Mark Fainaru-WadaESPN Staff WriterClose
- Investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit since 2007
- Co-author of New York Times best-selling books "League of Denial" and "Game of Shadows"
- Co-winner, 2004 George Polk Award
DUNCANVILLE, Texas -- It's a good 690 miles from Princeton, Ky., to Duncanville -- a relatively straight, if not always visually appetizing drive that takes you southwest through Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Texarkana, Texas, then on through downtown Dallas before you finally come to a stop on the outskirts of Big D. It's about a 10½-hour trek without stopping, but, of course, you have to stop at some point, at least for bathroom breaks and food.
The four grown men are now recounting their trip. They're resting in a hotel room for a short spell before they go to work at their "dream" jobs, the ones they hope will take them on the road to their Final Four -- whenever and wherever that might be. Asked where they ate, they all speak at once:
"Brown's Country Buffet."
"It was outside of Little Rock."
"Wasn't it outside of Little Rock?"
"Brown's Country Buffet is all I can remember."
"It was around Bryant, Ark."
"There was a big spread of whatever catfish, chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese."
In the early morning hours Friday, they had arrived in Duncanville, a town with this most intriguing Wikipedia category, listed right after "Demographics" and "Education": "Reports of Alleged Paranormal Phenomenon." There is no Country Buffet here, but there is a Whataburger, which would become a staple for Ford Branch and his three buddies over the course of their three days here.
The men paired up and shared rooms at the local Hilton Garden Inn. They skipped a day from their real, better-paying jobs. They each paid $575 to be here. They each refereed two, sometimes three basketball games a day at an AAU tournament being held in Duncanville. And they did this while, in some cases, readily getting chewed out by other, more experienced officials, not to mention the coaches whose games they were calling.
Such is the glory of trying to make it big as a college basketball official. As the NCAA and its member conferences look to improve the quality of officiating throughout the country, they face the unending challenge of dealing with, well, amateurs. That is, all the officials at all the games throughout the country are independent contractors, freelancers who, in most cases, work regular, full-time jobs that can be counted on to pay their bills, feed their families, provide their medical benefits.
That's right, they're all moonlighting in the billion-dollar business that is college hoops -- a stark contrast to their counterparts in the pro leagues (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL), who all are union employees, with full benefits and the kinds of salaries that can keep them from having to work a second job.
And so for Ford Branch, pharmaceutical salesman by day, college basketball official by night, his work as a referee provides him no guarantees. There are no benefits. There is no pension. There is no health plan. The average Division I ref might make $50,000 a year, if he can officiate 40 to 60 games a season, but that's before taxes -- and that earning power goes away the minute a guy is injured or sick or can't work for whatever reason.
"If I go down one night, we would be in trouble," Branch, who is married with two young children, said of the idea of working full-time as a referee. "I don't really want to have that pressure.
"I don't use this income as something to have to pay the bills. It's more of, you know, putting away for the kids for college and for vacations."
Branch is among 70 mostly young officials who came to Duncanville to be part of an officiating camp run by Curtis Shaw, a longtime NCAA referee who recently became the director of officials for a four-conference consortium led by the Big 12. The other leagues overseen by Shaw are Conference USA, the Ohio Valley and the Southland.
While some of the nation's top college coaches have gathered here to scout and woo some of the nation's top high school talent at an AAU event dubbed the Great American Shootout, Shaw and his camp counselors are doing their own evaluating, seeking up-and-comers with the talent to reach the top levels of college officiating.
"I'm here just to get on the floor and learn and improve, get critiqued and evaluated," Branch said. "And also networking, talking with guys and just kind of using the whole system there to step up the ladder to the next step."
Shaw spent 21 seasons refereeing Division I games, calling 18 NCAA tournaments and seven Final Fours. He knows the system, and he knows the challenges of maximizing quality while dealing with officials who are balancing entirely separate lives and jobs.
"It makes it difficult, and it's one of the aspects that we're looking at how we make that better," Shaw said. "It's my duty as a coordinator to try to handle all those situations as best as I possibly can. If I've got somebody who lives in western Kentucky, I can't realistically expect them to drive to south Florida to officiate a ballgame when I know they have to be at work the next day."
Asked whether he could envision a scenario with full-time officials, at least in the power conferences, Shaw said, "I just don't think it's feasible. I think the costs of employee benefits, the costs it would take to hire them away from their full-time jobs, I don't think that's out there."
