The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

February 27, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: More control over officials badly needed

MORGANTOWN — A week ago, when West Virginia University was pulling off a stunning upset over Notre Dame at the Coliseum, the officiating crew headed by the elfish Tim Higgins had a day far more like the struggling Fighting Irish than the Mountaineers.

Coming from an untrained eye sitting high above the court and watching the ball rather than a certain area of the court, criticism of an official carries a high degree of uncertainty to it, which is why I have learned over the years to accept their decisions as the gospel.

But when you watch a game and see constant bickering, see a replay or two that contradicts the official call, when both coaches draw technical fouls on which they need to be restrained, you naturally assume that the officials had a bad day.

It happens.

But when you know that you saw them working a game in another conference in a faraway area code the day before or when you see the same official out there a day later, again in a faraway area code working another game, you wonder if, perhaps, there isn’t something wrong here.

Then, when it happens to be Tim Higgins, who is 64 and in possession of probably four or five million hotel and airline points – or a few of the other aging officials who wander in and out of the Coliseum and follow a similarly grueling work and travel schedule like Higgins – you wonder if their performance is below par because of their schedule.

Think about it for a moment. In an article written by Dana O’Neill a year ago on ESPN.com, Big East director of officials John Adams made the following statement:

“The ideal official would be a 35-year old guy that can run like a deer and that has 20 years experience, which would mean he would have to start at 15 and that’s not happening. So here’s what we have: 50-year-old professional officials or older trying to work 75, 80, 90 games. We don’t ask 22-year-old kids to work, to play 90 games a season. We ask them to play, if they go to the national championship, 36 or 37 games.”

Watch an official in a game, going up and down the court how many times, putting on how many miles in a night. It isn’t easy and it’s done under intense pressure in an atmosphere where everyone is against you. You are taunted and ridiculed and on every 50-50 call you are making the wrong call for one of the teams.

Now, go back and think about your last trip, be it by car or plane. Think of the hours spent in the airport, the delays, the crowds, getting a cab or a car, sitting around a hotel. Think of the hassle and the fatigue travel brought on.

I did it as a 30-year-old on the baseball circuit, where you at least get to spend three or four days in a city, unpack your bag, settle in, and it was torturous. Now think of doing it for 70 or 80 basketball games a year, each one in a different city, being away from you family, missing out on your job.

That’s right, basketball officials are like you and I. They have families, and officiating is

moonlighting to them, Higgins being a vice president of sales for Kamco Supply Co., a Brooklyn-based building materials company. Most officials have a regular job that they attend to when they aren’t running to Iowa City on a Wednesday, to Newark on a Thursday, State College, Pa., on Saturday and Syracuse on Sunday, which was Higgins’ schedule the week when Dana O’Neill went with him.

Do you really think Higgins was as good an official in Syracuse on Sunday as he was in Iowa City on Wednesday?

Obviously, coaches and the NCAA don’t think the young players can handle thing like that, but they not only expect, they demand the officials do it.

Since 1996, Higgins has officiated 1,032 games in 35 states. This year he has officiated 72 games, which ranks him 12th among officials, the Big East’s Mike Kitts leading with 84 games officiated.

Of course, unlike the players, the officials are paid handsomely at $700 to $1,000 a game in the major conferences, but that really isn’t very much when you consider what the officials in the professional leagues make where they are unionized and where officiating is their profession and primary source of income, complete with a full benefit package.

There are times, of course, when officials overstep their bounds and elbow their way into a starring role rather than being a member of the supporting class. Higgins, for example, once ejected a cheerleader. Ted Valentine is flamboyant in his calls and often criticized for his showmanship.

Considering how much money there is in college basketball and considering the incredible way it is set up so the people who should benefit the most – the players – are unpaid, the NCAA should create its own department of officiating and pay enough so that it can exert more control over the scheduling and travel of what would be professional officials.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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