Ron Groover is In the Groove

Ron Groover is In the Groove

By John Torsiello

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Life sometimes can hinge upon a chance meeting. That’s how it worked for NCAA basketball official Ron Groover. From relaxing after a pickup basketball game in 1994, to officiating the national championship game of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It took a few years to travel that road of course, but that all-important day at a local basketball gym in his hometown of Hapeville, Ga., set in motion what has been an eminently successful career, one that is only beginning to fully blossom on the national stage.

“One day a bunch of us were at our local recreation center playing pickup basketball,” Groover recalled. “As our pickup game finished, the 10U youth basketball teams were coming in for their scheduled games and I began to take my sneakers off on the sidelines. There happened to be a basketball official named Larry Bin standing on the sideline waiting to officiate the games. We started chatting and I asked him how he became a ref. He asked me if I was interested and I said, ‘Yes.’ He gave me his pager number, I called, and I ended up working a few games at the recreation center soon after.”

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Groover was off and running, not just playing basketball but following the action with a whistle and making calls as a 24-year-old official. “There were a couple of local recreation centers with kids’ and men’s league games where I began my officiating journey,” he said.
After a while, Groover was invited to attend a high school officials meeting; before you knew it, he was officiating high school games and within two years was working at the NCAA junior college and NAIA level.

“Larry happened to be ‘that guy,’” Groover said. “It could have been someone else standing next to him having that conversation. But it was me and I’m so glad that it did take place.” Groover certainly earned his stripes at various levels of competition since that day.

“Looking back at where I am in this point in my life, the first year, I had no idea what I was doing, I just jumped in,” he said. “Now the game has slowed down for me, but back then it seemed the players were moving fast, the fans were screaming and action was just flying by.”

Fortunately for Groover, he had a friend and mentor to consult with in Bin. “We would debrief after games,” Groover said. “He was never in a rush to grab his bag and head out the door. He was always available to answer questions. He also asked me what I saw on the court and helped me find the answers. It was great the way he coached me and motivated me. He introduced me to high school officiating and that was a big jump for me.”

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While working at various levels of basketball paid dividends for Groover, he said the experiences weren’t always the most pleasurable. “I’m happy I worked in high school and recreation basketball,” he said. “It taught me a lot about how to perform as an official. I attended many camps during the summers and that was always productive. Now, watching my son officiate middle school and junior varsity games and witnessing the way parents and fans behave, I don’t know if that is the most positive place for young officials to learn their trade. The way people behave at sporting events you would never see them behave at Walmart or Target. The last few years, we have been struggling to get people to officiate at the lower levels just because of the hostility that occurs.”

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Groover believes it should be the responsibility of leaders of the schools, athletic directors or school administrators — not the officials working the game — to control crowds. “I don’t think it should be the person being paid 25 or 50 bucks to kick a person out of a gym and then have to fight their way to the car after a game,” he explained. “This is a difficult and unsafe situation for an official to experience during his or her officiating career.”

Climbing the officiating ladder, Groover concentrated on Division II and NAIA games in the late 1990s and by 2004 he was hired to work games in the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference as well as the NBA D-League (he resigned in 2007 to focus on college basketball). “I felt I was ready for it,” he said of moving to the Division I level. “I guess back then I thought I was ready to do an NCAA championship game. It was like growing up in my neighborhood, being tough and competitive. Not arrogant but competitive with myself. I believe this mental toughness has helped get me to where I am today. But I also know now all the time served prior to working the Final Four was worth the wait.”

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Groover currently works in the ACC/Big East Consortium, the SEC Consortium, and the Big 12 Consortium. He’s worked 12 NCAA tournaments, starting in 2007, eight Regionals and two Final Fours and has called multiple conference tournament championship games in the SEC and ACC.

Georgia on My Mind

Groover, who graduated from Hapeville (Ga.) High School and attended the University of West Georgia, lives with his family in Newnan, Ga., about 40 miles south of Atlanta. He and his wife, Stacey, have been married for 27 years and are high school sweethearts. They have three children: son, Glavin, is 24 and twin daughters, Karlee and Kara, are 21.

In addition to his officiating duties, Groover served as a head coach of the varsity girls’ fast-pitch team at The Heritage School outside of Atlanta. He coached Karlee and Kara in fast-pitch softball at the school for four years and travel level for 12 years.