Shaw and John Adams, the NCAA coordinator of men's basketball officiating, both indicated that one of the clearest challenges they face is an aging workforce trying to perform its duties in what is truly a young man's game, a game whose participants seem to get faster and stronger every year.
It's a fascinating contrast: 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young men, with ridiculous athletic ability and seemingly boundless stamina; and men who sometimes are in their 40s, 50s or even 60s trying to watch them closely, officiating in some cases as many as 80 to 100 games a season.
"The ideal official," Adams said, "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 athletes 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."
Said Shaw, lecturing at his camp: "You've got to be able to physically run up and down the floor. These kids stay the same age, and we get older every year. And some of the complaints I get from coaches aren't anything other than, 'Curtis, he couldn't get in position to see it.'"
Branch is 35 years old, and he has spent the past three years in the Division I ranks. He called 15 Ohio Valley Conference games last season, and he is hoping to build on that this season. Branch is in Duncanville, listening intently to Shaw and his counselors, because he has designs on working his way up the ladder, maybe reaching the Big 12 or another power conference that will pay him better and get him one step closer to the NCAA tournament.
A Kentucky graduate who loves college hoops, Branch endured that 10½-hour drive from eastern Kentucky and is missing his son's first all-star baseball games to be here. His boy is just 7, one of only three kids his age to make the all-star team.
"It hurts a little bit," Branch said. "I've been keeping in touch all weekend long."
Branch and his refereeing colleagues, all Memphians whom he picked up along the way to carpool, essentially share the same ultimate dream. Along with Branch, there's 29-year-old Kelly Davis, 28-year-old Rusty Phillips and 40-year-old Charles Jones. They have worked -- and continue to work -- basketball games in any or all of the following: high school, junior college, NAIA, Division II, and so on.
They're on the path, hoping to be seen and evaluated by someone like Shaw who can recommend or hire them to call games at higher levels. There are no prerequisites to becoming a college official, such as refereeing a minimum number of games or even earning a high school diploma; it's a word-of-mouth, evaluation-driven industry. And where does Branch hope it will lead? Center court, of course. Tossing the ball up. Lights flashing. Inside that big dome.
"The Final Four, the final game, the championship, I think that's everybody's dream," Branch said.
And so, after calling seven games in three days, Branch settled back behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry on Sunday afternoon for the long drive back to Princeton. His colleagues, similarly spent, took their places in the Camry and readied for their seven hours back to Memphis.
They cleaned out the Whataburger wrappers and whatever other detritus lingered. Kelly Davis, riding shotgun, insisted, "The car's doing well." He held up a little bottle, smiling: "We've got Febreze."
And then they were off. They had to be back for work on Monday.
Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter with ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at email@example.com
CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander and Reid Forgrave spent much of July on the road in cities across the country, covering the live recruiting periods. While there, and in the weeks since, they've surveyed coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at some of the smallest schools in Division I. In exchange for complete anonymity, coaches give unfiltered honesty about a number of topics in the sport. This is week No. 2 of our results to questions posed to more than 100 coaches.
One of the interesting dynamics in sports is how coaches deal with game officials. Styles vary, from the combative to the cynical, from butt-kissing to aggressive. Some coaches tick like a time bomb, using officials' behavior as means to motivate their players, while others treat officials with an entirely different demeanor from how they interact with their players.
College basketball coaches, on the whole, have an undeniably aggressive mindset toward officials. Watch an NBA game and the difference is glaring. How often do you see an NBA coach attempt to scold a referee or find himself ejected after getting T'd up? Rarely. But on any given college hoops weekend, you're likely to see a coach (or coaches) somewhere on the wrong end of a tech. College coaches, for whatever reason, have conditioned themselves to be more outspoken and pugnacious with referees than their NBA counterparts.
College coaches, by their admission, can become caricatures of themselves when game time arrives. Refs often are on the most exaggerated end of that behavior. And yet, in the heart of the offseason, the coaches we surveyed had plenty to say and lots of respect to throw at a number of officials. That was refreshing (get back to us come mid-February).
With that in mind, we asked more than 100 college basketball coaches:
Who is the best referee in college basketball?
Quotes that stood out
On Roger Ayers ...
