POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2010:
Revenge of the Ref Eye
Make no mistake, their phantom presence is with us. Umps call it as they see it
True Tulsa sports fans secretly want to know about the sometimes sadistic profession of officiating.
About a month ago, National Football League referee Bill Leavy spoke candidly to the Seattle media. Unprovoked, he discussed his crew's performance during Super Bowl XL in 2006. No question was asked about the sensitive subject, but that did not stop him from opening up.
"It was a tough thing for me," said the 15-year veteran. "I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that.
"It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly," Leavy said of the February 2006 championship. "I'll go to my grave wishing that I'd been better."
Harsh self-imposed criticism considering the game was four years ago. Officials are a lot like offensive linemen. The less you notice them during the course of a game, the better the job they are doing.
"Writing about officials won't make you popular," said Tulsa-based referee Mark. "Normally we don't talk to reporters." Mark preferred to go with his first name only. He is a 25-year veteran of the Greater Tulsa Officials Association or GTOA.
Mark is mistaken. True Tulsa sports fans secretly want to know about the sometimes sadistic profession of officiating.
What makes a sane person decide to don the stripes? How do they get involved? What's in it for them besides an earful on Friday and Saturday nights? Can they become rich and famous? Inquisitive sports minds want to know.
'Tis the season, so let's focus on football. Besides, several requests to umpires went unreturned. The communication was just a bit outside.
If you are watching a football game in the Tulsa area, the official is a member of the Greater Tulsa Officials Association. The GTOA currently includes 275 members. They make up 35 crews.
Each crew is like a brotherhood. They work games together throughout the year.
"I'm a white hat," said Mark of his head referee status. "I go out every Friday night with the same guys. We go out, meet, do the game, and go out for dinner afterwards. It's a fellowship for us."
During the heat of the battle, players look toward their senior leadership for guidance. They can turn to a head coach, coordinator or quarterback for security.
Refs and umps turn unto themselves, literally.
The pool of GTOA officials handle youth football starting at the third grade level. They can work their way up and beyond. Some settle at the high school level while others ascend to the Division 1 college ranks and perhaps put themselves in position for a call up to the Bigs.
Then again, many bail from the occupation after a year or two. Each year, 10-15 exuberant, wide-eyed officials join the ranks. Attrition makes room.
Some expect to be well compensated. Others do not fully understand the time commitment. Still others cannot handle the mental anguish and verbal genades lobbed their way. Coaches and parents can be especially tough on the newbies.
The money myth is busted relatively early in the process. Dues, uniform costs and minimal pay might lead to their exit. You certainly don't do it for the uniform, though maybe it's the black and white. Maybe it's the authority.
Their attempt at securing a "side" job takes away from their family time. While many Tulsans enjoy the fall weather with a trip to the zoo, walk through the park or State Fair weekend extravaganza, these officials are preparing for a high school game Friday night. Many dabble in the collegiate ranks on Saturdays as well.
This does not include the offseason meetings requirements. This is an opportunity to brush up on newly implemented Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association rules and regulations.
The GTAO only retains 10-20 percent of the officials it signs each year. "Some people do not like getting yelled at. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do," said Mark.
Da Greatness of Da Refs
January 19, 2002 is remembered by two different fan bases in two completely different fashions. New England Patriots fans and most football fans affectionately refer to the playoff game as the "Tuck Rule Game." Rowdy Oakland Raiders fans and players call it the "Snow Job."
Late in the pivotal playoff game, the Raiders sacked Tom Brady, dislodging the football from his grip. The Raiders recovered and sealed the victory--or so they thought. Replay officials reviewed the play and unearthed the "Tuck Rule" which most of America (including the announcers calling the action) were not familiar with.
The Patriots went on to kick a game-tying and subsequent game-winning field goal. The Patriots captured the Super Bowl that year and the Raiders, as only the Raiders can do, held a grudge against referee Walt Coleman.
