Feb. 10, 2009
By Greg Johnson
Their job is to ensure that intercollegiate athletics is played in a fair and impartial manner. Whether they are called referees, umpires, linesmen or judges, without officials, the games we love to play and watch would be conducted in chaos.
But the function so critical to the games is experiencing a dearth of personnel. A recent National Association of Sports Officials survey found that 90 percent of high school association executive directors cited a shortage in their state. They all noted a lack of recruits as the primary challenge, followed by retention issues that are exacerbated by poor sportsmanship from spectators and the time demands placed on the profession.
It's gotten so bad that Mary Struckhoff, the NCAA national coordinator of women's basketball officiating, won't hesitate to recruit the wait staff at restaurants if the conversation flows that way. "Sometimes athletics comes up and they may tell you they used to play a sport," she said. "I tell them, `If you have some spare time, you might enjoy being close to the game again.' Sometimes they tell you `no way' because they remember how officials were treated."
To be sure, officiating isn't a venture of instant gratification - at first blush, in fact, the challenges seemingly outweigh the rewards. Yet, those in the profession talk as if they wouldn't be caught doing anything else. It's a labor of love they'd like to see others adopt, which is why they and other stakeholders in intercollegiate athletics are nurturing the grass-roots pipelines.
For example, Steve Murray, commissioner of the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, is collaborating with the Division III leagues in the state and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to develop officials.
Murray said the lack of officials to call games isn't at a crisis stage yet, but it could head that way unless a strategy is implemented.
"I can't tell you what it's like all over the country, but here in rural Pennsylvania, it's tough to find officials for all of our sports," said Murray, who recently finished serving on the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel. "This is about the future. It's not about what we're doing right now. We've got to get officials in the pipeline at the lower levels."
Tim Selgo, the director of athletics at Grand Valley State, said he mentions the possibility of becoming an official whenever he addresses a student-athlete advisory committee. What better candidates for officiating than those who are fresh from having been officiated?
"My goal is to create an awareness to get people talking and understanding the issue," Selgo said. "I may be retired before it becomes a major problem, but it is going to become a problem sooner or later."
So why be an official in the first place?
Well, perhaps it's best to hear it from the officials themselves.
KENT INTAGLIATA, WRESTLING AND FOOTBALL
Kent Intagliata officiates wrestling in Divisions I and III.
While growing up in Ohio, he watched his father call games, so becoming an official came naturally to him. But not everyone has such a background.
For those who are considering officiating, Intagliata has some advice.
"Get as much mat time as you can," he said, "even if it's at the junior level, because you will see all the crazy, funky and bizarre stuff at the junior high school level and below."
Learning to handle situations there, Intagliata says, makes for a smoother transition to the next tier. And as the technical prowess of the competitors improves with each level, officials can stop looking for the unusual and start ensuring that they are in position to make the correct call.
"By the time you get to working college matches, you've probably already seen everything at least once," said Intagliata, who also officiates Divisions II and III football games. "The more matches you see, the more in tune you become."
Intagliata, who works in the Big Ten, Mid-American and Ohio Athletic Conferences, loves the setting that wrestling provides. It's an individual sport in a confined space, and all the spectators are zeroed in on the action.
"There is nowhere to hide," said Intagliata, who is a sales marketing manager for a software company in Westlake, Ohio. "If you make a mistake, everybody in the stands knows it. You don't dictate the action, but you have to make sure it is fair and you've got to make sure you don't screw up out there. It all happens in one second and you only get one chance to see it."
Because the window to make calls is so quick, how does a wrestling official prepare for a match?
"You drink lots of coffee," Intagliata joked. "You can't dwell on making a mistake. If you do, it will eat you alive. You have to believe in yourself. Every now and then, you are going to have a bad match. When you do, you learn from it and move on."
DOING WHAT YOU LOVE
STEVE SHAW, FOOTBALL
Steve Shaw grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where the passion for college football is off the charts.
After graduating from Alabama in the early 1980s, his goal was to become a football coach. But a more lucrative job offer from AT&T came his way, and he thought he would save some money before pursuing coaching.
In the meantime, he started officiating football games ranging from youth level to high school. Twenty-seven years later, he's still working for AT&T as a general manager - and as a referee in the Southeastern Conference.
His reputation on the field couldn't be higher. He's the only referee to work two Bowl Championship Series title games (2000 Sugar Bowl, 2005 Orange Bowl). The NFL has knocked on his door, but Shaw has decided to stay in the college game.
"For me growing up in the Southeast part of the country, college football is the pinnacle," Shaw said. "As I got into my second year of working high school games, you look around and meet people who are college officials. It started to click in that I wanted to be an SEC official."
