The University of Central Florida Officiating Class is making a positive impact on the industry.
Jose Acevedo has everything an assigner (or even a coach) could look for in an up-and-coming basketball referee. The 22-year-old senior and psychology major at the University of Central Florida (UCF), as the saying goes, “looks the part.”
He was among three officials — and obviously, the least experienced — for a 7A (largest classification) regional final in Orlando between teams that sported future signees with Kansas, Florida, Mississippi State and Duke. Amid a huge crowd and a humid setting, Acevedo perspired and thought, “What have I gotten myself into? How is this possible?”
That answer is actually best found by taking a look back to a few years earlier, when Acevedo took his shot at “Referee U.”
For nearly 30 years, Jim Wilkening has taught a basketball officiating class at UCF’s Recreation and Wellness Center. Its success rate is insurmountable in producing officials who have advanced all the way to the NBA and WNBA, not to mention high-level NCAA men’s and women’s games plus the Olympics.
Wilkening took over this officials development program for a mentor who got him into the stripes business. And, yes, he’s immensely proud of the biggest success stories, of which there are many. But he’s just as quick to point out what the ever-flourishing program has meant for the seemingly infinite number of games that have needed to be filled in central Florida.
“I started this at UCF in 1995,” Wilkening said. “But it goes back to Valencia College underneath the leadership of Don Rutledge, who was an NCAA referee. I took the course in 1992-93 and got hooked. I wasn’t sure exactly how, but I knew I wanted to keep something like that going.”
Just Like Any Other Classroom — Sort Of
Tuesday evening’s three-hour classes always start with a whistle blow. That’s how attendance is taken. Instructors gauge whether the pitch and length of each student’s toot is game-ready. The reply is a simple yes or no.
Beyond that quick cacophony, RWC 206 looks like a standard university meeting room. This one at the Recreation and Wellness Center on UCF’s vast campus cannot hold more than 40 people. Wilkening accepts about 26 students and has nearly 10 instructors and a weekly guest speaker who sit in a “horseshoe” and envelop themselves in the game and all its rigors.
The group dissects a rule and goes over mechanics and positioning. Of course, the greatest advancement for Wilkening has been the ease of accessibility to video.
Then it’s a short walk to the building’s intramural courts, where they oversee the action at the school’s fraternity-based league.
Games begin promptly at 7:20 p.m. and there’s two sets of them, with each official working a half. Instructors have wireless mics and can give on-court instruction, but there’s also a return to the film room for video breakdown. That usually includes a “play of the day” to unravel.
In a talent-rich state (where even many of the students have played a noteworthy level of high school ball) on one of the largest campuses in the country — more than 70,000 students — the games can be a dizzying mix of talent — but also testosterone.
Acevedo, for one, actually got pushed by a disgruntled player during his first year of the program.
The unnerving moment, however, only left him with the resolve to learn from it and come back better. Video and a unique array of composed, qualified instructors helped him through the bumpy start.
“The program Jim has put together allows a real entry-level referee to come in there and learn proper mechanics, along with really understanding the rules and responsibilities,” said JB Caldwell. “It’s an inclusive, diverse and inspiring environment.”
Caldwell, in his mid-60s, attended Rutledge’s classes that inspired Wilkening’s path. Caldwell’s own path has included 20 years of officiating Division I men’s basketball. He also served as an NBA scouting senior advisor for seven years.
Rutledge officiated in six men’s Final Fours along the way, but way back in the day already recognized more officials were always needed.
Wilkening’s know-how and connections have sent those officials all the way to the top.
Dannica Mosher was a nursing major at UCF in 2016 when she was invited to the NBA’s Grassroots Officiating Camp.
Mosher is among seven former Knights who have NBA officiating experience, working part-time or full-time for the league. Others include Brent Barnaky, John Conley, Robert Hussey, Brandon Schwab, Ray Acosta and Steve Anderson. NBA referee Nick Buchert, who attended University High School (Orlando) and the University of Phoenix, is also a graduate of the basketball officiating class. The officiating program has produced officials in college, Olympic and professional basketball as well as professional and college football.
