A well-read woman with an insatiable desire to cram yet more knowledge into her mind was sitting poolside at an Aruba timeshare dwelling in the summer of 2015. Simply reading doesn’t cut it for June Courteau. Inquisitive since she was coming of age as a girl in St. Paul, Minn., during the 1950s, Courteau emotionally digests her favorite books as passionately as a scrumptious steak dinner with a sparkling glass of wine. And as a captivated Courteau read Daniel James Brown’s 2013 masterpiece The Boys in the Boat during that picture-perfect day, she was highlighting numerous passages from Brown’s stirring account about the University of Washington’s eight-oared crew, comprised of members who had struggled to succeed during the Depression, achieving spectacular success during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. There were so many parallels between what she was reading and what she was trying to accomplish in her new role.
One year earlier, one of the most decorated and respected officials in the history of women’s basketball had to be convinced to become the NCAA national coordinator of women’s basketball officiating. Once she accepted — and Courteau’s wife, Teresa Dahlem, deserves a great deal of credit for that — this woman committed herself to raise the bar in officiating, just as she has since first pulling on a striped shirt. Her 43 years of women’s basketball officiating, during which she worked 12 NCAA Final Fours, including five national championship games, served as a formidable foundation when she became just the fourth person to hold the title of national coordinator. But Courteau has never been one to rest on her laurels and she used that highlighter extensively as she turned the pages of the book in search of potential teaching points — and drove Teresa nuts as her wife was trying to read a book of her own at that poolside four years ago.
“Here’s what I remember,” Dahlem said. “I couldn’t read my book. I’m like, ‘God dang it, shut up! I want to read my book!’ She kept interrupting me over and over and over again. She was clearly inspired by it and kept reading the quotes. She was like, ‘Oh, Terry, you’ve got to listen to this!’”
As Courteau raved, she continued highlighting passages. She marked, “Good crews are blends of personalities; someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking … somehow, all this must mesh.” And Courteau also highlighted the passage, “If you don’t like some person in the boat, you have to learn to like them. It has to matter to you whether that crew member wins the race and performs at their best … not just whether you do.”
That quote crystalized perfectly what Courteau tried to instill during her many years of excellence as both a rules master and a bridge of communication with irate coaches and players. And those words were also a great teaching point for a consummate leader who intended to leave college basketball officiating far better than where she found it. Even if the new position, as Dahlem recalled, could be so overwhelming at times that it sometimes brought Courteau to tears. And now that she is walking into the sunset as she approaches her 71st birthday in September, Courteau can do so knowing that the job she reluctantly accepted — but embraced once she did — has been done remarkably well. Those crews of officials she helped mentor are rowing in unison more than ever, putting aside egos for the common interest of getting it right for the players and coaches with whom they work.
“I’m proud of all those officials running up and down the floor, trying to get it right,” Courteau said in one of her farewell messages as she heads into retirement with Teresa, who has been in education for 32 years.
“June is an icon,” said Patty Broderick, coordinator of the Women’s Basketball Officiating Consortium (WBOC) and a retired official. “Obviously, she is the best teacher and trainer in the country in the past, present and future that there could possibly be. She is the one who wrote the book on Officiating 101, in my opinion. She spent the majority of her life training and teaching and identifying young officials she developed. She’s a motivator. She had a vision of how to best train and teach aspiring young officials to be their best, with technology, with psychology, with actually walking on the floor with them and training and teaching and sitting in classrooms. She’s the master, the absolute master of that.”
Those who learned from Courteau likely were peppered with a series of questions from her about a missed call that was made. Her intent was not to humiliate the official but to make her or him understand the mechanics behind the call. It was her nature to be inquisitive as a means to gauge just how prepared that official was and to reinforce how crucial proper mechanics are at all times. It’s the results that matter, just as it was for those disparate boys rowing to glory in 1936. Some officials brag about enduring the “Courteau Treatment” to this day.
“June is legendary in women’s basketball,” said Vicki Davis, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference supervisor of women’s basketball officials. “Officials who have had the opportunity to officiate with her will claim that bragging right. I remember being in the locker room after a game with a basketball crew and after the critique, we talked about everyone’s next assignment. Without hesitation, one official said she was heading home to get a good rest and study her rulebook to be on top of her game in preparation for the next day, when she would be officiating with June Courteau.”
