How do you get a postseason assignment? What skills are important when doing those big games? How do you stay at the top when you’ve arrived? We asked tournament-tested postseason top guns from across the spectrum of sports; John Higgins, Dee Kantner, Carl Paganelli, Ted Barrett Geri Magwire, Bill Dittmar and Kevin Cull, to weigh in.
What is your BEST ADVICE for an official at any level trying to be selected to the postseason?
HIGGINS: Find a mentor. Find somebody you can trust who has been there. Try to pick his brain and follow his footsteps. I’ve got a couple of guys who talk to me a lot. They’re young guys, and one of them has gone to the postseason the last two years.
PAGANELLI: You need to have a mentor, someone who can look at your performance and give you feedback, both negative and positive. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.
KANTNER: Do due diligence throughout the regular season. Have great play-calling accuracy, complete your homework on and off the court, and prepare yourself accordingly.
BARRETT: You should never expect it. It’s a privilege to work it. When you don’t get the postseason, you have a tendency to say, “OK, I didn’t have a successful season.” I hope guys go away from that, because only so many people can get to the postseason. Just because you didn’t get (to the postseason), that doesn’t mean you didn’t have a great season.
MAGWIRE: Focus on the things you can control. Work on mastering the rules and stay focused on mechanics until those become second nature.
How do you PREPARE for working the postseason?
HIGGINS: Just read the rulebook again to be sure that when you go to the NCAA tournament that you don’t screw anything up in front of God and everybody.
CULL: For the most part I try not to do anything different. Try not to do anything special because now you’re going to be out of your comfort zone — out of your normal routine.
PAGANELLI: You don’t want to change anything that you’ve done all year long that got you to the postseason.
KANTNER: If it’s your first time, ask for advice. I had great mentorship when I had my first postseason assignment, and I am grateful. And when you ask people, listen to them.
DITTMAR: With the postseason, you have a little bit more opportunity to research more on the teams. Because in the middle of the season, you’ve got all kinds of games going, but in the postseason, you might be doing one game the whole week. Another thing that I think you need to consider is making sure that you’re still fresh.
BARRETT: The only thing I’ll really do is sometimes, at the end of the season if we are working an LCS and there’s time during the first round, I’ll go home and I’ll try to get some rest so that I’m fresh when I get out there.
What ADJUSTMENTS are needed from the regular season to the postseason? Do you call a postseason game any differently between the lines?
MAGWIRE: I try not to make adjustments between the regular season and the postseason. I try to work every game at every level as if it were a championship game. That includes my mental approach to each game. If I don’t work the entire season as if it were the postseason, I won’t be ready for the postseason when it comes.
BARRETT: As far as balls/strikes and safes/outs, we’re able to do things the same every time. The difference is you want to be a little more understanding that there’s more at stake. Players are going to be emotional. You might have to be a little more understanding of that, but you certainly don’t want to get run over. If they deserve to be ejected, they’ve got to be ejected.
KANTNER: You will have to understand that the impact of your calls will have a little more gravity in the postseason than in the regular season.
PAGANELLI: I think you can’t change your philosophy of what you’ve been calling, because teams have been accustomed to how you’ve been calling it all year long. If you start changing what you’re going to call and what you’re going to let go, teams get confused. That’s where the consistency really comes into play.
HIGGINS: I’ve had my bosses say: “There’s a reason why you got here. Just referee it exactly how you did during the season and everything will be fine.” That’s how I do it.
CULL: If I try to change it too much, then I’m changing what I’ve done the entire season to earn me that spot. If I see a violation or a foul, then I’ll make a call. If I’m not 100 percent sure, I will err on the side of allowing the players and the teams to make the determination of the outcome of that particular rally.
DITTMAR: They’re on TV, they’re not trying to be stupid, and they’re the best players in the country, so you may get an opportunity where you don’t have to call as much. But it’s not something you go into and say you’re going to call less. In soccer, if you do that, you’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble.
CULL: The most important thing, I think, is to eliminate as many variables as possible where things can go wrong. So have really good communication with your crew. Where is everyone going to meet? Does everyone have everyone’s cell phone numbers? That way you don’t have to worry about the small stuff and can just worry about the match.
DITTMAR: Outside the lines? That’s where you have to pay a lot more attention. Are there TV requirements you have to deal with? Do you have to pay attention to where the emergency crews are coming in? There are a lot of extra things that come into the postseason that you don’t have to deal with in the regular season.
How do you handle the PRESSURE?
DITTMAR: I think most pressure is self-imposed. It’s like going to the airport. If I leave late, I’m under a lot of pressure to make that flight. But where did it start? With my lack of preparation. The best way to avoid pressure on the field is to control as much as you can before the match with your preparation and your knowledge.
MAGWIRE: When I’m focused on doing my job, the pressure seems to fade into the background.
BARRETT: I heard a quote from somebody talking about officiating: “The pressure is an honor.” I really like that.