“There are a lot of people around to look up to,” Anderson said. “And the thing is, they’re all really good people. They want to give back. They want to mentor and help others get as far as they want to go, as well.”
Anderson took the course in 2002 and by 2007 (after five years of handling intramurals at UCF) was hired in the D-League, and in 2009 found himself working NCAA Division I basketball. He officiated in the NBA from 2013-17 and currently serves as a Division I basketball and football official, as well as a FIBA official.
Anderson looks back fondly on the days of making $7 an hour officiating games at UCF — getting bumped to $10 as an “honor official.” The intense classroom and court settings led him along a unique journey.
“You have to have a certain love of it, and a hunger to get better,” Anderson said. “If you’ve got those, everything else is in place to set you up for success.”
Big Bang for the Buck
Wilkening, around his full-time job as UCF executive director of the recreation and wellness center, is still found on a basketball court about 40 times a year. He mostly does NCAA D-II and NAIA men’s basketball games throughout Florida, and will still pile up the miles.
He’s at a place in life where the UCF sports officiating development program (which in addition to basketball covers flag football, baseball, soccer, volleyball, softball, floor hockey and dodgeball) is preeminent in the country. He credits his staff, and only really mentions his success as shown by fostering an environment in which the people around him want to thrive.
UCF students pay $35 for the nine-week basketball course (and earn one credit) and non-UCF students pay a relatively paltry $75. It runs from early September right into the start of high school basketball season.
Wilkening is also proud of a variety of area assigners who believe in what he’s doing and are willing to break out of the “pay your dues” mantra in order to give his students chances.
Just like the NBA and Division I officiating scenes, the class is becoming noticeably diverse. Last fall, nine of the 26 students were women.
“As young people see more diversity, and more people who look like them on the courts, it only helps to grow the talent pool,” said Camille Jackson, a program and UCF alumnus who now works at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in nearby Daytona Beach.
Jackson is proud of the connections and friendships she made and noted the compassion and humility of staff embedded within her a sense of place, and a desire to give back.
“It’s a big family,” Jackson said.
Which leads us back to Acevedo. He is 5-foot-11 and never even played varsity at his Miami-area high school. He chose UCF as his parents agreed a change of scenery would be valuable as he grew into an adult. He had no idea about officiating until he realized he needed a job. A friend saw a flyer at the rec center.
Acevedo credits a personal drive and enjoyment of the game. But he quickly notes that support and “being in the right place at the right time” have led to his startling ascent.
A once-timid freshman, who was shoved by a frat player, he learned quickly “how bad something can go.”
But it certainly can get better, under the right guidance.
“It’s probably the type of program that is needed everywhere,” said the godfather Rutledge. “There’s a well-known shortage of officials just about everywhere, and (Florida) is no different. But what Jim has done is to create such a nurturing place, one that extends well beyond the campus.”
It led to Acevedo being part of a showdown of local elites. A far cry from the frat boys.
“Just the way those elite players carry themselves,” Acevedo said. “It was amazing.”
Acevedo will soon graduate and has sights set on law school. He’s even been able to consult with a regular “Referee U” instructor, who has given him insight on how to manage that kind of career — even through a couple of intense years of schooling.
“I have no intention of letting go of the whistle,” Acevedo said.
Wilkening points out Acevedo’s potential, and apparent fast track, which led him into an enviable 32-minute position to earn $110 and see what some of the best Florida high schools have to offer the game. Still, Acevedo gave himself a seven out of 10 for his overall showing.
Growth can be had, to be sure. And it’s definitely likely thanks to Wilkening, UCF and a dense spiderweb of opportunities and connections.
“Our goal is to help identify officials and get them in the right places,” Wilkening said.
Jason Franchuk, Carbondale, Ill., officiates high school and junior college women’s basketball.
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