Photo Credit: Alan Calzada

In the old days, style and flair in officiating was easy to recognize. It was prevalent in a lot of games. Today, most assigners want officials to model “by-the-book” signals and mechanics. While personality has been shoved to the background, is there still some
room for it?

Think back to when you first started officiating. Chances are there was someone already in the profession whom you emulated.

It might have been the way that person ran onto the field or the court. It might have been the way a runner was called out on a close play at first base, or how the whistle was blown. But one way or another, that official stood out from the crowd. In short, he or she had style.

Many of the legendary figures in officiating circles had distinct individual styles. Men like longtime NL umpire Al Barlick or NFL referee Tommy Bell had a certain mystique about them. Their mannerisms, be it Barlick’s decisive strike call, or Bell’s emphatic way of signaling a penalty, made them appear decisive and in control.

For many years, assigners and supervisors encouraged (or at least didn’t discourage) individuality for precisely that reason; decisive signals or a loud voice helped sell a call and gave the impression to coaches and players that the official was sure of him or herself.

Bottom line: If you got the call right, what you looked like doing it was secondary in many locales.

But that mind-set has changed. Over the last three decades there has been an increasing emphasis on doing things “by the book.” In today’s world most assigners, evaluators, coordinators and assessors prefer that their officials stick to the prescribed signals and mechanics. Conformity is a virtue.

Some of that philosophy emerged by design, the rest from the growth of and changes in the officiating industry.

Hank Nichols has been in the epicenter of all of it. Among the great basketball officials, Nichols worked 10 NCAA Final Fours and six national championship games in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1986, he became the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, the first time the organization had appointed a national coordinator in any sport. Over the next 22 years, including six of them as the secretary-rules editor, Nichols worked to standardize officiating practices around the country.

Over time, floor mechanics and other officiating practices became universal. Along the way individualism was deemphasized, in part, Nichols says, because the practice of “selling a call” isn’t as important today as it once was.

“Historically, you had to sell your call if you were going to advance in officiating,” he says. “If you didn’t sell your call real hard in that gym, the people who were evaluating you would look on that as a negative.

“There was a reason for that because in those days, if you sold it in the gym, the coaches and the fans would more likely buy it. And the coaches wouldn’t see the film, or whatever they were looking at, until a day later.”

Nichols points out that today’s coaches, not to mention the media and fans, get virtually instant access to plays, often via digital high-definition technology.

“Because of all the (technology) we have now,” he says, “it doesn’t matter so much if you sell the call in the arena because 20 minutes after the game 16 people have (it) and they know if you got it right or wrong.”

The NBA went through a similar transition when Darell Garretson took over as its supervisor of officials in 1981. Prior to his assuming the post, NBA officials were free to show personalities on the floor. Officials like Sid Borgia, Mendy Rudolph, and later Earl Strom and Jake O’Donnell had distinct on-court personas.

That changed under Garretson, who wanted everyone on his staff doing things the same way. His philosophy generated considerable resentment among some of the veterans on the staff. The common argument was that officials were being turned into robots, but Garretson’s reasoning was that a team should expect the same things from a crew in Milwaukee as they did the night before in Boston.

Over time the NBA staff grew, in part because of the introduction of three-official crews for the 1988- 89 season and in part because of expansion. In the process, the referees became largely anonymous figures. Garretson spent 17 years in the post before retiring, but his impact on the game remains. And Nichols is quick to point out that in the past several years certain NBA practices have been adopted at the college level, such as pointing on a player-control foul instead of the traditional hand-behind- the-head signal.

Some have trickled down to the high school ranks, where officials now toss or bounce the ball to a player making an inbounds pass, instead of handing it to them, which was standard procedure for years.

From the Top Down

The trickle-down effect has had an impact on football as well. The NFL was the first professional league to evaluate its officials using tools that are taken for granted in most sports today, such as a formalized grading system along with film and later video technology.