PAGANELLI: If you can’t handle pressure, you’re going to be out on a football field for three-and-a-half hours, and that will be the worst three-and-a-half hours of your life. You have to enjoy the moment, enjoy the experience. If you let the pressure get to you, that’s when you start to make mistakes.
HIGGINS: The people who move forward are the ones who maybe handle it better than the other guys. Make your call. You can’t do anything about it anyway. If you screw up on a play, you go back to zero and try to make the next play your best play.
DITTMAR: As an assistant referee sometimes you get three calls in a matter of a second or two. If you feel like you missed the first one, and you stay in the moment of the first one, you could miss two more.
BARRETT: For me, coming at it as someone who has faith in God, I’m able to sit back and put it in His hands. At the end of the day, I work for an audience of one. As an official, there are going to be people who criticize your performance. You can’t please everyone. My goal is to honor God.
What have you LEARNED from working the postseason?
BARRETT: I’ve learned a lot about myself — that I can handle that kind of pressure on the biggest stage.
PAGANELLI: It’s commitment and dedication. You just can’t live on your last year’s performance.
BARRETT: I’ve also learned that it’s not the be-all-end-all of my life. I worked the plate in game three of the 2007 World Series. I remember walking off the field after the game in Colorado, thinking how I worked my whole life to get to this point. I didn’t know if the sky was going to open, but it was business as usual. The 2011 World Series was great: seven games, one of the great World Series in our time. I flew home the next day and I was picking up dog poop in the backyard. It doesn’t change your life. It doesn’t change who you are as a person, or who you are as an official.
What are the RISKS for an official’s career working the big, high-profile games?
DITTMAR: We all want the big games, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. And part of that responsibility could mean that we don’t do something right, and we get embarrassed.
PAGANELLI: There’s a risk that you could make a call that is not the call that you want that could cost a team. That’s obviously magnified when you get into the postseason or a Super Bowl, but you can’t go into a game thinking that way.
HIGGINS: There are risks every single night. You screw up two or three nights in a row and they think you’ve lost it.
KANTNER: You do a national championship game or you do a Final Four, and they come into the locker room and say, “By the way, we’ve got 16 cameras today.” There’s a risk of exposure. There’s a risk of your missed call being shown 16 different ways. But if you’re afraid to take that risk, then you don’t work the big games.
MAGWIRE: If a call or situation gets mishandled, it can hurt you. On the other hand, if the crew handles the game seamlessly, that can be a benefit as well.
KANTNER: What’s your risk? That you’re really not that good? Then you’ll find out. You won’t get another playoff game. That’s your risk. If you don’t want that risk, then goodness gracious, you’re not a competitor. I can’t even imagine that mind-set.
Is your primary MOTIVATION at the beginning of the season to work the postseason or does something else drive you?
DITTMAR: I really don’t think about the NCAA until we get into tournament time. My primary motivation is I love being out on the field. I tell people this is therapy for me. Everybody needs a disengagement from life sometimes, and for me, officiating is that.
PAGANELLI: Every year, I want to work the highest level. Am I disappointed if I don’t make it? No, because things have to bounce right for you, and when you’re working 19 games in the NFL, not every year is going to be a great year. But I think that at the start of the season you’ve got to set goals, and those goals should be a Super Bowl or a championship, whatever you may be eligible for.
BARRETT: You can’t control who selects you, and so you have to find satisfaction in knowing that you did the best job you could. Also, be honest with yourself: maybe you didn’t deserve the playoffs. You could say, “What can I do to improve as an official so that next year I can get rewarded with the postseason?”
CULL: I just love volleyball. I love officiating. It’s an honor to do the playoffs, but I never say, “I have to do the playoffs.”
KANTNER: You set down goals every season, but my goal every game is to service that game as well as I can, and hopefully I get to the postseason. Obviously I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get a postseason assignment, but I will work toward that end and hopefully my work speaks for itself.
MAGWIRE: I am so blessed to have the opportunity to work with some of the best umpires in the country and umpire games with some of the best teams in the country doing something I truly love at the highest level. Tell me that’s not more than enough motivation.
When you are working the postseason, you are probably working with some top tournament-tested officials. Is your job easier as a result?
KANTNER: It could go either way. It depends on your crew chemistry. In the postseason, you should have better performances because those are people who have also earned a spot to be there.
DITTMAR: Yes. Typically, everyone’s got a lot more experience, so there’s less of the jitters. Also, typically you don’t have to worry about issues of professionalism, like getting there on time, and being prepared. The people that don’t do those things get weeded out.
BARRETT: I’ve worked with some great crew chiefs: Ed Montague, Steve Rippley, Randy Marsh, Jerry Crawford … I got to work playoff games with them. I never got to work with them during the regular season, but I got to during the playoffs. I was able to pick their brains after the games. After the game you talk and you’re able to learn from them and draw on their experiences.
HIGGINS: I think it is, yes. You’re there because you referee the same way as those guys do. You don’t have to worry about that third on the floor.
Are you COACHABLE or do you do most of the coaching when you reach those games?
