Sure, basketball is important to NCAA men’s referee Keith Kimble. But that’s only 20 percent. It’s the other 80 percent of his life that matters most.
Keith Kimble is a familiar face to college basketball aficionados. Last year, the Arlington, Texas, resident traveled throughout the country crisscrossing 33 states to work 104 NCAA Division I men’s games in just over four months, more than any other official in the country, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the season to a halt. At one point, he worked 10 consecutive days.
His résumé includes trips to seven NCAA tournaments and the last two Final Fours.
But when asked to reflect on his career, the 48-year-old Kimble speaks first not of his own accomplishments, but of those who supported him during his ascension through the officiating ranks. He praises those who mentored him not only on how to handle situations on the court, but also on how to conduct himself off it.
And when those mentors and coordinators discuss Kimble, they speak first of his humility.
“He’s one of those young men I thank God for,” said Bobby Jacobs, also a longtime college official as well as Kimble’s high school principal and the man who introduced him to officiating. “Because of how he conducts himself. He tries to give me all the credit but I won’t let him do that.”
Early on, J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national coordinator for men’s basketball officiating, was impressed with Kimble’s oncourt comportment. “His demeanor doesn’t change,” Collins said. “And that impressed me the first time I saw him and still does, quite frankly.”
Kimble’s journey began in Waco, Texas, where he grew up. He was raised by a maternal grandmother because his parents were “suffering from an up-and-down lifestyle that my grandma did not want me to be part of.” He was also supported by a corps of six aunts and two uncles.
“(The aunts and uncles) were older than me,” he recalled, “which helped guide me in many different ways.”
In short order, sports became Kimble’s outlet. He spent most of his after-school hours at the local YMCA, where he was inspired by Earl Stinnett, the branch director. Today, nearly four decades after their first meeting, Stinnett still remains an influential figure in Kimble’s life. He sees Stinnett as an uncle figure.
“The way he carried himself as a man in general, it just really, really stuck out to me,” Kimble recalled. “I asked Earl a lot of questions coming up, dealing with everyday life, business with my family. I just patterned myself after this guy. Today I could give him a call and he would talk to me about just about anything and help to guide me.”
Kimble was particularly impressed by his mentor’s manner. “Earl was always cool, calm and collected during good or bad situations,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when Earl ever came out of that. I do believe that’s where I get my calm, cool demeanor that I need to be successful in this officiating business.”
Kimble played basketball at Waco High School, where one of his teachers, Ronald Rush, become a mentor until Rush’s death in 2020. As with Stinnett, Kimble calls Rush an uncle figure and, when the situation called for it, a disciplinarian.
“I did not want to do anything to come out of my norm of dealing with my everyday life,” Kimble said, “because I knew if I made a wrong decision, I was going to have to face (Rush’s) wrath.”
Kimble got his first taste of officiating in high school, working recreation and church league games, thanks to Jacobs, who was Waco High’s principal at the time and who had a long career officiating in the Big Eight, the Southwest and the Western Athletic conferences, among others.
Jacobs first crossed paths with Kimble when the latter was in middle school and has been a role model and mentor ever since.
“Mr. Jacobs was the father figure in my life, pretty much from junior high onward,” Kimble said. “He was Ronald Rush and Earl Stinnett wrapped in one.
“If there was anybody I patterned myself after in a professional manner, whether on the court or off the court, it was Bobby Jacobs. He was the pinnacle I wanted to reach as far as being a professional. He had reached those goals that I planned for myself.”
After high school, Kimble played basketball at McLennan Community College in Waco and later at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville).
After college, he joined the local chapter of the Texas High School Basketball Officials Association. There, he found a membership that was supportive of young officials.
“That support system consisted of the more-experienced officials reaching out to the younger officials and pretty much mentoring them,” Kimble recalled.
Around the same time, he attended a camp run by Tony Stigliano, who assigned college games below the D-I level. Kimble was encouraged by Jacobs, who was a clinician at the camp and took the aspiring young official under his expansive wings, sharing with him the nuances that would prepare him to work at the collegiate level.
“He cleaned me up on the do’s and don’ts within the business,” Kimble said, “whether it’s respecting others, respecting your peers, respecting coaches when need be. Handling coaches when they are outrageous. … How to have a passionate demeanor to the point where not only your peers but the coaches and the players will respect you.
“Whether it’s the way I dress, or the way that I speak, whether it’s the way I do my business — a prime example —handling paperwork, all of that, he pretty much molded me. He took a pile of Play-Doh and he helped mold me to the point to where I’m at today.”
Jacobs says Kimble learned his lessons well. “Keith is that person who is approachable,” he said. “You can communicate with him. He can communicate with you. Not only on the rules and interpretations and floor coverages. It’s the manner in which he carries himself.”
In short order, Kimble was working a mix of high school, JUCO and NCAA Division II and III games.
