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You might wonder why a magazine for sports officials interviewed a coach, even one as legendary as John Wooden.

Through our decades of experience, Referee knows that most true education of officials comes from officials. Whether it’s a mentor relationship, regularly scheduled meetings, training sessions or postgame analysis, most referees advance their career knowledge from dealing with other officials. From time to time, you may pick up a point or gain an insight from a coach’s comment or a player’s request. But that’s rare.

But equally as rare is a coach such as UCLA legend John Wooden. His integrity was second to none. Referee magazine interviewed the then 90-year-old in 1999 at his home in Encino, California. A small portion of the transcript was published in the 12/99 issue. Many readers told us they wanted more. He has much to teach you about the game, your role in the game and a plea for a return to basketball as it is meant to be. 

Referee: Why do so many people still have interest in what you have to say?

Wooden: I’m a little surprised, but let me put it this way. Had my teams not won 10 national championships, I don’t believe that the interest would be there. I’d like to feel that the interest is there because of what I am as a person and not what I did as a teacher/coach.

Referee: Where did you get your dislike for the personal spotlight?

Wooden: Possibly in my very early years from my father and mother. No matter what the situation is, no matter what religion, race or creed, don’t think you’re better than anybody is. But don’t think you’re not as good as anyone either. That was Dad. He had a lot to do with my thinking.

“No matter what the situation is, no matter what religion, race or creed, don’t think you’re better than anybody is. But don’t think you’re not as good as anyone either.”

Perhaps when I coined my own definition of success many years later, I included him saying that you can’t get concerned regarding the things over which you have no control. If you get too engrossed or involved in the things that you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control. From Dad: don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. Just do the best you can. Nobody can do more than that.

Referee: Let’s get your overall impression about the game of basketball today.

Wooden: As I watch the game today, I don’t feel the officials are calling the game according to rules. I don’t think it’s the rules that need to be changed so much. I think that it’s the way officials call them. Traveling is not called. Carrying the ball — players do it all the time. Moving screens, they’re not called regularly. One — once in a while. But I think officials should just call the game. I think it’s just been a gradual thing. It’s all changed. I think maybe society as a whole has brought the change. I talked to an NBA official a couple years ago about the traveling. He said, ‘We like our jobs.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Would you want us to call Michael Jordan for traveling when he goes in for a dunk? The fans don’t want it, the people in the organization don’t want it. Even the fools that complain against it — they don’t want that.’ I said, ‘Well, why do you call it on the rookies then?’

Referee: Would the game be better if it was called exactly as it’s written in the rulebook, John?

Wooden: You must make some allowances. It can become too technical.

“If you get too engrossed or involved in the things that you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.”

Referee: What about a coaching box? You didn’t have a coaching box back then.

Wooden: I think coaches should stay on the bench within the bench area as long as the ball is in play. When the ball is dead, yes, they can go up to the table. But otherwise, they’re all going up and down. I don’t think that’s good for the game. I think the fans come to see the ball game. I think television has made actors out of players, coaches and, in many cases, officials. I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but I think so.

Referee: You think some officials are playing to the camera?

Wooden: I think so. Not the majority. I don’t mean the majority at all, but I think definitely some. There’s no question in my mind. And I would also say they might not even know they’re doing it.

Let’s look at the rulebook. Section 6 under general principles and the recent manual of basketball officiating is entitled, ‘The Ideal Official.’ That official is described as one who notices everything but is seldom noticed. He has resourcefulness and initiative. He has dignity of voice and manner and with no suggestion of pompousness. He is considerate and courteous without sacrificing firmness. He controls the players effectively and understandingly. He has constant concern for the physical, and I think you could also include mental, welfare of the players. He cooperates fully with fellow officials. He is physically able to be and is in the right place at the right time. Knows what the rules say and what the rules mean. Now that’s a statement that would be very good, isn’t it?

Now, a good official shall not officiate any game after having had any alcohol drink on that day nor converse with crowds at any time before, during or after game, intermissions included. Do not request to officiate games from any coach or league. No official should obligate himself to any person affiliated with any game to which he might be assigned. Not be over officious. I’ve seen that. Never argue with the players. Assist players in the interpretation of the rules. Also, under general impressions, use proper signals, make decisions firmly without hesitation.

Now here’s what I have to say. It seems that any official who could keep reasonably close to the suggestions in the officials’ books would be so nearly perfect that all coaches would be genuinely happy with his work. However, we all know that basketball is a game in which a great percentage of the calls are judgment calls. Those calls must be made almost instantaneously where the actions of unpartisan people will honestly see the action differently when the call hurts them. The very nature of the action often enables a person from a distance or from a different angle to actually see some types of infractions better than any official who may be right on top of the play. As a result, there will always be honest disagreement with many calls, as well as the highly unfair disagreements that come from blind partisanship.

The officials committee of the National Basketball Association of Coaches is working on ways to improve officiating — and the official/coach relationship. They recently asked some coaches and officials to submit a list of five things not particularly stressed that might be desirable from their own point of view. I submitted the following.

• Officials should never decide in advance how they’re going to call a game or what they’re going to be looking for — it’s not for them to decide what they’re going to be strict or lenient about.

• Officials who understand all coaches and realize that the game is a vocation for the coaches and, in most cases, is only an avocation for the officials.

• Officials who know the rules but do not hide behind the technicalities of the rulebook. The purpose of each rule should be kept in mind as well as the rule itself.

• Officials should keep all personality conflicts with coaches, players or fellow officials completely apart from anything related to the game or their officiating.

• Officials who command, rather than demand, the respect and cooperation of all those associated in any way with playing or viewing the game.

