Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tiger Woods and Randy Bruns have more in common than you might expect. All three have been to the pinnacle of their athletic professions multiple times, and all three are game-changers … the first two by dominance and the other by finesse.
The NCAA banned dunking in games while Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) played for UCLA to stymie his advantage in the paint. Golf courses stretched and squeezed their fairways to minimize Woods’ frightening supremacy off the tee.
Bruns? He’s a baseball guy, but you will search online in vain for his breathtaking highlights. Instead, he changes the game with the stroke of his pen … or better yet, the click of a button.
Since September 2015, Bruns has been the secretary-rules editor for NCAA baseball. After working the plate and bases for hundreds of games to ensure college teams played by the rules, he now helps lead the committee that writes them.
“There’s a lot more that goes along with this position than most people would ever understand,” Bruns said. “And certainly even more than I understood when I was an onfield umpire. When I was first approached with the idea of becoming secretary-rules editor, I didn’t want it. But after giving it some thought, I decided it would be a good way to remain involved with the game and the officiating.”
That involvement began during youth baseball in Denver, Iowa, in the late 1960s, when Bruns filled in for Little League games that did not have umpires. His big break came as a 16-year-old when he was at a park awaiting the start of a men’s fast-pitch softball game.
“One of the umpires didn’t show up, and some of the players knew I was the catcher on my high school baseball team,” Bruns said. “They figured I was used to being behind the plate and knew how to call balls and strikes, so they asked me to help them out.
“After that, they asked me to work a couple of tournaments on the weekends. Back then, a few dollars was a big deal to a high school kid, and that’s what got me started.”
Bitten by the bug of those impromptu recreation league assignments, Bruns registered with the Iowa High School Athletic Association to officiate baseball, basketball and football. During his freshman year at Luther College in 1970, he worked his first high school varsity basketball game. He began working high school baseball the following spring and added football in the fall of 1971.
“Officiating is something I became pretty passionate about right away,” he said. “When I was in high school, I was refereeing junior high basketball and football. When I graduated from high school, I was eligible to work varsity and junior varsity games. I was putting myself through college working those three sports.”
Bruns completed his degree in education in 1974 and accepted a position with the Waverly-Shell Rock School District in Waverly, Iowa. Similar to his initial high school officiating assignment, Bruns notched his first NCAA Division III basketball game the season after graduating from college. In his first year of post-student life, he balanced his time among teaching, coaching baseball as an assistant, officiating high school and college athletics throughout his home state, and finalizing wedding plans with his fiancée.
“I’ve never known Randy when he wasn’t officiating,” said Jana Bruns, Randy’s wife of 45 years and a fellow Luther College alum. “Since I was a physical education major, I had an interest in sports, so we had some common ground there. Baseball and basketball were my favorite sports when I was growing up, so his officiating was not a problem for me.”
The first three years of their marriage kept Randy close to home, but a door opened in 1978 for him to attend the Bill Kinnamon Umpire School in St. Petersburg, Fla. He and Jana knew the timing for him to chase that dream was as good as it could ever get.
“I was in my fourth year of teaching and we didn’t have any children,” Bruns said, “but we hadn’t been away from each other for more than a day up to that point. She knew how much I loved officiating, and we agreed that was the right time to go for it.
“I thought going to professional umpire school and having that intense five-week training session would be a great exposure. Even if I didn’t make it as a professional umpire, the training would carry over to basketball and football. I understood the odds of getting a job offer to work in the minors were very small, but all of a sudden, I got one. I thought if I do it for a year, that’s an experience I could never duplicate.”
One year morphed into eight, with Bruns working his way up to the Triple-A level. Soaking up the instruction and training was his primary intent, and his eyes were wide open in regard to any possible promotion to the majors. When his run came to its end in 1985 without him getting the call from the majors, he handled the letdown with a realistic levelheadedness that defines his personality.
“I knew only one or two umpires may get promoted to the majors each year,” said Bruns, who spent four seasons in Triple-A.
“If umpires don’t go to the major leagues, they have nowhere else to go. No one’s going to make a career of umpiring Triple-A baseball, so after three or four years, they release a good number of high-quality umpires. It’s not because they don’t do good work on the field … the number of spots in the major leagues is few.”
On the day after Bruns worked what would be his final Triple-A game, Jana delivered the couple’s second child in four years. When Bruns learned he would not be retained for the 1986 season, he and his wife concluded that was a good time for him to return to the real working world and focus on raising their children. In between minor league seasons, he did some work in financial services, so he launched the next stage of his professional life in the business sector. He also returned to his officiating roots with a renewed outlook on the avocation.
“I had a fairly easy transition to working high school and college baseball since I already had a feel for that level of athletes,” Bruns said. “I enjoyed my time teaching and coaching, so I did not have a difficult time falling back on that experience after my years in professional baseball.”