“It was a passion for me and I loved it,” Groover said. “I was fortunate to watch the same group of girls grow from 6-year-olds to 18-year-old young women.” Both daughters went on to play sports in college — one in volleyball and one in basketball. “I guess my softball coaching prepared them to play a sport other than softball,” he said.

He did all this while balancing working at The Hertz Corporation in Atlanta as an operation manager for 25 years before retiring in 2015 to concentrate on officiating college basketball. Groover also enjoys a game of golf with his neighbors when he has time. He finds the game relaxing and a way to unwind from his career.

Being an official made Groover sympathetic to the plight of referees and umpires during his coaching days.

“I was coaching a softball game and one of our parents was riding the umpire pretty hard,” Groover said. “She was known for conversing with the umpires on a regular basis. During the game, we had a really close play which was not called in our favor. The mom started on the umpire and it was loud. So, I decided to go out and talk to him about the call. Being an official I know there are plays that are just impossible. The umpire asked me what I was doing and what the issue was and I said, ‘I’m just coming out here to act like we are discussing the outcome of the play, but honestly I’m here to say thanks for being here and please don’t listen to our screaming mom. You guys are doing a good job.’ He just shook his head.”

Groover’s son, 24-year-old Glavin, is starting his journey as a basketball official. He is refereeing high school and junior college games early on, as his dad did.

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“I’m proud of him,” said the elder Groover, who coached his son’s travel baseball team for eight years. “Glavin and I discuss expectations with officiating. I have told him, ‘Work hard every game regardless of the level and take advantage of the lifelong relationships you can make during your career.’ All he has known is his father officiating. If he has questions, we will talk about them. Even when he was playing, we would talk about his game, the plays that happened and any other questions he may have had, on the rides home. I’ve seen in him this past season a lot more passion and desire for officiating. He is starting to get the bug.”

Glavin Groover credits his dad with setting a great example for him on and off the court. “My dad has influenced me in more ways than basketball officiating,” Glavin said. “He has always been my biggest role model throughout my life. He has taught me to be my best self every day. He has taught me to care for others like I would want them to care for me.

“He definitely influenced my decision to become an official. I have witnessed him grow in the officiating world and I know how much joy officiating brings him. I have loved walking into a gym or officiating meetings as a young official because of my dad’s journey in this business. He has taught me to look at the game of basketball in a way it would have taken me many years of experience to see. I would be grateful and blessed to have the career my dad has enjoyed as an official.”

Forward Communication

Bryan Kersey, ACC coordinator of men’s basketball officials, got to know Groover about 15 years ago and knew he had a future. “He had great poise and was a really good play-caller,” Kersey recalled. “At that time, he needed to improve his communication and sort of come out of his shell to let his personality take over; he basically needed to enjoy what he did.”

And that’s just what he did.

Kersey has been impressed with Groover’s growth and work as an ACC official. “He has done a great job for me since I became a coordinator,” Kersey said. “When I got the job and talked to him, I explained I needed him to be a leader, not only on the floor but off. I told him there are a lot of games where we need three crew chiefs in them and I needed him to be one of those guys; don’t try to blend in as an individual but create team officiating within the crew. I also told him he had to be able to communicate, which he has done a great job of.

“He is a great play-caller because he doesn’t get excited and he processes what he sees. He is in great shape, which allows him to get in the proper position to make the right call and be able to see the entire play from start to finish.”

Kersey believes the art of oncourt communication has been one of Groover’s biggest growth spurts in recent years.

“He is a leader on the floor, which commands the respect of the coaches,” Kersey said. “When he first became a crew chief with us, he didn’t always know the right things to say to coaches. But he has learned to listen and it has helped him grow. Also, he knows the game; he has gotten deep into film study and gotten deep into rules knowledge. This has helped him become fully engaged in what he does. He is a mentor to less-experienced officials — he learns while he teaches, which has helped him a great deal. He isn’t afraid to make the big call when it is needed.”

Kersey said Groover prepares himself for whatever each game brings. “The great thing about college basketball is it is non-scripted,” Kersey said, “so every night is different, and he prepares for each game individually and gets his crew ready each night he walks onto the floor.”

J.D. Collins, NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, has known Groover for more than 15 years. “Back in the day, I officiated with him when he was a lesser experienced official,” Collins said. “He has established himself as one of the best in the business. He continues to be a student of the game and puts great effort into every game he officiates. Ron continues to hone his craft.

“He has developed a no-nonsense approach and matched that with great communication skills. Nothing rattles Ron on the floor. He operates in a poised manner and doesn’t allow outside influences to fluster him. He has a calming approach with the coaches and they appreciate that.”