It is rather amazing how attitudes can change so much a few minutes later when the outcome of the game was to their satisfaction. The coach has a great responsibility toward the official and the official has a great responsibility toward the coach. But even more important, each should have a great responsibility toward the game in every possible respect. In the final analysis, perhaps the most important thing we need to know in all walks of life is more mutual trust, faith and understanding of the problems of others. If we acquire and keep that, the coach/official relationship would cease to be a big problem. Now I wrote that in middle ‘60s.

One official wrote these five suggestions:

• Keep everyone off the team bench except for players in uniform, the coach and assistant coach, the trainer and one or two managers.

• Make a better effort to provide more privacy for the officials, from the coaches, players, fans, and reporters during intermission and after the game.

• Eliminate all artificial noisemakers such as horns, bells, wood blocks and so on.

• Keep the school fans away from the playing area.

• The school administrators and athletic directors should make every effort to be present at all games.

He also added the following statement: Although I do not expect my job to be easy, the coaches can help me work a better game by not calling me uncomplimentary names, not question my integrity, remaining seated on their benches, remembering that I, too, have feelings. They should not expect favors, must realize that it is possible for their players to commit infractions and realize that it is impossible for the official to see everything. But we are usually in a better position to see things than they are. I wish they would give me the kind of consideration that any man has a right to expect from another.

Referee: What problems exist between coaches and officials?

Wooden: I have become convinced that more than ever that our main problems are neither the rules nor the interpretation of the rules. Most of the serious problems seem to be the result of the administration of the rules by the officials and the lack of proper teaching of the rules by coaches. Too many of us do not teach our players to abide by the rules but look for ways to beat or get around the rules. In other words, we teach evasion of the rules and look for the technicalities that permit us to beat a rule rather than attempting to teach and live up to the spirit of the rule.

Referee: How about late in a tight game? For example, if a player makes it look good, officials are not going with an intentional foul.

Wooden: That shouldn’t have anything to do with it. There are many, many intentional fouls. I see it all the time, all the time. I saw it then, I see it now. And it’s kind of like the death penalty. We’d rather free 100 guilty ones than send one not guilty to the chamber. I think we’d have a better game if it were the other way around. I think it would be a better game and we’d stop the intentional fouling if officials called more intentional fouls.

Referee: Coaches have a vocation and refs have an avocation — why do coaches keep bringing that up?

“Too many of us do not teach our players to abide by the rules but look for ways to beat or get around the rules.”

Wooden: Because something that is your vocation, you are prepared for stuff all the time. If something is your avocation, no.

Referee: But you know how refereeing is, John. It becomes a disease with officials.

Wooden: You’re darn right it does. But do you have time to — do you give up your other job? To me if it’s your vocation — when I played golf, I didn’t play golf as good as I could play it because I had a teaching job.

Referee: But the implication in what you’ve said is, “I work all week long and then you (officials) come out here on a part-time basis and you can screw this up.” The implication is that just because you’re doing it full time, you will do whatever you’re doing better than officials can referee. That seems to be a spurious correlation here. Officials can be darn good referees working three games a week.

Wooden: Sure, but couldn’t you be better?

Referee: I don’t know if officials would be better working five games a week.

Wooden: I think you would. Because you’d prepare yourself better. That would become a full-time job. When I said simply working a game a week, maybe I didn’t mean it that way. I mean the preparation you’re working all week on is what I mean. It might be doing two or three games a week and it might be doing one.

Referee: You were a basketball coach for 40 years. How many technical fouls?

Wooden: Two.

Referee: How come only two? What made you so special?

Wooden: Because I never called an official names and you never heard me use a word of profanity. I never got personal. I’d say the worse thing I ever said to an official was, and I wouldn’t like somebody to say it to me if I were officiating, but I said, ‘Call them the same on both ends.’ I’m saying you aren’t really. Or I might say, ‘Don’t be a homer.’ And I admit it. I said a moment ago I wouldn’t like that.

Referee: When you got ready to play those NCAA championship games, were referees on your radar screen at all in preparation?

Wooden: I would say no, not when we got into tournament play. But, yes, in all my years I tried to get a direct reading on officials before we entered the conference season. I wanted to have two fairly tough road trips, and I liked two of those to be in the Big 10. In my career we played every school in the Big 10 back there. Couldn’t get many of them to come out here. And when we played in the Big 10, for example, I’d tell my players, now, they call them different in the Big 10 and you may disagree with that, but I firmly believe it. I think that the offense gets the advantage in the Big 10. I think for charging in the Big 10, the offense is going to get the advantage most of the time. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re favoring the home team. We’re not accustomed to it and probably won’t be guilty of it as much — that’s the way they call them. Now we played in Madison Square Garden a number of times. I’d say to my players, now in the East they’re going to call three seconds a little closer and they’re going to be a little more technical on certain areas, so we’ve got to accept that.

Referee: Briefly, what is the key determinant of being a successful official?

Wooden: Having a good relationship with the coaches.

Referee: You didn’t say knowing the rules. You didn’t say knowing the mechanics. You said having a good relationship with the coach.

Wooden: That’s right. I’m assuming that you know the rules or you wouldn’t be officiating.

Referee: Do you recall nights that you walked out after a game and felt that the officiating had been horrible? How did you deal with that, John?

Wooden: Yes, I just told the players that we have to put it out of our minds just as we go into it. We mustn’t expect favors and we’ve got to put it out of our minds. That’s past and it’s not going to change. In many ways I talked about yesterday, today and tomorrow. You can’t do a thing about the past, and the only way you can prepare for tomorrow is what you do today. I used that in various ways.

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