The next year, Coleman appeared at the Raiders facility to go over upcoming rule changes. The majority of the team staged a walkout in protest to his call. They were displeased with his interpretation of the rulebook.
"You haven't lived until you've been booed by 10,000 people. I've had that honor before," laughed T-Town official Mark.
Officials in all sports take their fair share of abuse. Not everyone is wired to deal with criticism from coaches and parents.
Please note, most of the disparaging comes from coaches and parents, not the players. Young players still respect the authority of refereesm leaving the nuances to their elders.
Officials understand coaches' livelihoods are at stake. The difference between winning and losing is huge--coaching jobs hinge on the team's final record each season.
"They are not yelling at you or complaining to you because it is a personal vendetta," said Todd Ragsdale, Vice President of the GTOA.
"That's part of their job. They want to make sure you know what you are talking about. They sometimes agree and sometimes disagree."
Ragsdale has officiated for nine seasons. During football season, he will work a Friday night contest, head home, pack his bags and head to Kansas for a Saturday game at the junior college level. He plans to catch on with a Division 2 conference next season.
"If you blow a call, you need to make sure the coach understands you've blown the call," said Ragsdale. "A lot of guys have trouble admitting mistakes especially when you are at a Union/Jenks game and there are 30,000 people there. It's difficult."
The high school coaches know the rules. They also understand the honey versus vinegar theory when dealing with officials. It is the youth games which call for the most patience.
Youth coaches are typically just one of the player's fathers. They watch Oklahoma battle Oklahoma State on Saturday and wonder why the same calls are not made during little Johnny's fifth grade game.
"We have to constantly explain (the rules) to them," said Ragsdale. "We might not have a certain penalty or formation or issue at this level. It's a college or NFL rule.
"You have to keep three sets of rules in your mind," he said referring to high school, college and NFL. "It's on-the-job training."
Parents and coaches believe their little child is destined for greatness at this age. Their offspring is their retirement plan.
Once kids hit the 14-15 age range, however, things settle down in the bleachers and on the sideline.
Be assured, new officials are not assigned to the Bixby/Booker T Washington state playoff clash. They start in the youth leagues. The coaches and parents smell blood. If an official is not cocksure, they can expect to be tested.
The state regulates the coaches and their behavior. "If a coach acts up on the field and gets ejected, he is sitting out a couple of games. He has to go through a training process again," Mark said.
This is not an issue at the high school level for the most part. These coaches have been through the system and know the repercussions.
"They know us," Mark continued. "We are going to miss a call every now and then, but for the most part, we give them a pretty good game. We don't run into a lot of problems. I cannot remember the last time we had to throw a coach out."
Coaches get hot during the heat of the battle. Communication is key.
"After the game they are usually going to come over and say good job."
The "Music City Miracle" occurred on January 8, 2000. The Buffalo Bills took the lead over the Tennessee Titans with 16 seconds remaining on the clock.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Titans executed their "Home Run Throwback" for a game-stealing touchdown.
A couple of years ago I spoke with former TU great and Bills lineman Jerry Ostroski about the play. He joked that when the game replay comes on the NFL Network he thinks the Bills won because he changes the channel before the kickoff unfolds.
The official, Phil Luckett, reviewed the play and was unable to find visual evidence of a forward pass. The play stood and 50 percent of the players and coaches left the field angry.
Luckett made the correct call. It is just part of the job. Regardless of your decision, half the people will disapprove.
This is why officials review the rulebook ad nauseam. During a 10-week span during the summer, they meet 10 times. Five of the meetings are mandatory. Five are support mechanisms.
"We cover rules, preseason issues, uniforms, and development." said Ragsdale. "We provide information from the state and national federations. We provide mechanics and philosophies and how we are going to operate every year, all of our points of emphasis, and what has changed."
After the final mandatory meeting, the officials are sent on their way. A six-person committee dishes out 1,800 assignments. Assignments come a month in advance.
