Is it OK for college softball umpire Matt Jacks, Dayton, Ore., to refer to the coach by his first name during this lineup change? Does it matter how long they have known each other? Not all officials agree. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

I‘m always ill at ease when an official with whom I’m working is on a first-name basis with a coach. Earlier this baseball season, during the lineup exchange, my partner was all friendly with the home team’s coach. They hugged, laughed and generally acted like they were long lost fraternity brothers.

Meanwhile the visiting coach, who didn’t know my partner as well, was obviously doing a slow burn at the prospect of having his game worked by an umpire who appeared to be the opposing coach’s fishing buddy.

Much has been written about the need for officials to give the appearance of impartiality. To me, that begins with how we address coaches.

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I’ve always used “Coach.” It was one of the first things I was taught when I started officiating. I look at it the same way when it comes to other professionals. My physician is Doctor, the policeman who pulls me over for speeding is Officer and the judge who hands down my fine is Your Honor. (Don’t infer from the last two examples I have any experience with those individuals.)

That’s because the people who hold those positions — regardless of age, success, skill or experience — have earned their title. So it is with coaches.

Some of the coaches in my area are also athletic directors. When I’m dealing with them in the latter role, I do refer to them by name. Different situation, different level of contact.

If I see a coach out and about, in the grocery store or at a ballgame, I won’t seek them out. But if a coach greets me, I will be cordial. And I will refer to the individual as Coach.

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At the pro levels, particularly in baseball, it’s a different story. Many umpires climbed the same ladder the managers did and, because the seasons are longer, there are more opportunities to see the same people over and over. It’s only natural a less formal relationship will develop. (Umpires who don’t call managers by their first names usually use, “Skip.” An umpire who calls a minor or major league manager “Coach” will regret it.)

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In order to find out if I was living in the dark ages on this topic, I reached out to some other officials to get their views.

“In all my years of officiating I have always (used) ‘Coach’ and his last name,” said Orrin Anderson, a football official from Sioux Falls, S.D. “I always felt that if they wanted me to address them by their first name, they would tell me. (But) I don’t remember any coach saying, ‘Just call me by my first name.’”

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Anderson just retired after 50 years of officiating, so he may be as old school as I am. But others share my view.

“No matter how well I know a coach, I always refer to them as ‘Coach’ during a game,” said Marieann Fodera, a veteran high school and collegiate basketball official from Staten Island, N.Y. “Before or after a game, I will refer to them by their first name. But I feel that while we are on the court, we should treat each other professionally and respectfully.”

How do officiating leaders feel about it? Alan Smith is president and executive director of the Georgia Athletic Officials Association. The association doesn’t have a written policy on the subject, but Smith has his own opinions.

“We strongly encourage our officials to use terms like ‘Coach’ or ‘Mister,’” Smith said. “In fact, in a game situation, I would only want them to use ‘Coach.’”

Away from the game, there may be a rare exception, Smith said. “I was at a hall of fame banquet one night and I was at a table with a coach I’ve known for more than 20 years,” he said. “He called me Alan and I called him Tim. But that was a social setting and I know there is a mutual respect there. On the court, it’s ‘Coach.’”

Gerald Austin, who worked two Super Bowls as an NFL official, is now the coordinator of football officials for Conference USA. In his officiating days, he used “Coach” during the game. “If, over the years, you have developed a relationship with the coach, in the pregame walk-around, when you talk with the coach, you can be more personal,” Austin said. “(But) during the game, be professional about the game and its conduct.”

As a coordinator, Austin prefers formality. “I want the officials to address the coach as ‘Coach’ or  ‘Coach Jones.’”

Does the policy work both ways? Should we bristle if coaches refer to us by our first names?

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Speaking for myself, I only get uncomfortable if one coach knows me better than the other and calls me by name. The implication is there is a familiarity that will lead me to favor the coach who is on a first-name basis with me.

“Many coaches call me by my first name when they either don’t like a call or they are pleading their case,” Fodera said. “In my experience that happens more with male coaches.”

Many softball and baseball umpires abhor being called “Blue.” I’m not as bothered by that as some of my bat-and-ball colleagues, nor am I especially turned off by being called “Ref” on the football field. But being called “Stripes”? I hate that one. A football player who calls me “Blue” or baseball player who calls me “Ref” is going to be corrected. They owe me that much.

I had a coach who called me by name during an argument in which he “f-bombed” me.

In that case, my name was the nicest thing he called me. I count that as a win.

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