Through the years, certain officials, particularly referees, have had styles or mannerisms that made them easy to pick out on the field. Men like Bell, Jim Tunney and later Jerry Markbreit stood out, particularly after referees began using microphones in the 1970s.

But the pendulum shifted in the direction of standardization over the past two decades; specifically, since Jerry Seeman was named the NFL’s director of officiating in 1991.

During his own officiating career, which he concluded by serving as the referee for Super Bowl XXV, Seeman stood out for his placid disposition on the field.

Some called it “working on cruise control,” others described that approach as “robotic.”

In any case, Seeman stressed that approach to his staff, in his quest for each of his crews, and for each official within the crew, to approach the task of officiating an NFL game in a structured, analytical fashion.

That philosophy became ingrained at the college level after the late Dave Parry was appointed the NCAA’s first national coordinator for football after the 2007 season.

Parry, who worked in the NFL for 15 seasons before taking charge of the Big Ten staff, brought the NFL philosophy with him as the coordinator. Nowadays it’s hard to tell a seasoned college crew apart from their NFL brethren.

But individual style isn’t completely lost. When Mike Pereira replaced Seeman prior to the start of the 2001 season, officials were given a bit more leeway to let their personalities show. That has stayed with Carl Johnson, vice president and director of officiating.

Legendary referees Markbreit and Red Cashion currently serve as trainers and mentors to today’s referees as well. Both had distinctive on-field mannerisms, such as Cashion’s distinctive “First down,” drawl.

As trainers, they help the referees on the present-day NFL staff find an outlet for their individual personalities while still adhering to league policies and procedures.

Fitting in vs. Standing Out

So what does all that mean for those of us working at lower levels?

In short, the people who assign and evaluate officials are usually more comfortable with someone who fits in than someone who stands out.

Bryan Fink is the president of the South Carolina Football Officials Association (SCFOA). He’ll be starting his 29th season on the field this fall; he also worked basketball for 25 years before giving it up a few years back.

The SCFOA utilizes one of the most detailed officials’ manuals of any local association in the country. Over the course of 52 pages it covers every aspect of officiating a football game. It’s designed for a five-official crew but alternate versions are available for crews of four (for sub-varsity games) or seven (for the postseason).

“I can’t recall how it came about,” Fink says, “but all of a sudden we developed our own manual. … We review the manual every year and it’s updated on an annual basis.”

In South Carolina, officials don’t work in regular crews and it’s not uncommon for officials to travel 75 miles one way to work a varsity game. The manual enables officials from different regions to work together with relative ease.

“It allows officials to be able to work together to communicate with one another using the prescribed mechanics,” he says. “It’s a very good manual. That’s why we try not to deviate from it.”

Indeed, officials are “strongly encouraged” not to deviate from the manual, which was adopted in the 1980s.

Fink, who is primarily a linesman but who also frequently works as a referee, says the manual is particularly helpful for young officials.

He is quick to point out that the SCFOA isn’t trying to produce officials who are clones of one another in terms of personality or style. He maintains that officials can have a distinct style and still stick to their association’s prescribed procedures.

“The thing that allows someone to do that is confidence in their own ability,” he says, “and being very comfortable at their position as an official. At that point in time they can display a little bit more stylistic type of stuff and still be within the guidelines.”

Donna Vavrinec echoes those sentiments. Her umpiring credits include four trips to the NCAA Division I Softball World Series and two assignments to the ASA Women’s Major Fast Pitch national tournament. She’s also umpired at the international level. Vavrinec is now in her second season as the NCAA’s national coordinator of softball umpires.

As was the case in other sports, the NCAA created the softball coordinator’s post as the sport grew, as the number of intersectional games increased and as college softball received more television exposure.

“We have teams traveling across the country,” she said, “and we wanted everybody to be on the same page as far as consistency and enforcing the rules.”

Softball is unique in that standardized umpiring procedures have evolved as much from the bottom up as the other way around. The ASA umpire manual, for instance, is one of the most detailed in all of sports.