Neither did he have much trouble catapulting his college umpiring career. In 1986, he started his 30 years in Division I by working the Big Ten, the former Big Eight and the Missouri Valley conferences. His small-college work in 1987 led to him working that season’s Division III College World Series. Throughout the 1990s, Bruns took the field for various conference tournaments, regionals and super regionals, ultimately landing the first of his three D-I College World Series assignments in 1999.
“There’s nothing like working those World Series games in Omaha,” Bruns said. “Certainly I was honored to get that privilege. The level of excitement and anticipation on the field and in the stands is unlike any other experience I’ve had.”
If Bruns had not soared to the top of college baseball’s mountain, his officiating accolades would still stand tall. Chasing his major league aspirations did not limit Bruns’ work in football and basketball. He maintained busy schedules in both sports, establishing himself as one of Iowa’s most trusted officials.
“His reputation is beyond reproach,” said Chuck Brittain, a 46-year officiating veteran and Bruns’ longtime basketball partner. “The professionalism, dignity and competency Randy exhibits are exemplary. There are other people in our officiating community who may have as much of those qualities as he has, but no one has more.”
For 20-plus years, Bruns and Brittain were virtually inseparable on the basketball court during the era when most games had only two officials. Brittain estimates the duo worked close to 50 games each of those years across high school and college. During those 20-plus years, they were assigned to more than 100 Iowa state playoff contests, including seven state championships. A partnership with that depth of durability boils down to two factors: convenience and trust.
“Randy and I lived across the street from each other, so other than a few games here and there, we did all of our games together in high school and college,” said Brittain, now Iowa’s coordinator of officials for boys’ and girls’ basketball. “We had each other’s back and we could depend on each other. We shared the same philosophy, didn’t fish in each other’s pond and enjoyed every chance we had to work together.
“Another huge factor is we have really good wives. If you’re married, you can’t officiate and be good at it for a long time without having a really good (spouse). Officiating has a lot of carnage with marriages and family turmoil. Randy and I committed ourselves to avoid that. We traveled together and brought our families with us on many occasions. That helped us become a rock-solid unit.”
The reliability he could count on from Brittain was only a fraction of the reliability Bruns had at home.
“I was very fortunate to be one of the umpires in professional baseball at the time who was married to the same woman when he got out as when he got in,” Bruns said. “That’s a testament to Jana’s ability to keep things going at home while I was on the road so much during those years. She was an absolute rock, and I am very grateful for her support over the years.”
Jana managed her teaching career, her husband’s schedule and their children’s upbringing with a pragmatic approach. She embraced her family’s busy lifestyle and determined she would not permit Randy’s officiating to become a source of contention.
“I didn’t want to be an ‘official’s widow,’” she said. “I traveled with Randy as much as I could; I wanted to meet the other officials’ wives. I knew officiating was important to
Randy, so I did what I could to encourage him in it.”
Randy and Jana established a protocol for their family to make up for lost time when hundreds of miles separated them and their children, Anne and Brian. They vowed to commemorate all the important holidays and family milestones, regardless of when the commemoration took place.
“Our anniversary is in June, but we haven’t always celebrated it on that date because I was away from home,” Randy said. “We’ve celebrated Christmas in February because I may have been in the Dominican Republic for winter ball in December. We didn’t want our children to miss the fun of the holidays. Setting aside that time for family — no matter what the date is — remains a priority for us.”
The salesmanship that is innate in officiating does not apply only when making tough calls on bang-bang plays. It is essential when shaking hands or bumping fists with someone for the first time. The first impression Bruns made on Jeff Henrichs remains unchanged almost 30 years later.
“You just know when you meet good people in this profession,” said Henrichs, a 26-year veteran of the Big 12 and Pac-12 who also reached Triple-A. “I could tell he didn’t have a big ego that got in his way. He never had to spit out his résumé, but I knew he had that ‘it.’ I also sensed he was a good person who cares about people, and being a good person goes a long way in officiating.
“He’s the kind of guy you want to work with and hang out with afterward. He personifies what the brotherhood of umpires is all about. Randy always promoted other umpires. If you are a good umpire, Randy makes sure people know about you.”
One of those umpires is Mike Droll. Like most high school umpires in Iowa during the early and mid-1980s, Droll knew of Bruns by keeping his eye on Bruns’ minor league progress and pulling for him to crack the major league staff. The high school diamond provided a soft landing spot for Bruns after his discharge from the minors, and a game in 1986 paired him with Droll.
“His professional experience was obvious,” Droll said about his first time working with Bruns. “He was more technically sound than anyone I’d seen up to that time; he was never out of position and he had a distinct presence on the field.”
In the subsequent years, Droll, a resident of Coralville, Iowa, remained in touch with Bruns. When he started knocking on the door of Division I baseball, Bruns opened it for him by “putting his money where his mouth was,” as Droll summarized it.