BARRETT: As I become a playoff veteran, I think that I’m in the tweener spot where I’m both coachable and doing the coaching, working with guys who get to the playoffs for the first time.
DITTMAR: If you’re not coachable, you’re not going to stay. That’s when, to you, you’re bigger than the game. I believe in all sports, that if you have that kind of attitude, the game has a way of kicking your butt. There’s a fluky play that never happens if you have that attitude that you know it all.
HIGGINS: If I’m the referee in the game, I always have everybody interject in the pregame, especially over rules. There’s a handful of rules that people interpret different ways, and we like to make sure we’re all on the same page. I try to make everybody feel comfortable in the pregame. You take your area and I take my area, and everything should go OK. It’s a team game.
KANTNER: Sometimes in a first-round playoff game, I might have younger officials with me, and part of that assignment might be to provide good strong leadership for them. So I might do some more coaching in that game. Working with a more seasoned veteran, I might need to be more coachable. I think it will vary from game to game.
CULL: In the post-match I’d like to think I’m coachable. If I see a play one way and my partner sees it differently, I think it’s good dialogue.
How do you train yourself to STAY MOTIVATED after you’ve reached a postseason level? How do you avoid a sense of entitlement?
PAGANELLI: It’s the pride.
HIGGINS: I think you want to get back there again. It’s so exhilarating and exciting. You ask yourself, am I really going to do this game in front of 75,000 people with 80 million watching on television?
DITTMAR: You always want to go back. The second honeymoon is so much better! You want to experience the parts that you didn’t realize that you were supposed to experience.
KANTNER: When you feel entitled, if you make one bonehead call, you will be humbled quickly, believe me. Officiating is something where there is no entitlement. Once you have that perfect game, you need to retire right then and there.
BARRETT: The minute you think you’ve got this job figured out, it’ll turn around and bite you. There’s no way that a guy can get cocky, because the minute that he does, he’s going to get knocked down.
DITTMAR: I see that a lot with the younger kids nowadays. It’s a totally different world of entitlement. Always understand and remember that you did not get any assignment by yourself.
CULL: That would be one of the worst things if you feel entitled: “Hey, I’ve made it … I can mail it in now.” But you have to always strive to be a better official because each year there’s going to be new kids playing.
MAGWIRE: I think you have to accept that there are no guarantees. As hard as you work to be the best at what you do, someone else is working just as hard and wants the same thing you do.
BARRETT: This is not a false sense of modesty that I’m spewing out. If I don’t get (a playoff assignment) this year, but a guy who hasn’t had one before does, I’m going to be happy for him. I’m not going to go home and feel sorry for myself.
What is your most MEMORABLE postseason moment?
MAGWIRE: Mine came in about the 12th inning of my 15-inning game at the 2013 Women’s College World Series. It struck me what a battle that game was. I felt privileged to be a part of a truly great game in a great venue, and I realized that the most important thing for me to do was to simply call the game and then stay out of the way.
CULL: It’s such a unique honor to be on the floor for the finals. I got to work with Brian Hemelgarn (Referee volleyball coordinator). It was a great match: It went five. Brian and I had really good communication on the court, and the players determined the outcome of that match.
KANTNER: I’m not one to revel in the past, but I still remember my first Final Four because my high school basketball coach, who is one of the most influential people in my life, said, “When you get to the Final Four, I will be there.” So I remember calling her in 1992 and saying, “OK, Coach … put your money where your mouth is!” She had to fly from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to be there. That was a wonderful moment.
PAGANELLI: Super Bowl XLI. That was my second Super Bowl. I was able to work it with my older brother Perry. We were the first brother combination that had ever worked a Super Bowl. That stands out as being pretty much the highlight of my career. All our families were there: my dad, who has obviously been our mentor (he has three sons who are NFL officials), my wife, my children and my mother. Not only was it a special moment for Perry and me, it was a special moment for our families.
HIGGINS: The semifinal in Indianapolis that my father got to go to three years ago before he passed away … my dad got to go, and my wife, and all of my kids. My dad was a basketball coach and an athletic director. He was very proud, obviously, that I got to go to the Final Four. It was a special feeling, and the following year he passed away.
Do you have a favorite MEMENTO from one of your postseason games?
CULL: The crew who did setup every day gave the referees and the line judges a sport court tile. Everyone signed it and it was kind of cool.
BARRETT: I’ve got two World Series rings, which is pretty cool, and for each of them I have a ball that was in my ball bag at the time.
MAGWIRE: A friend of mine sent me a picture of the last pitch — a called strike three — of this year’s Women’s College World Series. I’m going to hang that one on my wall.
DITTMAR: I took the patch from my first Final Four game and I put it in a frame with a thank you letter. I gave it to Bob Cummings, my mentor who got me started in college soccer back in 1989.
PAGANELLI: Probably the biggest things I have are the Super Bowl footballs that are signed by the officials. That seems like it’s old news now. It’s time to go out and try to get another championship or another Super Bowl.
Paul Hamann has officiated high school basketball since 1996. He is a high school teacher who lives in Vancouver, Wash.
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