- "He has good communications. He'll usually give you a chance to talk to him. You have to respect that. No one's perfect, and he'll admit when [he is] right or wrong. And he does a great job reffing big games."
- "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an egomaniac."
- "He doesn't have a combative demeanor at all. He'll say, 'Hey, sorry, got that wrong' if it's clear he got something wrong. And he doesn't really ever try to make it about him. There are so many of those guys. If they get a call wrong and a coach gets on them, then they'll be shell-shocked or they go the other way on you."
- "I think that he's fair, communicates well and is a great play-caller. What I mean by that: I don't care about managing the game. I want a guy that gets the plays right. He works hard at that. Communication is part of managing the game, so they have to communicate with you, so you don't feel any tension with the way he communicates with you. I think he's the best in the game.
- "Roger Ayers. I might have given it to Mike Eades, but after that championship game performance ... "
On Mike Eades ...
- "He's done a ton of high-level games. He has a great on-court demeanor. I've seen opposing coaches 'motherf---' him, and he doesn't jump off deep end and immediately give guys a technical. He understands basketball and how things flow together. In an off night he may work A-10 games, but he's not looking down on those guys. He's still busting his butt and pouring into the game. He's also willing to have a conversation in between dead balls, timeouts. Some guys only talk to head coaches, not assistants. If you have legit questions, he'll explain."
- "I felt sorry for him -- he had a terrible [national] championship game, but he is very level-headed and communicates well with coaches. This is a very underrated part of being a great official, in my opinion."
- "I think you know you're going to get a fair shot, whether you're home or away. The moment's not too big for him in my opinion. Experienced guy. Doesn't give you the big-time stuff. He's a big-time guy and he never big-times you. You don't expect the out-of-nowhere technical foul when you jump his ass at the end of the game and it's as four-point game. If you do that with some guys, the game's over. I've seen plenty who I do think are good officials and have popped guys in those situations. Moment is too big for them."
"Nowadays it's more personality, more than calls made right or wrong. It's the refs who don't have agenda. A ref who doesn't let his own ego get in the way. Every ref is going to make good and bad calls, but his personality doesn't get in the way. He's out there reffing the game."
On Ted Valentine ...
- "He's so crazy. He's a little long in the tooth, and he's one of the of five best officials of all time, in my opinion, and we've had him a lot. I've had Crazy Ted, I've had Ted on his best nights. He doesn't anticipate anything. He sees the play through, and is going to give you a fair shake. Does not matter who you are playing. To this day I think he's terrific. Now, has he burned some bridges? Probably. But the guy can still manage a game and the stuff that comes along with it."
- "The game never gets too big, intense or even remotely out of control with him. He does not get swayed, home or road. He takes great pride in his ability, conditioning and awareness. He provides reminders throughout the game to players about the line they are close to foul-wise -- and that's something that doesn't happen nearly enough."
- "He's obviously a showman of all showmen. My opinion, he's enjoying the camera and wants to be the show. But we had him once last year, and maybe in the last five years we've had him three times. But I'd lean toward him because he's given us a fair shake against high-major programs every time he's had us. Whether he has something against the other coach, which he certainly could, I don't care because he's giving us a fair shake."
On Verne Harris ...
- "He's strong, for one. He's got a high level of concentration, two. He understands the game really, really well, three. I think he's in good shape, four. And he's a great communicator, five. Those are the five things that come to mind to make a great ref."
- "He talks to the kids and the coaches, and I don't see him get too emotional and respond when a coach responds too emotionally to him: 'That's a foul!' Sometimes they respond in same way. His thing is to come over, say, 'Hey, I'm only going to listen if you talk to me instead of yell at me.'"
On John Higgins ...
- "I think he's fair. I think he lets the players dictate the game. I think that he's not influenced by any coach. I don't think any coach intimidates him. If you see where he's at every year, you see he's almost always in the Final Four. Like him, don't like him, I think he's the fairest and absolutely the most consistent official."
- "There's some guys out there, John Higgins -- don't get me started."
On Mike Stephens ...
- "He has a great demeanor, and he's a great communicator. He can move. He has a healthy ego but he's not an ego-maniac."
