Around 11:30 a.m. on Selection Sunday, Keith Kimble smiled. He was in.
The college basketball official checked his email and discovered he’d be working his first NCAA tournament after spending a 16-year career yearning for that moment.
For six of those years, Kimble has officiated Division I games in conferences like the Big 12 and Conference USA. On Sunday, Kimble and four other rookies were among the 98 officials notified they’d be working the tournament.
“It was a dream come true for me,” Kimble said. “It’s something I’ve been working for the past 16 years to get to. It’s a feeling of relief.”
Kimble, like the teams selected to compete in the tournament, proved his merit to the NCAA by excelling on the court. Kimble and his fellow officials were approved by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee, the same group that selected the 68 teams in the tournament. Unlike those teams, however, his season-long crucible took place out of the spotlight.
Behind the scenes, in the stands and in their own film rooms, John Adams — now in his fourth year as the NCAA men’s basketball national officiating coordinator — and his team of four regional advisors picked apart the performances of hundreds of officials, evaluating over more than 400 games this season.
Their four-month mission was to whittle down the field to the 98 officials and eight alternates who will work games during the men’s tournament.
“We’re trying to deliver a product from an officiating point of view that will pass any test or any scrutiny with regard to impartiality, fairness, knowledge of the rules and trying to end the games in a fair manner,” Adams said. “It’s important that everybody who leaves the arena — even the team that lost — to think they had a fair game.”
From the moment that the first jump balls were tossed up nationwide in early November until the final whistles blew at the end of the regular season, Adams and his team were scrutinizing every move, every interaction and every call officials made. Each soaked in more than 50 games in person and countless more on television. Several on Adams’s team admit they haven’t spent a day away from basketball since the season began.
“I probably would be doing it even if I wasn’t being paid,” said Tim Baab, one of Adams’s regional advisors and former head coach of John Carroll University. “It’s just so much fun.”
The process is thorough, Adams said, in order to protect the integrity of the game. Adams and his team spend months in airports, arenas and in front of televisions to ensure that the highest-caliber officials work the 67 games that decide who will be crowned national champion.
“The true measure of a successful game [is when] all the participants walk out of the gym feeling that they gave their best and are not looking back over their shoulders at the three officials running off the floor in the other direction, wondering whether or not they gave their best,” Adams said.
Before a single point was scored this season, officiating coordinators from each of the 31 automatic qualifying conferences furnished Adams with a list of officials they anticipated would work conference tournaments at season’s end. Adams divvied the conferences up among his four regional advisors, who traversed the country evaluating those officials on more than 30 criteria, including fitness and end-of-game-management.
They’re not only trying to determine which officials can make the right calls and keep the game under control, but who can keep pace with the ever-increasing speed of the modern game.
“The key to calling plays right is being able to get in position to see them,” Baab said. “If you are not fit enough to get in position to see them, more than likely you’re out of position and guessing.”
Luis Grillo, a regional advisor and an NBA referee for 21 years, said he is honest in his evaluations of officials, but empathizes with the demands of the job. As student-athletes have grown stronger and faster, officials’ duties have grown harder, akin to what he dealt with in the NBA.
“It’s a very tough job because everyone’s moving,” Grillo said. “You’re in constant motion and there’s always action, so you have to be prepared for something to happen every 8 to 10 seconds.”
As regional advisors evaluated officials, oftentimes more than once, they gave Adams a simple “consider” or “do not consider” recommendation. By mid-February, Adams and the advisors compared notes and Adams selected one official, previously nominated by a conference, from each the 31 automatic qualifying conferences. Adams drew the other 67, and the eight alternates, from the list of officials his advisors recommended. In early March, Adams passed that list to the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee for approval.
For Adams, deciding who makes the final cut is no simple process. Much like the committee that selects which teams will participate in the tournament, Adams must parse though elite officials whose bodies of work have few discernible differences. Though they may not realize it, numerous officials are “on the bubble” every season.
“We have at least 135 officials of the 235 nominated who could easily work one game,” Adams said.
Like the teams, the officials are notified on Selection Sunday, and only the best will survive and advance through the tournament. Adams and his advisors will monitor their performances every round, oftentimes on-site, picking the best to move on to later rounds.
Mike Stuart, who has officiated Division I games since 1988, knows that process well. He’s worked three Final Fours and every tournament since 1997, save for last year when he was sidelined by a stress fracture. Like Kimble, Stuart was giddy on Sunday when he learned he’d been selected, despite his years of high-profile, high-pressure experience.
“It’s always an exciting time no matter how many years you’ve been,” he said. “There’s something special about that email. It’s one of the greatest sporting events in the world.”