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Nicknames are part of sports. “Hammerin’ Hank.” “The Greek Freak.” “A-Rod.” Sports officials go the same route.

“Reggie the Ref.” Catchy nickname, right? That’s what they call Reggie Smith, highly respected Big 12 Conference referee.

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“I believe it started when former National Football League Director of Officials Recruitment Ron Baynes and retired National Football League official Dale Hamer used it,” said the 38-year-old Smith, who has made a fairly rapid climb up the officiating ladder and now serves as a crew chief for in the Big 12. “It just kind of stuck with me and I use it for my e-mail address. Actually, every member of my crew has a nickname and in athletics it’s kind of the norm.”

Smith was hired by the Big 12 in after a successful stint in Conference USA from 2005-08, though there were trying times. During the off season in 2009, Smith had to undergo hip surgery, an uncommon situation for a man who was then only 28 years old.

“Going into an interview with Walt Anderson (then the Big 12 coordinator of officials) and my hip was hurting. I walked into the restaurant where we met, and I didn’t know if he could tell how badly I was in pain. I thought, ‘Do I mention it to Walt and let him know what was going on?’ Well, I did and he still wanted me for the Big 12. I had a light rookie schedule and worked only odd numbered weeks.”

Despite his limited first-year slate of games, Smith, a field judge for his two years with the conference, was assigned to a game between Georgia and Oklahoma State that “put Dez Bryant on the map,” Texas Tech versus Texas, and Texas A&M versus Arkansas in AT&T Stadium.

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After that season ended, Smith’s other hip was also in bad shape and in he went for surgery again. “I got it done right away after the season because I wanted to be ready to go when the 2010 season rolled around.”

Fiery Competitor

Like the fiery competitor he is and always has been, Smith attacked rehabilitation from both hip surgeries like a linebacker honing in on a quarterback. “I was 28 at the time and it’s a lot easier to recover from that type of surgery than when if you are 38, 48 or 58,” he said. “It was also a lifestyle decision. I wanted to have a high quality of life and be able to live out my dream of being a football official at a high level.”

He attacked rehab with an aggressive approach and was able to get recovery down from the usual 12 weeks to eight.

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Smith, who lives with his family in Moon Township, Pa., was ready to go when the 2010 fall rolled around and worked a full schedule in the pass-happy conference. “There was no problem keeping up, running, stop-and-go moves, and opening my hips. I feel good as new and my new hips are working fine,” Smith said.

He even got his first bowl game assignment at the end of the 2010 season, the Holiday Bowl between Washington and Nebraska, where he took the occasion to become engaged to his wife, Stephanie. The couple have two children, daughter Alexis and son Maximus.

Smith, who has also officiated in several arena football leagues, the Alliance of American Football and NFL Europe, was like most kids growing up in the western Pennsylvania town of New Brighton. He loved all sports. He played baseball, basketball, football and competed in track and field for New Brighton High School. He even got his first taste of officiating when he umpired Little League games when he was 13 years old (“I made spending money so I didn’t have to bother my parents,” he quipped).

An accomplished athlete in high school, especially in football and track and field, those skills served him well later when he would run to keep up with speedy wide receivers and defensive backs. Smith opted to accept a track and field scholarship to Robert Morris University, where he competed in the 400- and 800-meter runs and he 4×400-meter relay. He received All-Northeast Conference honors five times.

Not only did he compete at a high level in college, he also launched himself full bore into officiating and began officiating Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) games in three sports — baseball, football and basketball — while in college. He began officiating football and basketball in 1999 and baseball in 2006. He worked PIAA football through 2006 before solely focusing on NCAA games. He is a member of the Eastern Collegiate Football Officials Association and was a member of the Tri-State Officials Association from 2003-12. He is active in football camps around the country as a clinician, most notably the Tom Beard Football Officials Camp and the Harold Mitchell Football Officials Camp.

“I took pride in being mechanically sound and solid with the rules,” he said. “It all started with youth baseball then basketball and football. I grew up in a competitive family and that competitive spirit drove me in high school and college and remains with me today.”

From Player to the Field

Smith admitted he was a bit, well, let’s say intense as a player, especially in football, which occasionally got him into trouble with the officials. In fact, it was a desire to do a better job than the officials who worked his games that got him started in officiating. “I started reading the national high school football rulebook, became a student of the game and passed my football officiating test a few weeks before I graduated high school. The rest is history.”

“My opinion of Reggie may be biased as Reg is now one of my closest friends,” said Big 12 official and fellow crew member Dan Scanlon, “but I truly feel Reggie is the best referee in the country in his microphone mechanics. Every time we have something that is out of the ordinary, he speaks in great detail so that there is no speculation.”

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Another of Smith’s strengths, according to Scanlon, is his ability to lead a crew of eight people that with eight different personalities to effectively call and manage a football game. “He knows that if you can make guys like each other off the field, that is going to directly affect our abilities to communicate on the field and he works hard at it,” Scanlan said. “As a crew we are always doing crew-building activities to strengthen our relationships.

“Reggie is extremely outgoing and seems to know everyone in football. He was a good deep official but has blossomed as a referee,” Scanlan added. “Reggie works hard at being a good crew leader and referee in every league he works in. He is a very good communicator.”

As the Big 12 Coordinator of Football Officials, Greg Burks has met with Smith at several games. “He is a leader in our system and does a great job. He has earned the respect of our staff and coaches and I can assign Reggie to any game and know he will handle it like a pro,” Burks said.