How thorough was Courteau? Just ask Dee Kantner, who worked the NCAA national championship game in April. In 1984, Kantner was an upstart serving a tough, but ultimately fulfilling apprenticeship under Courteau’s watch, and it started on a sobering note.
“This is not an exaggeration and I am sometimes prone to hyperbole,” Kantner said. “I was only 24 and I was working at UT-Chattanooga my first year in the conference. She came to watch and, after the game, she handed me seven pages of notes! I just looked at them and said, ‘Holy smokes! Really, did I do anything right out there?’ But she was very supportive. She just said, ‘Those are seven pages of notes because your mechanics are awful, your positioning is not that good, but what you have — that feel for the game — I can’t teach you. So I think you’re going to be all right.’
“Since the age of 24, and I’m now 59, June and I have talked basketball almost every day. So you tell me how many conversations are about notes and plays and rules and situations.”
Courteau, true to her nature, was long reticent to be interviewed for a story. It was never about her, it was about her body of work, which said all she cared to say. No egos allowed, remember? Besides, when she put words out there for public consumption, she has long been concerned with how they might be bent and twisted.
“I’m politically astute, I’ll watch TV and I’ll go, ‘You probably shouldn’t have said that because they’re going to focus on that and they’re going to miss your entire point!’ she said. “I’m just kind of that way. I’ve probably said some things, not necessarily to the media, in my career I should have thought about before I said them. I’m very protective of myself. I have always been protective about the media.”
But now that Courteau has opened up, she has a story to tell about her life that foreshadowed her 43 years of excellence as a basketball official. It started in St. Paul, where she was born Sept. 18, 1948, the fourth child of Don and Helen Courteau. Growing up on a corner lot at 1689 Barclay St., in Maplewood, a suburb of St. Paul, with older siblings Mick, Sharon and Bill, Courteau has a mental scrapbook of memories with numerous relatives who were in her life.
“My dad was French and my mother was Greek,” she said. “There were five sisters in the Greek family and, of course, they had many cousins and kids. You’ve seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding where you had the loud family that takes a half-hour to say hi and takes you a half-hour to say goodbye? We’re very much like that and I grew up like that. My mother and dad lived two houses away from my mother’s sister, Auntie Zera. Both my mom and aunt were very athletic and they were our coaches. They coached our softball team and those were great learning experiences.”
Character traits that would one day make her a towering presence in officiating were starting to reveal themselves during those days. Courteau wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and she didn’t hesitate to dig in when it came time to hold her ground. Could she be difficult? Sure, Courteau concedes that she could be and she makes no apologies all these years later.
“I was a challenge when I was a kid with my family and luckily, I had a mom and dad who understood that ‘this one is going to speak out,’” she said. “My two brothers and sister would say to me, ‘You need to be quiet a little bit more.’ Well, I think I came out of my mother’s womb saying, ‘Could you turn off that light? It’s a little bright in here!’ I would look at my mom and brothers and sister and say, ‘I’m not talking back! I’m just asking questions.’ They would roll their eyes and go, ‘Oh my God!’ I’ve always been like that. And I’ve been opinionated and strong as a woman. I remember I was in the kitchen making something to eat for myself and my brother said, ‘You need to make something for me.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘You’re the girl.’ And I said, ‘Boy, there’s no way you’re getting anything from me!’
Mark Johnson, one of Courteau’s cousins from the old neighborhood, recalled a born leader.
“She was good when there was a discrepancy because she would be able to settle people down and talk it out,” he said. “She would take charge right away, number one. And when she talked, you listened. She was very stern, very fair, had great integrity. As she grew up and became the official she became, I used to give her all kinds of grief about officials. I’d do it on purpose to get her all riled up and it was fun to hear her defend her profession because she was so damn good at it.”
All the components were in place for Courteau to become the mover and shaker the officiating world is thanking today. The initial inspiration came from her parents and there is one memory with her father Courteau recalls that causes her voice to crack with emotion.
