‘It’ll be hard to replace’
Outgoing coordinator of officiating reflects on career
INDIANAPOLIS -- A whistle blows during the Butler-Creighton game. There has been some contact, but not much. Butler will go to the free-throw line, while the NCAA national coordinator of officiating over in the press section jots down a note for future reference.
"I wish we were more patient," John Adams says. "Like that play right there. Wait a half-second, and maybe they could see that’s not a foul."
My, how reporters are going to miss that honesty.
It is another night on the farewell tour of Adams, the man who will provide the tournament officials come March. He was in Philadelphia on Saturday, Chapel Hill on Sunday, Durham on Monday. Later in the week will be trips to Quinnipiac, then Yale, then Connecticut. The customers go to watch the basketball, he’s there to study the men in stripes.
"Absolutely the best job I ever had," he is saying. "I don’t know how somebody like me gets to the best game in America."
This is it for Adams, who is retiring after seven years on the job for the NCAA, and nine years before that as Horizon League officiating supervisor. One more time, he will decide who referees which games in the NCAA tournament. One more time, he will be the face for the public, should an officiating controversy splash across TV screens, with a candor that the media has come to cherish and the NCAA should value.
Take this night. There is an iffy call on a block-charge play, often the nemesis of officials. Adams is asked how regulating the tricky no-man’s land between a block and a charge is going this year.
"No better than it was when I was [officiating] in high school 30 years ago," he says. "It’s fast, it’s violent, it’s a scoring play, it’s emotional. And referees like to call charging. There’s just something about it.’’
He is asked if officials get a little anxious when he walks into their games.
"If me being here makes them nervous, they’re probably not ready for the NCAA tournament."
No coach-speak from John Adams. Not even in March, if one of his guys has goofed and the world is screaming. Three times he has called a losing coach after the fact and told them plainly the officials should have done a better job.
He is direct even about his own trials, when he sees the officials wearing pink socks, as their way of joining in the Coaches vs. Cancer movement.
"As a two-time cancer survivor, the guys doing that means a lot to me. I try not to get emotional about it, but I am."
Two-time? "Throat in ’99, prostate in ’06," he says matter-of-factly.
He has always been that way. Ask a question, get an answer. "I felt it was silly not to talk to the people that are involved in our game every day, whether it be coaches, media, fans. I think it is important for us to be as accessible and as transparent and as open as we can be about our business. You ask me a question and my choice is to tell you the truth or tell you it’s none of your business. That’s my only two. I’d rather tell you the truth."
He will need 100 names by mid-February to stock the tournament. That’s why he and the four regional supervisors will look at 500 games, either live or on television. Adams will always be on the move, but he is also a family man. He will twice interrupt this particular busy week to be home in Indianapolis to watch his son coach high school basketball and celebrate his wife’s 65th birthday.
You think the selection committee agonizes over the last four or five teams to put in the field? Adams will do the same for the last four or five officials. Then he will send them on their way, and hope nothing bad happens. His task is not easy. Then again, neither is the task of the officials.
"Officiating is like coaching; a business of unreasonable expectations. You’re expected to get every call right and a coach is never supposed to lose a game. If a team shoots 50 percent, they’ve done all right. If you’re an official and you get 50 percent of the calls right, you’d better find another leisure-time activity."
So while there’s a break in the action between Butler and Creighton, some questions for Adams, knowing there will be an answer.
The thing he is proudest of during his tenure?"That we really made an impact with the concept of freedom of movement [and calling tighter fouls]. We had to talk about it for five years. My sixth year we got it put in the rulebook. Long-term, if we get our officials across the country to follow that edict, we’ll have a better game."
A change he wish he could have made?
"I think we might -- underline might -- be better served with a national officiating management program, as opposed to each league doing it. The equivalent in the NBA would be the Knicks or Clippers hiring their own officials. We have as many leagues as they have teams, and they all hire their own officials. I think there’s probably a better way to do that."
The modern relationship between officials and coaches?
"We’re paying coaches in this country -- and deservedly so -- millions of dollars. Rollie Massimino told me when Villanova won the NCAA championship, he made $25,000. So the demands on the coaches to win that are getting seven figures are exponentially greater than they were 20 years ago. That alone is a factor that officials my age, when they were 40, didn’t have to deal with. Now if they’re 40, they do."
The difficulty of the job?
"It got a lot harder with the invention of HD television. Everybody can see everything two or three times, in slow motion, frame by frame. Our guys get to look at it once, at full-speed, with guys running in front of them."
The use of monitors for reviews?
"A double-edged sword. It’s added time to the game, and I don’t think that’s good. But I think ending the game correctly, whatever it takes, we ought to have the tools to do that."
What he wants to see from the officials at the game? He writes them down: Get plays right, adequate communication, manage major moments.
"That’s the business, right there. In order."
Is there a good way to tell if the correct call has been made?
"Almost without exception, if you want to know if the call was right, look at the kids. They know."
Why do men go into officiating, with all the abuse they take?
"The money is important. I can also tell you being at the arena has real emotional value. I don’t know if you can put a price on that. You can become, in certain leagues at certain levels, a minor celebrity. I think that has value. But you really need to care about the game and love the game, and you don’t hear what people are saying."
"If you work a full schedule, 75 games, you can expect to make $150,000 to $225,000 for five months. Not a lot people are doing that in their real jobs."
His thoughts about leaving in April?
"I was a modestly successful referee with no great national profile, and all of a sudden, I find myself courtside at the Final Four. When I got the job, my first meeting with the basketball committee, I told them I was living the dream. I love the game, I love the pageantry. But I’m pretty convinced I’ll be able to walk away from it. You know one of the upsides? I get to be a fan again. I haven’t been a fan for 16 years."
But it will bother him to leave?
"Way more than I want to let on. I’m not hard to replace, but it’ll be hard to replace it for me."