Communication was mentioned several times by both coordinators and it is something Groover has worked to improve as he has matured as a big-time official.

“I called more technical fouls in my earlier years,” Groover said. “In the last five to eight years, I’m finding that calling technicals is not the only way that you can control things on the court. You can also do it by communicating and listening to players and coaches. Now, it’s a big part of what I try to get across when I get invited to attend camps. I drive communication and listening hard to the young and up-and-coming people.”

Veteran NCAA official Tony Greene and Groover have worked together on the court and are close friends. “I first met Ron well over 20 years ago at an SEC officiating camp,” Greene recalled. “We have worked plenty of games over the years. Those include games as he climbed the ladder from the lower level leagues under the SEC umbrella to games in various other leagues once he made it to the Power 5.”

Greene also believes his buddy has grown “tremendously” as an official because “he listens well and he was always in tip-top condition.

“His strengths are the great listening skills that he has along with the ability to incorporate his skills in management from his vocation and transfer those things onto the court,” Greene said. “He took on all sorts of personalities on his job, so his communication skills were phenomenal in dealing with players and coaches.”

Groover has the courage, Greene said, to make crucial calls at critical times of a game when a lot of people shy away from those situations. “That translates to being a great play-caller,” Greene said. “He has learned to help his partners in ways that will assist them in improving their games. He has a team mentality for the crew and not a ‘me mentality.’ He’s able to make his partners feel like they are a very integral part of the crew so they can go out and work with ease. His knowledge of the rules is incredible and impressive in pregame discussions.”

Greene said Groover also has a sharp sense of humor. “I really don’t have time to talk about all of the funny things this guy has done in my presence,” Greene said with a laugh. “He can imitate people almost better than Jamie Foxx.”
Greene recalled a ride home that showcases Groover’s personality. “When we’re driving back from a game and I’m in the passenger seat during the winter. I’ll doze off as he’s driving and I wake up screaming, ‘Why is this seat so hot?’ Ron will have reached over and turned the seat heater on high to wake me up. He’s the best. He’s like family. I love the guy.”

The Ultimate Assignment

When Groover got the call to referee the 2019 Texas Tech-Virginia National Championship game, he said it was mind numbing.

“I remember accepting the assignment and then tears rolling down my cheek,” he said. “They were thankful tears. I immediately thought of my wife and kids, all the sacrifices they made during my officiating journey. I thought of the many people that invested in me during my career — my bosses at work, co-workers, parents and in-laws that supported me along the way — not only with being fans of mine but helping with our child care or supporting us any way they could.

“I thought of the officiating supervisors that provided me opportunities to grow my career, trusted me in big games. My fellow officials without a doubt were running through my mind — the support, the learning from each other, the amazing lifelong relationships that have come out of this journey. All I could say was, ‘Wow, I’m so blessed.’ Being blessed with that opportunity was something as an official I thought was an unrealistic expectation. Yet I knew it was obtainable, because a crew of three gets assigned to work the game every year. But I will not let one assignment define my career or change who I am.”

After the call came assigning him to the 2019 national title game, Groover had time to think about the enormous experience ahead of him and his crew. “All I was thinking was to get the clock going, the players playing and the coaches coaching, and I will be at peace,” he said.

Groover’s wife and three children attended the game. When he looked up at them in the stands it made the experience even more special. Visually finding them was a challenge because there were 72,000 fans in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“The two-and-a-half to three hours during the game was when I felt most comfortable,” Groover recalled. “I had awesome partners (Michael Stephens and Terry Wymer, along with standby official Chris Rastatter). My thinking going into each and every game is to keep it simple — we have to be right each possession; don’t look at the entire game, look at it in possession, in small bites. Our crew was successful that night. The game went smoothly. We had one replay late in the game on an out-of-bounds play that was discussed during the broadcast, but we got the call correct.” Virginia won the game, 85-77.

“I’m thankful for where I am at the moment,” he said. “I know it can all end today and if it did, I will have gotten so much out of this. My family, coaching, officiating, work — I don’t take anything for granted. I stress physical fitness as well as mental fitness, reading rulebooks, watching film and keeping up with any changes. I have attained credibility as an official and I want to sustain it. And I’m still looking to grow as an official.”

Groover credits “all the people” who have made his journey a remarkable one. “I want to give to the people coming up what I was given by others,” he said. “I look back to that night at the gym when I met Larry and it’s hard to believe how it has all worked out.”

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