“You’re going to learn right now that I’m an emotional Greek,” she said as her voice started cracking. “I was sitting on the floor and we were talking. He said, ‘You can do whatever you want in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy.’ My dad was a unique guy. He would do the dishes. He would scrub the floor. He would help my mother. They were a team back then.”
Her late father’s words have resonated within Courteau since. After graduating from North St. Paul High School in 1966, she earned a Bachelor of Science in physical education, health, speech and theater from Winona State in ’72 and then a Masters of Arts in speech and communications from Northern Iowa in ’76. She started officiating in 1968 at the age of 20 and built a spectacular career at the college level, with the International Basketball Federation and in the professional ranks. Even in her earliest years, Courteau had a way of controlling games and not backing down from coaches who clearly tried to intimidate her. This was a woman who kept her composure even in the tensest situations and calmly reminded irate coaches that just as they stated their position, it was only fair that she be given the opportunity to counter with hers. Hey, why not build bridges instead of walls?
“When you say, ‘Coach, what are you seeing that I’m not seeing?’ people don’t realize that’s a powerful statement,” Courteau said. “That means indirectly, ‘You’re kind of better than I am because you’re seeing something and I recognize that!’ So, that makes them feel a little bit better and it’s like, ‘She’s not dissing me.’ So now we’re having a conversation! It’s at least trying to establish that two-way relationship. And then after you’ve been in the business, they know how to approach you. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Over the years, Courteau became a master of making her point. One memory is with Lisa Leslie, a 6-foot-5 superstar with the Los Angeles Sparks during Courteau’s time as an official in the WNBA from 1997-2010.
“Lisa Leslie was starting to bump as she was coming into the post and I said, ‘Lisa, ease up in there, ease up,’” Courteau said. “And she looked at me like, ‘Who the heck do you think you’re talking to?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, OK, fine!’ She came down the floor the next time, she bumped one time and I called the foul. I said, ‘Are we cool? Are we good? Are we OK?’ And she said, ‘Yep, I got it.’”
Another memory involves Andy Landers, the longtime Georgia women’s basketball coach, during a game against Tennessee and its legendary late coach, Pat Summit.
“Those two coaches … of course they recruited against each other, they were in the SEC and it was a tough, tough game,” Courteau said. “Andy is in my ear about something and he was going on and on. Sure enough, I miss a lane violation because I’m listening to him! I turned around and I said to him, ‘Andy, you have a choice. You can either talk to me and I’ll miss things or you can leave me alone and let me referee this game. Your choice.’ He said, ‘OK, June, I got it.’”
That’s June Courteau for you. Always cool. Always in control. Cindy Moore, a retired high school administrator in Minnesota who has known Courteau for more than 20 years, recalls both a bridge builder and a proactive achiever. One example was around 1996 when Courteau served as Dahlem’s assistant coach for the Hastings (Minn.) High School girls’ volleyball team.
“There was a parent in the stands and I think he thought he should be coaching,” Moore said. “She had a conversation with the parent as the game was going on and she provided emotional support, which I think the parent was trying to do, but in a real inappropriate way. So she is able to provide support and she does it in such a way that she leaves people with a sense of dignity and makes them better in the long run. People remember the way you made them feel and that’s the way I think it is with June. And she’s always there.”
Courteau was just as impressive off the court, and Moore recalls one incident at Dahlem’s school.
“I remember one time in White Bear (School District) there had been a tornado and Terry’s school had turned into a crisis center,” Moore said. “I went there and June was already organizing who was going to get water, who’s going to get the ice … she ran around and got all the coolers. Nobody told her what to do, but she was there doing it. She was there organizing. She’s a doer, not just a leader.”
Just as Courteau has given so much to officiating, officiating, in a sense, gave Courteau her ultimate gift in life. That came in 1989 when she met Dahlem before a game at the University of Minnesota. Dahlem, who is just completing a 32-year career in education, the last 13 as principal of Oneka Elementary School in Hugo, Minn., almost immediately saw that certain something in Courteau.
“We met through basketball,” Dahlem said. “I was a young official back in the days when Division I was working two-person crews. In the Big Ten, they would hire a standby in case somebody went down. It was my very first standby job. It was a December night in 1989, I knock on the door of the locker room and it was June. I knew of June, of course, and I was definitely afraid of meeting her. I opened the door and this is going to sound real hokey, but it was literally love at first sight. For me, I had a hard time separating being in awe of the official and being in awe of the person.”