Onward and Upward
From there he began a steady climb up the ranks. He started a five-year stint in the D-League in 2003 and worked in the WNBA for a single season in 2004.
Kimble reached the Division I level in 2007 when Dale Kelley hired him to work in the Big 12, but his focus was on an NBA career.
“Point blank, that was my goal at the time,” he said.
Amid all of the officiating, Kimble was fitting his schedule around other employment — or perhaps it was the other way around. He worked as the manager of a retail store, spent time as an aide in the Waco Independent School District, where he worked under Jacobs, and served as the sports director at the same YMCA branch where he spent so much time in his formative years.
But a conversation with Curtis Shaw in the summer of 2010 proved to be life changing and career altering. Shaw had been hired to succeed Kelley as the coordinator of officials for the Big 12, which was about to become part of a newly formed consortium with Conference USA, the Ohio Valley and the Southland conferences (today the consortium also includes the Missouri Valley). Shaw was preparing to assume the coordinator’s role for the new alliance.
“Mr. Shaw and I had a relationship prior to him becoming the boss,” Kimble recalled. “I had worked with him one or two times. Once he became the boss, he pulled me to the side and we had a very intense conversation. It wasn’t intense about my behavior, nothing of that nature, it was more about, ‘What do I really want to do with my career?’”
The conversation focused on how Kimble’s decision to pursue his NBA ambitions or remain on the college track would impact his family.
“The difference in the NBA is the amount of time that you’re actually gone is drastically different,” Shaw said. “Keith has a wife; I appreciate and like what she’s done (supporting) his career. I told him the NBA is more structured. It’s going to take you longer to move up because of the way the system works. But in college basketball, he has the opportunity to move up just as soon as possible.”
Shaw pointed out to Kimble that he could advance more rapidly at the college level and have a 20- to 25-year career on the floor while having some control over his schedule as opposed to being at the NBA’s beck and call.
To say Kimble found Shaw’s argument persuasive was an understatement. “I’d been through a lot with my family as far as changing jobs,” he said, “as far as my wife being the breadwinner a certain amount of the time while I was pursuing where I wanted to be. Mr. Shaw’s communication with me was literally about just that. About doing things to make sure you can handle things to make sure you can take care of your family now.
“I’m telling you, it was intense and I love him for opening my eyes to whereas I had to start managing things to involve my family.”
The Home Front
Kimble and his wife, Cynthia, have been married for 24 years. They have raised five children together, including a son and daughter of their own, Keith’s two sons from a previous relationship and Keith’s younger brother. All five are now adults.
While Cynthia has always supported Keith’s officiating ambitions, she admits there have been challenges along the way.
“When you’re as passionate as Keith is about (officiating), we just kind of do what we have to do,” she said. “We’ve been in this game for a very long time. I’ve always known where he wanted to go.
“I wasn’t always happy with it, but as we began to grow and started to see the fruits of his labor it became a little bit easier.”
Cynthia noted that Keith being away from home was particularly tough on the family when the children were younger. “I was the total person, being at home with them while he was on the road for five months out of the year,” she said. “The kids of course missed him and he missed a lot of activities because all the kids were basketball players and of course, during basketball season, he’s gone and they’re playing, so that was a little hard on them. But whenever he was home or could get home, he was there for all games possible.”
Cynthia notes that Keith worked to maintain his connection with his family and involve them in his career. When his games were within driving distance he would often take one of his children with him to give them some one-on-one-time with their father and, not incidentally, give them at least a taste of what college life was about.
Cynthia, who works as a human resources manager for AT&T, remains involved in Keith’s career by functioning as his travel agent. She travels with him to assignments when her schedule allows.
“That’s where we partner up,” she said.
In the aftermath of his conversation with Shaw, Kimble returned to the court at the start of the 2010-11 season with a renewed sense of purpose. Two years later he was able to make officiating his full-time vocation, a circumstance that caused him to rethink his attitude toward officiating.
“When I first started, I didn’t know you could actually take this as a full-time job,” he said. “Once I did, my whole mindset changed on how I handled things.”
Kimble “handled things” by adopting what he calls his 80/20 Rule. “The most important parts of what I’m doing are 80 percent off the court,” he said. “Twenty percent is what I do on the court. That’s my whole mindset of how I focus in on my job. I have to do the things that prep me up to do the 20 percent of my job; the two-and-a-half hours I’m out there (on the floor) actually working.
“Making sure I’m crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s, by getting paperwork in on time,” he said. “Making sure I’m up and abreast on the rules. How I’m handling situations when I’m the crew chief and have to handle certain things that need to be handled. I’m doing this because this is my job and this is the way I pay my bills.”
Kimble received his first NCAA tournament assignment in 2013 and has returned every year since. He reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 2016 and beginning the following year, worked three consecutive regional finals.
Kimble was now unquestionably at the elite level of his profession. Far from resting on his laurels, he recommitted himself more than ever to his 80/20 philosophy, to doing what was necessary off the court to be able to perform at his best while on it.