“The first year the Big Eight had a supervisor of umpires was 1989. Randy suggested to the supervisor he remove Randy from a series so I could get a shot at working a Division I series. How many guys would forego a series and give up the income so a younger umpire could have the opportunity to work major college baseball? It epitomizes the kind of person Randy is and I’ll never forget that gesture.”
Sports leagues and organizations seem on an endless quest to improve their games, either for the safety of their players or the convenience of their fans. As NCAA baseball continues solidifying its visibility within the fabric of college athletics, it will tinker with rules revisions and additions every year. Bruns may not initiate those changes, but he is still heavily involved in the process.
“During the season, I observe games on both video and in person to see how umpires are enforcing rules,” Bruns said. “I look for trends that may require updates, and that leads to feedback from conferences and umpires.
“We have major updates to the rules every two years. The rules committee is always gathering information about suggested rules changes and edits to the rulebook. We feed that information to coaches and administrators from Divisions I, II and III on the committee, and they determine exactly which ones they’re going to put forward.”
After proposed changes become law, Bruns’ task is to graft the new rule into the rulebook. That process entails much more than typing a couple lines of text into an existing file.
“I have to figure out what other rules are affected by the changes,” Bruns said. “I also need to ensure the wording is clear because using the correct language is critical. We want to make the changes without leaving players, coaches and officials confused.”
Bruns and George Drouches, the NCAA national coordinator of umpires, collaborate on myriad projects both during the season and offseason. Their teamwork produces most of the training material designed to inform and reinforce rules knowledge, mechanics and philosophy. Because they use print and video platforms, their presentations of those documents and visual aids demand constant contact between them.
“We talk on a daily basis, and sometimes that becomes an hourly basis,” said Drouches, who became national coordinator in 2014. “Randy and I are the leaders of the baseball officiating community. With me leading the many facets of the NCAA baseball umpiring program and him in charge of the rules that govern our game, our roles have some overlap.
“We work hand in hand, not only in rules compliance but also the educational side. It’s our job to get the umpires up to speed with changes to the rulebook and the mechanics manual, and for stakeholders affiliated with NCAA baseball to align with training, education and testing benchmarks. This will all but eliminate the possibility that the integrity of our game can be compromised.”
Drouches may take partial credit for Bruns succeeding Jim Paronto in the secretary-editor role. When Paronto’s term of service ended, Drouches pitched Bruns about filling that void.
“I knew he’d be excellent,” said Drouches, who served as the Division III coordinator of umpires previous to his present post. “He’s diligent, responsive and well-respected by coordinators and onfield umpires across the country. In the few years he’s been in that position, he’s done a phenomenal job with NCAA baseball rule interpretations and clarifications, as well as editing and transforming the baseball rulebook into a succinct publication.”
That transformation is an ongoing project Bruns pinpoints as one of the most urgent on his to-do list. Although the NCAA employs a two-year cycle for major rules revisions, editorial changes occur every year, which means Bruns can streamline the baseball code for every season.
“I’ve made a concerted effort to clean up some things that accumulated in our rules over the last 30 years,” Bruns said. “That’s a major responsibility I do with Ben Brownlee, the baseball liaison at the NCAA. I knew there was a lot we could remove from the language to make the rules easier to grasp, enforce and explain.”
Three years ago, Bruns retired from a financial services company, bringing a 32-year career in the industry to a close. Most of that time saw him training and developing financial advisers. The mutual threads of his success in the corporate world and in officiating are keen instincts and thick skin.
“Being in training situations in the business sector, I have to think on my feet a lot when I’m speaking in front of groups. Even with individual training, the ability to not worry about someone’s comment was beneficial to me,” Bruns said.
“When I interviewed to become a trade review principal, one of the interviewers asked how I would respond when people don’t agree with my opinion. I started laughing and explained my officiating background. Since I’d been yelled at by thousands of people and scrutinized on national television, someone who believes my financial decision is not suitable is not going to bother me very much.”
The baseball file in Bruns’ officiating portfolio may have the most entries, but his football and basketball achievements are also noteworthy. In 2007, he was the crew chief for the NCAA D-III football national championship game. He also has a D-III basketball Final Four under his belt. He may have been equally as prolific had he prioritized football or basketball, but his boyhood roots pushed baseball to become his adulthood route.
“Baseball has always had my heart,” Bruns said. “My dad is a big Chicago Cubs fan, and he was a pretty good baseball player, so baseball was a big part of our home for as long as I can remember. My officiating passion was basketball, but baseball is my game … it’s the love of my athletics life. It was hard to overcome that.
“College baseball is a great game that’s getting more exposure and we are doing more things to make it better. There are some things I miss by not being on the field, but I’m in a terrific place.”
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