They work schools from Webbers Falls, Sallisaw, Central Oklahoma, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Bixby, Owasso, Claremore, Ponca City, Stillwater and all the TPS schools.
It takes five years for an official in the GTOA to become certified. The first three years are heavily scrutinized. Just as football has become a year-round job, so has officiating. The difference is officials have full-time jobs on top of their officiating gig.
Year after year, NFL official Ed Hochuli earns high marks as one of the best in the business. However, on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008 he botched a call during a Denver Broncos/San Diego Chargers contest.
So here is a ref widely considered one of the finest. Now, Google his name and the first suggestion is "Ed Hochuli Bad Call."
Get a thousand calls correct but flub one, guess what everyone is talking about on Monday morning.
This criticism has not deterred Big 12 official Joe Pester. He works as a side judge in the Big 12 Conference and moonlights as a head referee in the Arena Football League. Oh, and he sells cutting tools in Broken Arrow for his full-time job.
Today's hostile-at-times media and fans make officiating in the big leagues strenuous. The scrutiny faced over an errant call would drive many professionals out of their jobs and minds.
"If we put congressmen and senators though (the same criticism), the United States would be in a lot better shape than it is today," laughed Pester.
He has been in the officiating business for 25 years. Three years after graduating college, he decided to pursue a career which would bring him back to a game he loved. That is when he hooked up with the GTOA.
"You start doing the little league games," he said. "The progression is like when you play the game." Little league, junior high, high school and now college.
He recalls the seventh grade Jenks/Union games being as intense as the varsity version of the Backyard Brawl.
Being involved in officiating has changed his view of the game. We're not just talking about his line of sight from the sideline either.
"I know those guys aren't out there to try to help anybody win or lose a ball game," Pester said. "They are there to see that the game is played as fair as it can be played."
Of course humans make mistakes. Everyone understands the speed of the game lends to a missed call here or there. Most fans also realize nothing is intentional.
"The thing that gets me about fans is they always think they are getting a raw end of the deal or a bad call. They think it's intentional. For one thing, (the official) may be right. Nine times out of 10 it's the right call and (the fans) don't know the rules."
Lots of lessons have been taken from the game and applied to his life. On the flip side, his personal life has provided inspiration and guidance on the field.
His understanding wife, Trenna, keeps him focused and pressing forward. He has two daughters who dealt with his travel schedule during their formative years.
His biggest inspiration comes in the form of his four-year-old grandson. Gavin was born with HLHS (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome). He's undergone three open-heart surgeries in his young life. "He's taught me how to be more focused and controlled with football," said Pester.
He cites the friendships as a strong reason to get involved with officiating. In 2005, he traveled to Columbus, Ohio to referee a Texas/Ohio State game. Priceless.
"The officials I come in contact with at every level have outstanding character, morals and ethics," said Pester. When a 25-year veteran speaks, we listen.
Laughing Out Loud
Top National Basketball Association official Joey Crawford stepped over the line on April 15, 2007. He ejected perennial All-Star and all-around good guy Tim Duncan from a contest. Duncan was caught laughing while sitting on the bench. This irked Crawford.
Crawford was suspended for the remainder of the NBA season. Commissioner David Stern reinstated the controversial ref prior to the next season. Crawford and Duncan have since shared the court and played nice together.
It is human nature. Officials go out of their way to let the players decide the outcome, but one momentary slip-up and things escalate quickly.
These officials are not in it for the fame, glory and riches. Nope, they love the game. How else can you explain their desire to officiate?
"I played football when I was young," explained Ragsdale. "I fell out of the football realm. This is how you are able to get back into it."
Oklahoma has produced some NFL-caliber players. These officials have been in the trenches with some of the greats.
They officiated Troy Aikmen in Henryetta. They may have bumped into Rocky Calmus at Jenks. Maybe one of them flagged Sam Bradford for intentional grounding during his high school days.