Historically, the people who evaluate softball umpires have placed a greater emphasis on “doing it by the book” than their peers in other sports. Vavrinec herself is quick to point out the importance of using standardized mechanics.

“One way we can be on the same page is with our mechanics,” she says. “So we can communicate with one another and know what we’re saying. … I think that standardization came from the need to be able to communicate with people across the country.

“Or take international ball. You may not be able to speak Italian, but you can communicate with your partners through your signals.”

Vavrinec notes, however, that within the guidelines there’s room for some individuality.

“There is some leeway in making say a third-strike call,” Vavrinec says. “There are different ways you can put your own style on your game. It’s not like everyone has to do the same kind of hammer. There is some leeway within the guidelines.”

Some Style is a Good Thing

In today’s increasingly standardized world, Mike Carey and many of his NFL referee counterparts are able to stand out some. A veteran of 22 NFL seasons, 16 of them as a referee, Carey’s own on-field persona exudes dignity and precision, in the best sense of those terms.

Carey cites two circumstances that have made the “personality issue” more complicated for referees — the microphone that referees use regularly at the college and professional levels (and often at levels below that) and the increasing use of instant replay.

It’s important that the referee describe the situation in a manner that provides the interested parties (the players and coaches) with the information that they require, while at the same time keeping spectators and the television audience informed.

“Instant replay is a very, very high-profile part of refereeing,” Carey says, “along with our announcement of fouls. We have a structure of the way they want you to do it and it’s difficult sometimes to do it in a way that’s expressive.”

Although there are certainly styles and personalities that come through.

Carey says there are occasions when it’s necessary to sell a call, whether the play involves the referee, someone working at another position, or several officials working in unison. “You’ll see (officials’) personalities come out in that as an exclamation point,” he says. “We want to make sure the audience sees the result of that play and how it’s being officiated. What did happen on that play.”

Carey cites then-Giants receiver Mario Manningham’s celebrated catch along the sideline in the most recent Super Bowl as a case where “selling the call” was especially necessary.

“The first question was, ’Did he or didn’t he (make a legal catch)?’” Carey says. “Nobody wants to wait three minutes for a replay and Laird Hayes (the side judge) gave a really great sell. It just erased all doubt in anybody’s mind about what happened on that play.”

How Much is Too Much?

So, if there is leeway for style in officiating, what are the limits of style?

A good answer to that question might be, individual style that aids in game administration can be beneficial in the right circumstances. Style that detracts from efficient game administration or is irritating to coaches, players (and partners) is a problem or potential problem.

Dock Sisk started working basketball some 37 years ago in his native Georgia. One of his frequent partners was Sally Bell. Today he observes games for Bell in the Ohio Valley and Atlantic Sun conferences, as well as in camp settings.

Sisk handled women’s college games for three decades and estimates he worked 19 NCAA Division I tournaments; he didn’t work during the 2011-12 season because of a leg injury.

A long career as both official and observer has given Sisk some very definite and practical ideas about what assigners and coordinators are looking for and, more importantly, what they’re not looking for.

“Supervisors are more comfortable with officials who fit a particular mold,” he says. “I think they’re more comfortable with people who are similar.

“The person who does things differently stands out.”

Sisk points out that coaches expect officials to take the game as seriously as they do. Being overly flashy or showy on the field or court can easily create the wrong impression.

“This is serious business,” Sisk says. “You have to be really careful about taking away from the game. That’s the perception that officials who do things differently can create.”

It’s not uncommon for up-and-coming officials to be asked to adjust to their mechanics as they climb the ladder, particularly if they start working at the college level and begin using NCAA mechanics.

Sisk occasionally encounters up-and-coming officials who are resistant to change, to the point of wanting to argue the point. Some eventually adapt while those who do not see their careers stall or go into reverse. But for those who are thinking that officiating at higher levels is becoming too much about “looking the part” as opposed to “getting it right,” Sisk offers the following bit of reassurance.

“(Style) only matters if I can get the plays right,” he says. “If I can’t, all this other stuff isn’t worth anything.”

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