want them to be the best they can be. A good leader seeks help. He doesn’t take over.”

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One Ain’t Enough

One misconception is that a crew has to have a single leader. Subgroups can and should have leaders as well.

“Within the crew dynamic, there’s not just the referee. You’ve got subordinate leaders,” said DeFelice. For example, one of the three deep officials on a football crew often is a leader to the other two. “We’re always trying to match those things up so we have the best dynamic and for the crew to meld,” he said.

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“You prove it by allowing them to trust you because you are the ethical leader.”-Jerry Markbreit

For the most part, NFL crews remain the same throughout a season and from season to season. A college basketball official will crisscross the country while officiating in several conferences. Along the way, he or she will work with a number of partners and may not see the same crewmates for weeks or months at a time. Yet those nomads in stripes also know how to assume leadership roles.

One interesting basketball dynamic is that a respected veteran official may sometimes be paired with one or two newer officials who look to him or her for leadership.

“You learn your personalities really quickly, especially in November and December (when newer officials are breaking in),” Higgins said. “You’ve got to know who the young guys are and learn their personalities very quickly. I may show up at the game and I’ve never even met the referee I’m refereeing with that night.”

First impressions count, not just with coaches, but with other officials, Higgins noted. “Once you’ve met a person one time, you get to know their tendencies and how they interact with you — if they’re quiet, they’re strong, if they’re a little soft, how you have to lead them on the court. Then you’ve got to talk to them and prepare them for what we’re going to do. Then you find out what their skill set is.”

Or an official who may be the lead official one night may have to not so much cede leadership but share it with more veteran partners the next. In many high-profile games, supervisors or conference coordinators will put together what amounts to an all-star crew. Yet someone must be designated as the crew chief. “The reason someone may be a U1 or U2 (the non-crew chiefs) is they just might not have the experience that the other official has,” Higgins noted.

In addition to his work on the football field, Meyer also scratches his officiating itch by working the scorer’s table for men’s basketball games at Texas Christian University. So he has an affinity for game-day staff such as ballhandlers, timers and chain crew members — people he works with when he is on the field. The Golden Rule comes into play. He treats others as he would like to be treated. And he realizes how making those people feel like part of the crew improves the experience for all involved.

“There’s leadership in everything that we do,” Meyer said. “Part of that is how you talk to those folks, how you make them feel welcome in the crew and just your demeanor in terms of building those relationships. And it’s your reputation as well.”

“You have to consider them as part of your team,” Blakeman added. “It’s part of being a good, cohesive group.”

Markbreit called it treating others with dignity. “Always go to (game day personnel) and say ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you very much for what you do for us.’ You never know when they’re going to save the day. When they come in the locker room, be polite. Shake hands. Don’t act like you’re above everybody else because nothing runs smoothly unless they all are on the same page.”

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Working with different crewmates or partners is not uncommon at all levels and in all sports. Just when you’re feeling comfortable with one group of officials, you’re bidding them farewell and saying hello to a new group. DeFelice, for instance, remembers having eight different crew chiefs during his NFL onfield career. Assimilating new crew members is an important task for crews in general and crew chiefs in particular. Especially if that newcomer is a rookie, who is adjusting not only to new crewmates but also a higher level of competition.

“They’re just trying to focus on themselves. Trying to figure out where to be and who to follow and what to do,” Blakeman said of NFL rookies. “And those things get lost a little bit I think in the fact that you have tasks to do. Because we’ll assign specific tasks for each game. When we hit that stadium three hours before kickoff, your crew is on task. The importance of doing that all flows into how those three hours are going to play out (during the game). You just can’t underestimate the little things that you need to think about and do.”

Coach Speak

Officials also enhance their reputations as leaders by their ability to communicate with coaches. Officials who understand the people-management part of the job will help themselves and their crewmates by exhibiting professionalism, empathy and helpfulness.