Some top-of-the-resumé information about the poll's big winners:
- Ayers: 11 NCAA Tournaments; seven Sweet 16s; one Elite Eight; two Final Fours (one as an alternate)
- Eades: 12 NCAA Tournaments: four Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; four Final Fours (one as alternate)
- Valentine: 28 NCAA Tournaments: 16 Sweet 16s; nine Elite Eights; 10 Final Fours
- Harris: 20 NCAA Tournaments: 8 Sweet 16s; seven Elite Eights; nine Final Fours
- Higgins: 20 NCAA Tournaments: nine Sweet 16s; eight Elite Eights; eight Final Fours (one as alternate)
- Stephens: 10 NCAA Tournaments; three Sweet 16s; five Elite Eights; five Final Fours
All these officials are crew chiefs, and all work the biggest conferences, so it makes sense they would get the most votes. Top-notch officials, for the most part, are not tucked away in small conferences whose games are not on television. It takes years of work to build up a reputation as one of the best, and even if some the names are hated by certain fan bases, these guys are considered elite at their craft for a reason. There are approximately 950 Division I men's basketball officials. The six names listed above represent the top 0.63 percent.
"I guess I got them fooled," Ayers joked, when reached for his reaction to the vote.
Ayers not only won the poll, but his name was broached by coaches who picked a different No. 1. Ayers has been a Division I official since 1998, and said he's still never worked a perfect game.
"It's actually a huge surprise," Ayers said. "But to me, I look at it as: when I started reffing in 1995, the high school commissioner told me, 'Kid, if you want to make it at the highest level, you have to learn how to communicate with coaches.' "
Ayers, a lifelong resident of Roanoke, Va., flirted with making the move to the NBA in 2002 after the league invited him to try out. He worked in the Developmental League for a year, but decided his ultimate goal was to one day work a Final Four. Plus, he said he prefers the college game.
"To hear this, it's a tribute to a lot of people who have helped me," Ayers said.
Ayers has the data to back up coaches' claims, too. In January, college hoops stats guru Ken Pomeroy declared Ayers the best in the game. Ayers got into officiating on a whim. He was a food broker at a grocery store while in his 20s, when one of his coworkers asked him to help him work four rec games for $50.
"I had no clue what I was doing," Ayers said. "Every parent was yelling at me, but at the end of the night I fell in love with it. When I started I was out of shape, didn't read the rule books. Now, it's of course the opposite."
Ayers, 52, was reached by phone fresh off a yoga workout, and said he's physically active almost every day. He estimates that he works approximately 85 games a season, including the NCAA Tournament,
"I'm getting goosebumps talking about," Ayers said. "I can't wait for November 10. I'm ready to go tonight."
Coaches said Ayers is humble and treats every team and coach with the same amount of respect. That, plus his willingness to admit when he's messed up goes a long way -- and one particular screw-up of his that still sticks with him.
Jan. 5, 2012 -- the infamous six-men-on-the-floor ending. Louisiana-Lafayette won in OT against WKU after it got away with six men on the court on the winning possession. The next day, Western Kentucky fired coach Ken McDonald. Ayers stayed in the locker room two hours after that game and couldn't eat that night because he was sick. His phone blew up with colleagues alerting him to the fact he was continually on SportsCenter.
"It still eats at me to this day," Ayers said. "I took the heat because I was the crew chief. I didn't see the sixth player on the court. Not only did they have six players on the court, but the next morning WKU fired their head coach, and I have to live with that. I remember, I'm embarrassed to say it, but at NC State I stopped a game before a throw-in. They only had five, but I stopped play because I'm so paranoid now. If i could ever see that coach, I would love to apologize. I didn't do it on purpose. I'm still choked up about it, and I'm better than that. It will be with me until I retire."
Ayers, Eades and Valentine represent more than 50 percent of the vote, which speaks to the strength of ACC officiating. Coaches noted that the ACC has a reputation for being the strongest league, not only with regard to crew chiefs, but crews on the whole. The Big Ten, conversely, has the weakest reputation when compared to the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
"At the end of the day, coaches have to buy your act," Ayers said. "You have to fool those coaches into believing they can trust you. Work your butt off, run hard, talk to coaches, and officials need to realize is it is not about us. ... It's a difficult job, fast-paced, but I love what I do. I love what the coaches have to say about me, it's very flattering, but that's all good and fine here in August."
By mid-February, it will be a different story. To paraphrase one coach: The answer I give you now I can almost guarantee will not be the answer I'd give you in the middle of the season.