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Thursday, April 28, 2011
Let's let the Tim Higgins thing go

By Eamonn Brennan

On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association honored longtime college hoops referee Tim Higgins. If you're even remotely familiar with Higgins -- and if you're reading this blog, or you watched the Big East tournament this season, or if you follow college basketball at all, really, then you are -- you immediately realize why this is just a little bit awkward for everyone involved.

It certainly inspired an enjoyable bit of snark from Sean Keeley, author of Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, who shared the news Tuesday with the headline "Tim Higgins To Be Honored By Actual Humans." I'll admit it: I chuckled. And not one of those Internet "hahas" or "LOLs," either. I actually did laugh out loud.

Why so funny? Because Higgins has recently become college hoops fans' No. 1 least-liked, most-criticized official.

That's what happens when you play a key role in one of the craziest, worst blown calls of all-time, one that robbed Rutgers of a deserved final possession by failing to call Justin Brownlee's travel (and his step out of bounds) with 1.7 seconds remaining in the second round of the Big East tournament. Higgins and his two colleagues, Jim Burr and Earl Walton, voluntarily removed themselves from the rest of the tournament amid one of the largest consensus outcries in recent memory.

Nor was that the only tough night of Higgins' 2011 season. Anyone who went through the nightly hoops viewing routine in 2011 will remember a Higgins blown call that helped decide a crucial Alabama-Vanderbilt tilt -- a win in Nashville might have put the Crimson Tide in the tournament -- and earned the rare and altogether terrifying anger of Bama coach Anthony Grant.

So, yeah. Higgins did not have his finest season. Now in his mid-60s, it might be time for the longtime ref, who has officiated for 35 years and worked 10 Final Fours, to consider the retirement he mulled with our own Dana O'Neil in her all-access piece from February of 2010.

But as is the case in any profession -- specifically in basketball -- one bad season does not a career ruin. Higgins has made thousands upon thousands of calls in his 35 years in stripes. It's not too generous to wager that 95-98 percent of them were correct. Some were mundane. Some were crucial. You don't notch 35 years in any profession, especially one with this much money and pride on the line, unless you're good more than often than you're bad.

Of course, that is the plight of the zebra. The best ones by their very nature go unnoticed. The difference between that zen-like state and the life of the pariah is infinitesimally small. All of it is decided much faster than most of us ever have to decide anything. And it only takes one mistake to tip the scales.

In other words, let's ease up a little bit. Let's let Higgins receive a nondescript honor for his years of work without too many mean comments from the peanut gallery, myself included. (Oh, and it should be noted I'm not chastising Sean or the gents at Troy Nunes at all here. Like I said, I laughed, too.) At some point, we can have a big, important discussion about the state of modern college hoops officiating -- that discussion desperately needs to happen -- but for now, let's not direct all our anxieties toward one referee in perpetuity.

During the Big East tournament debacle, Dana discussed the incident and recalled her conversations with Higgins last year. She closed her typically thoughtful piece with this quote from the man himself:
“If you work enough, that black cloud is going to find you,’’ Higgins said to me a year ago. “It’s inevitable. The question is, how long is it going to be over you?’’

Let's let the black cloud dissipate, eh? Until November, at least? I don't know. It just seems like the nice thing to do.