When Reggie started with C-USA he was a deep wing with limited experience but a strong desire to learn, got better and become a white hat. “I assigned him a couple of games as referee early on to determine his potential as a crew chief,”. Burks said. “It was evident he had a bright future. He has become one of the top white hats in the country. His announcements are as good as any you will hear. He sells the call. I would put him in any game any time. He attends officiating camps helping train and inspire officials.”

One of Baynes’ tasks after his onfield career ended with the NFL was recruiting and training new officials. “I wish I could say I discovered Reggie, but Dale Hamer saw him work while Reggie was still very young, in his early 20s,” Baynes recalled. “He called me and told me about Reggie. I went out and saw him work several games and was really impressed with his officiating ability and with his potential for a future in officiating. I hired him to work (the Arena League), which was a training ground for future NFL officials. I also called Gerald Austin, who was supervisor of officials for Conference USA and recommended Reggie and told him he should hire Reggie.”

Baynes said he also recommended Smith for a spot in NFL Europe, the now extinct training ground for future NFL officials. “He was probably one of the youngest officials ever taken to Europe,” Baynes said. “He had two years of outstanding work and has continued to show incredible ability.”

Acknowledging he is a “big fan” of Smith, Baynes harkened back to the early days of their friendship and professional relationship. “I am part of the group that tagged him with the nickname ‘Reggie the Ref,’ which is a nickname that has stuck with him, and quite an honor. People from all over the U.S. in the officiating family know who Reggie the Ref is.”

Smith’s biggest strength as an official, according to Baynes, is his genuine love of the officiating avocation, something he has made no attempt to hide. He has also made it known he wants to make officiating a career. “This is not always the case, even with longtime officials,” Baynes said. “It is, as we all know, a tough and challenging profession. Reggie loved it from day one and has continued to display that enthusiasm for his work.”

Another major strength, Baynes believes, is that Smith is coachable. “He is a sponge when it comes to information and learning about officiating from his coaches and trainers. He accepts criticism and coaching from supervisors who want to help him improve his trade. It is not an exact science and we all make mistakes. How we handle those mistakes goes a long way with how good we become. Reggie handles that criticism very well.”

Bill Carollo, coordinator of the Big 10 Conference and a former NFL referee, was first introduced to Smith while Smith was in college. “He caught my eye because of his enthusiasm for officiating at such a young age. He called me and was eager to learn as much as he could as fast as possible. From our first meeting I knew he would be successful. Reggie’s positive attitude toward officiating got him started and it’s why he is successful today,” Carollo said.

The two have worked and presented together at a number of clinics over the years. “He has continued to participate and lead both on the field and off,” Carollo said.

A major skill that all coordinators look for in referees is leadership and their ability to manage the game. “Reggie’s ability to handle the toughest contests earns him the highest respect from players, coaches and his fellow officials,” Carollo said.

Reggie’s wife, Stephanie, attempts to travel to about two or three games a season to see her husband wear the white hat, and enjoys taking photographs of her husband on the field. “Since Reggie has been in the same conference for many years, I know a decent amount of officials and their families. It is nice to coordinate at least one game where we can all meet. The children travel to about one game a year. They can make it until about halftime before boredom kicks in.”

“Peacefulness and contentment” are Reggie Smith’s greatest attributes as a husband and father, Stephanie said. He doesn’t like quarrels and petty fights.

“Reggie’s greatest attributes as a dad are his patience and ability to make the kids laugh. He always finds a way to brighten their day. He never stops until he achieves his dream. He is not discouraged and he doesn’t give up even if his several attempts fail.”

Stephanie watches games on television whenever she can. “I like watching him work and I like football. The kids usually watch the first quarter because they love seeing their dad on TV. It helps that he is the referee. If he was a different officiating position, I don’t think the kids would enjoy the game as much.”

Appraising

Smith is an appraiser for AssetWorks LLC of Pittsburgh. The company conducts building appraisals and asset valuations, offers inventory solutions for schools, governments and universities, does property insurance appraisals and offers facilities management, fleet management and fixed-asset inventory. He is on the road quite a bit visiting clients, and when combined with the football season that means sleeping in hotels and travelling a good portion of the year.

“The travel is one of the hardest parts of my work. This is one area of where my wife is able to take up my roles at home when I’m traveling. We can Facetime when I’m away, so that makes it more tolerable. It’s just the nature of what I do.”

When he can, he likes to fit a little golf in, sometimes with his fellow crew members. “It’s something we plan on doing more of this fall.”

Stephanie is the glue that holds the family together, with her husband on the road so much for officiating and work. “There are some challenges knowing Reggie will not be around for certain events, but we have family in the area who have eagerly helped whenever I need it. Surprisingly, it is usually harder trying to explain to other people that Reggie will not be around for a specific event and not to take it personally.”

Stephanie and the couple’s children are very active and she doesn’t hesitate to plan small trips or activities without Reggie. “When I know that Reggie will be out of town, that is when I plan activities that I know do not interest him. I try to plan more exciting activities when I know Reggie will be home.”

So, where is Reggie the Ref headed? “I have several professional goals, almost all of them college football-related. I would be willing to work with the NFL if the call ever comes. But right now I’m focusing on being the best Big 12 official I can be.”

No one is disputing that Reggie the Ref is just that.

(A former Little League umpire, John Torsiello is a veteran sportswriter and editor who has covered all sports during his career, from high school to professional. He lives in Torrington, Conn.)

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