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Big Ten tour: Hoops officiating and the TV command center

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

PARK RIDGE, Ill. -- It's a little odd to enter Rich Falk's spacious office and see all of the furniture pushed into the corners. Falk, a former Northwestern basketball coach, explains that he and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, a former basketball captain at North Carolina, use the space to conduct defense demonstrations. It's the coach and player in them.

Falk points to the TV across from his desk and the item sitting above it. "That's the bad-call brick," he said. "It's foam rubber. I've been known to throw it once in a while."

As the Big Ten's associate commissioner for officiating programs and the primary supervisor for men's basketball officials, Falk spends most of the winter looking out for bad calls. He oversees every element of men's basketball officiating, from hiring officials to scheduling to payroll to evaluations to rules interpretations to arena security/atmosphere. Here's what I learned about each area:

Hiring/scheduling

  • Big Ten officials usually need 3-5 years of experience coaching in another league and must have worked a conference semifinal, a conference final or an NCAA tournament game before being hired. In some cases (usually nonconference games), less-experienced officials are used, mainly to reduce travel costs.

  • The league's compliance department conducts background checks on each official. The checks are now done annually after allegations of sexual harassment and child abuse surfaced about a football referee last year.

  • Falk makes the game assignments, which hinge on each official's rating. He never assigns an official more than three games a week, but since college basketball officials don't work for leagues, they can take on as many games as possible. "I don't get many rejections," Falk said. Because the officials are independent contractors, no work restrictions can be placed on them, and Falk admits that fatigue will affect performance.

  • Falk manages a $3.3 million budget that is used to compensate the officials. Though Big Ten member schools provide the funds, the league makes the payments directly. Falk said officials don't like getting paid by school officials, particularly in the locker room, as it hints of bias.

Evaluation process

  • Officials are evaluated after every game, receiving a rating between 1-5 (1 is the best). Falk and a staff of on-site officiating observers fill out evaluations, and the head referee must complete evaluations of himself and his two umpires. All evaluations are sent to the NCAA.

  • Officials also receive mid-year and end-of-season ratings, compiled by averaging the ratings from on-site observers, Big Ten coaches and Falk.

  • Officials consistently receiving ratings around 1 usually become referees, while those in the 2-3 range are first and second umpires. Falk investigates any ratings of 4 and 5, usually making a call to the official in question. "We can hire and drop people at will," he said. The officials receiving the highest ratings get the most assignments and, in turn, the best chance for exposure. Those with diminishing ratings over time receive fewer assignments. "Big Ten games are on TV, in front of [the NCAA] tournament committee," Falk said. "That serves the officials well for selection into the tournament."

  • The coaches also evaluate officials and can lodge complaints to Falk, by phone or by sending video of disputed calls. Surprisingly, Falk estimates he received fewer than five calls from Big Ten coaches last season. Coaches fill out midseason evaluations of the officials that only Falk and Delany are allowed to see. "Coaches need to know they have input," Falk said. "They do not have control." The Big Ten and other leagues face severe penalties if they ever blacklist an official based on recommendations from coaches.

Game environment

  • Before the season, Falk visits every Big Ten school, meeting with players and coaches to discuss new rules and other officiating changes. He also meets with the game-operations staff -- scorer's table officials, the public-address announcer, even the band directors -- to ensure the environments are secure and appropriate for officials.

  • He usually sticks around for an exhibition game to observe the game operations. "Officials need to know they're respected and can relax and do their job," Falk said.

During the season, Falk spends much of his time in the Big Ten's TV command center, located on the first floor of the league office. The room contains TVs tuned to every Big Ten game and phones so that Falk and other league officials can reach the networks broadcasting the games to interpret rules or make corrections. Dave Parry, the Big Ten's coordinator of football officials, spends every fall Saturday in the room.

Big Ten assistant commissioner for technology Mike McComiskey joins Parry in the control room during the fall. In addition to running the Big Ten's Web site and working with the league's television partners, McComiskey monitors instant replay. If there's a technical issue in the control room or a major instant replay malfunction around the league, McComiskey steps in. After being the "test conference" for instant replay, McComiskey said the system has functioned well since being turned over to a third party. Hi-Definition currently is too expensive to incorporate with instant replay, but McComiskey expects it to be added in the next 1-2 years. The Big Ten could be the first league to try Hi-Def with its instant replay.