“I don’t smoke or drink,” he said. “I get the proper rest. My travel is limited to a point where I can drive to a majority of my schedule.
“But you have to be disciplined on that. Because if you’re not disciplined on accepting certain things, you can accept the wrong things, which is you’re chasing that money. And if you’re chasing that money and not paying attention to the wear and tear of your body and what you’re doing, it will catch up with you.”
Kimble admits he’s had to fight the temptation to take on too many assignments. He says he’s looking to reduce his schedule going forward.
“It’s hard for us as officials, especially with what we’re blessed to be paid each game, to turn a game down,” he said. “For your mental and physical health, there is a limit.”
As Kimble’s stature has grown, so has his visibility increased. He accepts that reality and the importance of conducting himself a certain way “(in terms of) what I’m doing off the court, the way I’m carrying myself, knowing I’m in the limelight. My image is everything.”
Kimble was asked if he feels he is subjected to additional scrutiny because he is a person of color. “Yes, I do feel like I am looked at more,” he said, “to the point where the opportunity I get on the court, that 20 percent, pretty much reflects that 80 percent of me handling my business, because I feel I can be more affected if I don’t handle my business in the 80 percent range.”
In 2018, Kimble was assigned to the Final Four in San Antonio as the alternate. “It was a breath of fresh air and it was an accomplishment,” he said, “but it helped me work even harder to maintain my craft because I was at a point to where a lot of officials are saying, ‘This is where I want to be.’ So, it actually focused me in more on the challenge to keep working hard.
“I took it in for about 24 hours. That 25th hour it was time to go to work because I felt like I was going to be watched even more.”
The following year, Kimble was back at the Final Four in Minneapolis. He was assigned to the semifinal between Auburn and Virginia, teamed with Doug Sirmons and James Breeding.
“You can always kind of dream about how you feel when you referee in the Final Four,” Kimble said, “but I’m going to tell you, and any official that would tell you I’m not right when I say this is lying, you will have the biggest butterflies you will ever have once you hit that environment. Until you can actually get to a point where the ball is going up and you’re starting to run a couple of minutes or so. It got to me. It got to the first media timeout before I settled in and got rid of those butterflies.”
In the closing seconds of regulation with Auburn leading by two, Virginia’s Ty Jerome had possession near midcourt and double dribbled. But the violation was not detected by
Kimble, who was the primary official on the play.
The Cavaliers retained possession and won the game, 63-62, when Kyle Guy hit three free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining in regulation after being fouled during a three-point attempt.
“What it boils down to is I had to accept my own responsibility,” Kimble said. “I missed the play, period. I can give you every reason why; I was doing this, I was looking at the clock. I could give you all of that.
“Point blank? I feel very, very confident that my ability should have gotten a simple double-dribble play. So, what it boils down to is I missed the play.”
The Right Approach
Collins applauds the way Kimble approached the situation and its aftermath. “Keith’s approach to that issue is how you want an official to approach it,” he said. “You look at the situation, you acknowledge if you got it right or wrong. In this case, we missed a play and then you go through your internal processes.”
Collins described Kimble’s reaction in the aftermath of the Virginia-Auburn game as akin to grieving. “There is an appropriate period of time for every official to grieve a key missed play,” he said. “And I think Keith, in his own way, grieved that situation appropriately, he acknowledged it, accepted responsibility and admitted he got it wrong.”
What made it more difficult for Kimble was the fact that the national semifinal was his last of the year. There was no immediate opportunity to “get back in the saddle.”
“I had to go through the whole summer without being on the court to prove myself again,” he said.
But he did have the opportunity to talk about the game, the play and the aftermath with his peers a few months later at the NCAA Summer Academy.
“Keith was one of our clinicians,” Collins said. “I had all the clinicians present something to the group that they were with. Keith spent an hour talking about (the Virginia-Auburn game) and while it was good for the participants to hear, I think it was equally good for Keith to be able share and talk about it because he didn’t have a next game to go to and I think it worked out quite well.”
Once he got back on the court Kimble did his best to put the Virginia-Auburn game behind him by going back to basics.
“To keep moving on from it, I just have to make sure I get myself to a point to where I practice good habits,” he said. “Go to the basics, understand what (a) double dribble is, and when it occurs again have faith and trust that I can get the play. So, I have to be mentally strong and think positive and don’t let the negative way bring me down.”
At 48, Kimble theoretically has a number of years left on the floor. He’s already accomplished a lot. But the achievement he’s most proud of has nothing to do with basketball.
“I’m blessed to be in (officiating),” he said. “I look at my family and they are not in need of anything major. My wife and I have really worked hard to become a team to a point I’ve been blessed with my profession and she’s been blessed with her profession. We don’t struggle as a lot of other families might do. We have this family going on and a lot of other families are not in position to handle their basic needs.”
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