"It's kind of fulfilling being part of that when they were coming up through the youth leagues. Then you saw them in high school and then college. Now you've seen them in the NFL. That's part of the reason you do it, but most of us do it to stay close to the game," Ragsdale said.
You either love the game or you don't. If you don't, find another outlet. The focus should always be on the kids. When coaches, parents and officials steal the spotlight, the game suffers.
"You give a lot back to the kids," Mark said. "I've seen kids I had when they were six year's old all the way though high school and college. It's good to see them grow up. They learn a lot from the game. Officials are noticed. Those kids remember you."
The players are not the only ones who benefit with life lessons. Fifteen year veteran of officiating Melvin started at a local YMCA.
"I love the game," Melvin said. "It's about the game." He works mostly basketball contests but also dabbles in volleyball, softball and soccer.
He has learned to deal with different personalities and attitudes. It changed his approach to life.
"At first, I was a little different, things would bother me," Melvin said. "Learning how to deal with (the job) made it easier for everything else around me. That really helped me. I learned how to accomplish (the job) and it made life easier as far as stressful moments I have."
Seeing a coach blow-up over a "game" puts life into perspective. Sometimes we have a tendency to overreact to a situation. The blood pressure rises but is there reason?
"It has made life way better. Seeing how they get excited over things and seeing how they (handle the situation)." Melvin said. "It made me . . . instead of raising your voice with someone else, I learned to keep a smooth voice."
Cooler heads can prevail. Stay composed. By utilizing this calm technique, the players also get a free lesson in conflict resolution on the court. Yelling matches rarely leave anyone feeling good.
On October 6, 1990, referee J.C. Louderback and his Big Eight officiating crew huddled for 20 minutes at the conclusion of a Missouri/Colorado game.
Colorado scored to secure victory at the end of the game. However, it took five downs to break the plane of the goal line. As you may recall from your football observing days, four downs is standard. Oops.
You may be thinking a secondary career in officiating appeals to you. Maybe you are right. So what exactly is the process from sign-up to tossing your flag at a handsy defender?
"You start in high school," Ragsdale said. "You get three, maybe five years experience in high school then you begin going to camps and clinics at the NCAA level."
All of the major conferences hold clinics all over the country. You apply for admission. The supervisors of officials for these conferences are on hand.
You enter classroom settings and learn the college rules and mechanics. You're also given some work at spring games. You are evaluated on ability, field presence, knowledge, movement, athleticism and how you look in uniform.
If you catch the eye of the clinicians, you might get placed on the prospect list.
"You may or may not know you are on the prospect list," Ragsdale said. "They want to see how you work and your integrity and professionalism and mannerisms not knowing you are being evaluated."
Sometimes when you are being evaluated you act a little different. This goes for all walks of life.
"They will request films from games you worked in high school or if you worked small colleges," he continued. "They'll even come to your small college and evaluate you on the game you work. They'll request films from coaches and other supervisors who may have had you on the field."
Next you may be asked to interact with a veteran crew. How do you get along with potential co-workers? You may sit in the replay booth and comment on the field. They might also have you field level charting fouls.
Eventually you are put on the field. Let's say it is a Big 12 officiating job. Chances are your first assignment will be Baylor versus Kansas rather than an OU/Texas tangle.
The first year in D1 you might be a fill-in ref. It is possible you would work three or four games total. Eventually, a crew might ask you to join their team. Then you have established yourself in the rotation.
For the illustrious NFL job, you don't find them, they find you.
Several former GTOA officials have moved on. Ragsdale believes five are currently working for Conference USA. Two work for the Big 12. Four tackle AFL refereeing positions. One ascended to the NFL.
Visit TulsaOfficials.com for more information on the organization.
So the next time your kid, cousin, nephew, granddaughter or schoolmate get "shafted" by a "blind zebra," think twice before you spew venom their way.
It's strictly business, nothing personal.
At the very least, tell 'em "atta boy" when the game is over.
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