“When you come up to a coach … you’ve known him for 20 years. You don’t come up and say, ‘Hello, Joe,’” Markbreit said. “Be professional. ‘Hello coach, how are you?’ Introduce yourself. He’ll say, ‘I know your name.’ You respond, ‘I know, I just want to make sure.’ You’d be surprised how much they appreciate the fact that you respect their position. You know the biggest complaint that coaches have about officials? It is attitude. Don’t ever appear to be talking down to them even in the heat of the battle.”

Blakeman concurred. He noted that during the NFL’s annual clinic last July, time was devoted to communicating with coaches. “They brought in two coaches who have been recently off the field,” Blakeman said. “They talked about how vital it was, the communication between the officials during a game, and even before the game.”

As in life, honesty is the best policy. Meyer recalled a situation in which a coach asked him a question for which he didn’t know the answer and he tried to bluff his way through. “He reads right through it, goes right by me and tries to find somebody on the crew that knows what they’re talking about,” Meyer said. “I just felt terrible. Here I am, my second year. I’m thinking, ‘My gosh, I lost credibility with that coach by trying to do something I shouldn’t have done.’ I should have just admitted I didn’t know it, find somebody, handle it the way that I said I would handle it.’”

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Meyer said the incident not only inspired him to improve his rules knowledge, but to deal with coaches in a more forthright way. “Look him in the eye, talk to him when you need to talk to him, be honest with him. And if you don’t know, you don’t know, you’ll come back and get him (the answer).”

That incident had, at least for a short time, a deleterious effect on Meyer’s standing with his crewmates as well.

“I had lost all trust,” he said. “I just immediately lost it with my crew. I had to build that back up. And that’s how you develop reputations, that’s how you become who you are, the character that you have.”

Taking the Lead

DeFelice’s ability as an onfield official is evidenced by a dozen postseason assignments and one Super Bowl appearance. Still, in year two of his new role as a supervisor, he is starting from Square One in earning the trust of those with whom he works. Part of that is admitting his own errors.

“I know there were a number of times that I didn’t support guys very well,” he said. “I dropped the ball on supporting them in certain situations. I didn’t communicate too well on some things. I evaluated that stuff in the off season and did a lot more homework preparing for this season.”

Subsequent meetings with the officials were smoother, he said. “I was ready and was in a position where I was prepared and stepped into it as a leader and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is why, this is the reasoning behind it.’ I didn’t have a lot of argument on that because I think we had good information. By doing those things, I think I’ve developed some trust.”

DeFelice also learned that leadership is not a one-way street. To build a team, one in command must listen and adapt one’s thinking as well.

“I’ve tried to say, ‘You know what, if you differ from what I think, you need to talk to me.’ I hope I’m building that trust with my guys. If you disagree, speak up, let’s have a conversation about it and discuss it as opposed to saying, ‘It’s this way because I say.’ That doesn’t make you a leader.”

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Markbreit believes officials need pats on the back more than they need kicks in the pants. “You get the best production out of positive reinforcement, and that’s what I’ve been entitled to do as a referee trainer,” he said. “I don’t even know if the league understands the relationship that the trainers have with the men that work at their positions. But it’s a position of trust. They trust us because what we talk about doesn’t go any farther than us. We don’t make any reports. We are a mentoring program, and that’s what I love so much. The mentoring program of officiating at every level is the most important thing. We all know the rules, and we all know how to call fouls. But it’s how to be a man or woman in charge.”

By the same token, Markbreit notes that the officials who truly want to improve don’t rely solely on what’s offered; they seek counsel as well.

“The better the official, the more critique he or she wants. He or she wants someone to watch. ‘Watch me and do you see anything? Can you help me?’” Markbreit said.

In his own way, Gen. Patton was asking his troops for help when he gave the speech portrayed in the movie. As much as some coaches, players and fans want to equate the sports we officiate with war, most of the speech does not translate to what we do on the court or field.

Still, the capstone of Patton’s address would serve as a good gateway for a crew chief hoping to rally his or her own troops. To wit, “I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle, anytime. Anywhere.”

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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