But breaking into the college football officiating business can be difficult. Shaw caught the break of a lifetime when he happened to be working a peewee football game, and one of the spectators came up to talk to him at halftime. It was longtime SEC football official Dick Burleson.
"His nephew was playing in that game," Shaw said. "He became my mentor. He told me the things I needed to do if I wanted to reach my goal of working in the SEC."
In 1990, Shaw began working games in the Division II Gulf South Conference. He would work a prep game on Friday night, then drive to his Saturday college assignment.
"The hardest step for a high school official is going from there to any college conference," Shaw said. "It's so competitive because so many people want to do that. Working in the Gulf South was a great training ground. You were in the fire every week."
Shaw worked at the Division II level for six years before moving to the SEC in 1996. Four years later, he worked the BCS title game between Florida State and Virginia Tech.
"My crew didn't work any headliner games in my first year in the SEC," said Shaw, who put in 19 years of hard work before calling the 2000 Sugar Bowl. "But in that conference, they are all big games. If you don't believe that, just mess it up and you'll find out."
Shaw knows most people don't grow up wanting to be an official. He found out he liked calling games by trying it, and he makes sure he has his recruiting sales pitch ready because it may spark another successful officiating career.
"When coaches ask me to come and address their teams about rules changes and points of emphasis, I always ask if I can put in a plug about officiating," Shaw said. "I think a lot of athletes look at it and say, `I don't need the grief these guys get.' But once you are involved in it, it is a rewarding occupation."
WORKING UP THE LADDER
PATTI CLEARY, WOMEN'S LACROSSE
Once you've proven to evaluators and assignors that you are a good intercollegiate official, the next goal is to work an NCAA championship.
Patti Cleary received that confirmation for the first time last spring when she was selected to work in the first and second rounds of the Division I Women's Lacrosse Championship.
"I was about to go to a meeting at work when I got a message," said Cleary, who teaches children with physical disabilities in the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools system. "That's how I found out about the assignment. I couldn't stop grinning."
So student-athletes and coaches aren't the only ones craving to reach the highest pinnacle in athletics.
Cleary has worked six years as a collegiate women's lacrosse official. She took up officiating after coaching in high school for 10 years.
While working on her master's degree in education at Gallaudet, Cleary decided to take up officiating at the high school level to stay close to the sport. Not surprising, considering that the first lacrosse game she ever saw was one in which she played.
While she originally was going to play softball at Old Dominion, she took a detour to the lacrosse field, and she never looked back.
She broke into the college ranks of officiating to help the emerging sport grow. Now her performance is carrying her toward the upper echelon.
"The people who are assigning you to those games aren't going to put you somewhere if they don't think you can handle it," Cleary said. "Their reputation is on the line as well."
Still, every official's biggest fear is to make a mistake that affects the game's outcome.
"We critique ourselves like crazy," Cleary said. "There are times you call other officials to talk when you may have missed something. That's the whole mentoring and networking thing that goes on between officials. We need each other to keep going. We'd be train wrecks otherwise."
LISA MATTINGLY, WOMEN'S BASKETBALL
Most people who officiate NCAA sports have day jobs.
Not Lisa Mattingly. Refereeing is her job.
"I eat, drink and sleep basketball officiating," said Mattingly, who was selected to work seven consecutive Division I women's championship games from 2001 through 2007.
Her streak of title-game appearances came to an end last January when she was diagnosed with five stress fractures in her left foot. Don't worry - Mattingly's rehabilitation had her on schedule to return to the court in November.
"I always tell everybody that ever since I left my 9-to-5 job, I haven't worked a day," said Mattingly, who was in marketing and administration at an architectural firm before deciding to officiate full time.
During a college basketball season, Mattingly calls 85 to 90 games a year. She also does about 30 WNBA games in the summer.
Since officiating is her profession, she makes sure everything in her life is conducted in an upstanding manner.
"What you do in other areas of your life is part of being a good official," Mattingly said. "I don't want to set a bad example, no matter if it is on the court or off. I may get myself into trouble on the court for missing a play, but they are never going to get me for any behavior outside of that."
Mattingly grew up in Kentucky, where she played high school basketball. Her skills didn't attract any college offers, but she did pick up officiating when a friend persuaded her to help call games involving 8- and 9-year-olds.
She was paid about $10 a game, and it led to working recreation and church-league games.
"I just fell in love with officiating," Mattingly said. "I took some real heat in those church-league games. It kind of steeled me against some of the things I would experience later."
One of Mattingly's breakthrough moments came during the 1997 Division I Midwest Regional final between Connecticut and Tennessee. Working women's basketball's most high-profile rivalry with a Final Four berth at stake is the epitome of pressure.