They have been together since, sharing a commitment ceremony Aug. 7, 2003, and getting legally married Aug. 10, 2013. Tina Tomlinson, Courteau’s first cousin, singles out Dahlem for changing Courteau’s life.
“We were at a Greek spaghetti Christmas party and she walked in the door and she looked so happy,” Tomlinson said. “I said, ‘You met somebody, didn’t you?’ That’s when she had met Terry and that’s when they got together. That’s a story I’ll never forget.”
It’s a relationship that endured for Courteau and Dahlem, who make their home in Centerville, Minn., just 21 miles from where Courteau was raised. (Dahlem was born in Hershey, Pa.) What has Dahlem meant to Courteau?
“She’s grounded me and we get along so well,” Courteau said. “She’s a woman of high integrity, honesty and sensitivity. We’ve talked about it and we said I’m better because of her and she’s better because of me.”
It was Dahlem who encouraged Courteau to accept the national coordinator position in 2014 and watched her make an enormous impact in her position. Occasionally, she worked under a great deal of pressure.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s been the toughest five years,” Dahlem said of Courteau’s commitment. “When all roads lead to you, it’s an incredibly stressful job and literally for the first time in my life, I saw her cry based on work stress once or twice during that five-year period of time. It was hard to see that happen, but once we got all that emotion out, it was pick up the pieces and figure out how to move forward.”
Maybe the pinnacle of Courteau’s career came in her last Final Four as national coordinator. It was the semifinal matching UConn and defending champion Notre Dame at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., and Courteau was near the scorer’s table wearing a headset. Five minutes into the game, official Michol Murray went down with a knee injury and didn’t get back up, something that had never happened in a game of this magnitude. What followed in the figurative sense was that the boys in the boat started rowing in unison for a common cause. What Courteau read in that book four years earlier, what she had tried to inspire during her run as national coordinator, was coming alive before her very eyes. This chain of efficiency started with standby official Gina Cross.
“I said, ‘Gina, you’re going in. You’ve been watching what they’ve been calling, you’ve got the tempo and the tone, just warm up,’” Courteau said. “She said, ‘OK, I’ve got to calibrate my whistle.’ That’s the first thing she said — calibrate the whistle to make sure it accurately stops and starts.”
And then Courteau summoned officials Joe Vaszily and Beverly Roberts.
“They’re taking Michol off and then I blew with my fingers in my mouth and they came over,” Courteau said. “I looked at them both and said, ‘I know this is emotional, guys, and we’re going to have time for all of the emotions to come out, but this is for the players. Take care of the game.’ And they both looked at me, they get a grin on their faces and they said, ‘We’ve got this, June.’ And then went out there and nailed it.
“And then we need a standby. I get up, I go behind the scorer’s table, the game’s going on and I’m heading into the locker room and there is Lisa Jones. She was watching the game in the locker room and she’s already dressed in her street clothes because she did the first game. She saw Michol go down and said, ‘They’re going to need a standby, you guys.’ So she changes again and comes out. I said, ‘Hey, are you going to take care of your crew?’ She said ‘yes,’ and goes out. We didn’t miss a beat.”
It truly was the boys in the boat rowing in unison under the inspired watch of Courteau.
“It went so smooth in such a high-pressure game that it was amazing,” said officiating great Marcy Weston, a former NCAA national coordinator of women’s basketball officiating. “The prep that goes into that, June is the master at those kinds of things. She loves the detail and having all possibilities covered. All possibilities were covered and they had to be activated. If you would have turned on the TV five minutes later, you would have never known anything had happened because they were so smooth.”
What has Courteau represented as national coordinator? Consider another passage from The Boys in the Boat that she highlighted at Aruba during the summer of 2015. It was something she used to close each of her seminars as national coordinator with.
“The trick is to find the few who have the raw power, superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique, but the most important is their ability to disregard his/her own ambitions, to throw ego overboard and pull, not just for oneself, not just for glory, but for the crew … and for us … the game.”
Peter Jackel is an award-winning sportswriter from Racine, Wis.
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