- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- “The thing is, you make a mistake in the first minute, you can overcome it. If you make a mistake in the last 15 seconds, everyone is going to remember your decision. None of us want to make a mistake. None of us.’’
That’s what Tim Higgins told me last year as we drove on a Friday morning from Newark, N.J., to State College, Pa., and that’s all I could think about after I was handed a piece of paper prior to the tipoff of the first game at the Big East conference tournament on Thursday morning.
Higgins, Jim Burr and Earl Walton had voluntarily withdrawn from working the rest of the tournament after what can only be described as a debacle of an endgame between St. John’s and Rutgers.
The decision was a no-brainer. The trio would have been vilified if they had taken the court at the Garden again.
Every back page of every city tabloid was not about the games, but about the officiating blunders.
So to protect themselves as much as the integrity of the rest of the tourney, they are out (whether they work the NCAA tournament is to be determined).
And I’m pretty sure it is killing Higgins. (I did speak with him on Thursday but he was not permitted or interested in commenting on the record.)
“We desperately care about the game,’’ he told me during that trip last season. “We work as hard as anyone in this game and anyone who says we don’t care could not be more wrong.’’
That, of course, doesn’t excuse the mistakes. If the egregious errors didn’t cost Rutgers the game, they certainly deprived the Scarlet Knights of a chance to try to win it.
Nothing will change that. Rutgers is out and St. John’s plays Syracuse this afternoon.
But as Day 2 of "Officialgate" hit high noon, one thing was clear: This story isn’t going anywhere.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
If the officials are overshadowing the games at the Big East tournament, there’s a problem here. Perhaps the unwelcome spotlight will force the folks sitting in conference offices to reconsider how they do things.
Burr and Higgins came into the Big East when the Big East was coming into its own and are the only two officials from the league's original officiating crew still working.
Is that a good thing? When does veteran experience become aging out of a job that requires physical stamina?
Higgins told me he’s considered retiring but he loves what he does too much and much like an older coach, plans to keep officiating so long as he feels like he can do it well.
Plenty of people today, too, are griping that officials call way too many games in too short a span of days to be sharp (although in this case they hadn’t worked since Saturday) and there’s plenty of merit to that as well.
Higgins pooh-poohed the notion when I traveled with him, explaining that he rarely went without a good night’s sleep and did nothing more than lollygag around the hotel room before tip.
Still, travel is grueling at any age.
When I traveled with him, he called a Seton Hall game on a Thursday night, drove to State College on a Friday, called a game there on Saturday at noon and then drove to Syracuse that afternoon for another game at the Carrier Dome on Sunday.
And that was an easy trip -- no flying, no weather issues.
Maybe officials should have rules like airlines; they are required a certain number of hours off before they can work again.
But there is one problem that can’t be overcome.
The calls are made by people, by human beings who make mistakes in a profession where every mistake is unforgivable to at least 50 percent of the people watching.
Sometimes the mistakes are forgotten, run over by the next great play.
And sometimes they linger and hover.
“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?’’