"It was only my second year of being in the tournament," she said. "The next morning, I was at the airport, and I saw the observer from our game. I didn't know she was there when I worked the game. She came up and said, `I was so proud of you. You didn't bump your head or anything.' "
Pat Summitt and her staff also wanted to know why they hadn't seen Mattingly before, especially since she worked Southeastern Conference women's games that season.
"It was nice of them to ask that question rather than ask, `Why is she here?' " Mattingly said. "That's the game that helped my confidence the most. I also got hired to work in the WNBA that year. It was a good year."
It also led to a rewarding, full-time occupation.
A REFEREE FOR ALL SEASONS
MARA WAGER, WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALLl, BASKETBALL, LACROSSE
Apparently, there aren't too many sports Mara Wager won't attempt to officiate.
She began calling youth and high school games, including varsity football for 10 seasons, in 1984 and started her collegiate officiating career in 1992. During that time, she's taken stabs at volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, softball, and track and field.
"Everyone in my family is a sports freak," said Wager, who teaches elementary school in Delmar, New York. "I couldn't imagine not being involved in something sports related."
While she works in three sports at the NCAA level, she's officiated volleyball the longest. Last fall, she worked the Division III final and also called matches in the Division I championship.
Wager, who grew up playing soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball and ski racing, is an example of how officiating doesn't fit into our society's tendency to seek instant gratification.
"All the things that happened to me last year were a long time coming, because I started officiating in college 16 years ago," Wager said. "You have to have stick-to-itiveness."
Wager's tenacity toward doing the best job she can when she works a game is unmistakable. It is part of the advice she offers to those who are trying to break into the business.
"Every time you go out there, you have to have the mindset that you are going to outwork everyone there," Wager said. "It's not a competitive thing; it's just that I'm going to hustle; I'm going to know the rules and outwork everybody. If I'm working hard, my partners are going to work hard and we're all going to do a good job."
Wager, who also officiated the Division I women's lacrosse final last May, is single, and she chooses to spend her time contributing to ensure the games are fairly contested.
"Even though I do all these sports. there is a lot of crossover," Wager said. "Developing people skills is important. But for anyone who wants to get into officiating, one word comes to mind: patience."
Wager, who has a degree in psychology and gerontology from St. John Fisher, where she was a volleyball student-athlete, stressed that young officials take advantage of technology, because it can help improve the craft.
"I ask college coaches if I can have a game tape," Wager said. "When you say, `I want to watch that because it will help me get better,' I think it is something coaches like to hear. More and more people are doing that. You can pick up on little things like maybe your body language wasn't so good at some point in the game."
With her schedule, there is a good chance you will see Wager on a court or field near you.
DEALING WITH ABUSE
KEN ANDRES, MEN'S AND WOMEN'S SOCCER
All officials know they'll have to deal with criticism at some point. But there's a difference between a little grief and being abused.
Ken Andres has refereed men's and women's soccer matches for more than 30 years, and he knows where to draw the line.
"Soccer coaches are becoming more professional every day," said Andres, who has called a combined 17 men's and women's NCAA finals in all three divisions through the years. "They will work you, but there is a dramatic difference between working you and abusing you. If you are a pro, you know when someone is just trying to make a point. As long as they do it within the bounds of professionalism, it's not a problem."
And when they don't?
"It depends whether it is in public or private," said Andres, who is a trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice and personal injury litigation. "If it is something said to me by a kid, we'll talk. But if it is a public display, you need to deal with it in a punitive fashion. You can issue cards or eject whoever it is."
The Michigan High School Athletic Association conducted a survey in 2004 to see why officials left the profession. Poor sportsmanship displayed by spectators and coaches ranked second and third on the list, just behind a change in family/work situation.
"We can't control family or work-life changes, but we can do something about the sportsmanship concerns," said Mark Uyl, the assistant director of the MHSAA and a baseball umpire in the Big Ten and Big East Conferences. "We have a program on our Web site that provides a sportsmanship rating for all the schools involved. We are trying to make the adults around our contests more accountable to improve working conditions for our officials."
The NCAA is also implementing initiatives focused on game environment, including more respect for officials.
Andres, who continues to officiate as a way of paying back the game for helping him obtain an education dating back to his student-athlete days at Swarthmore, says officials can also stem some of the bad behavior by understanding the situation.
"One of things I teach younger referees in college soccer is the need to communicate verbally with college kids," Andres said. "They are 18-22 years old, and they are in the phase of their life where they are going to challenge everything. You have to expect that they are going to do that in a game. If you don't respond in a way that pays attention to them, you lose their respect."