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Wednesday, February 17, 2010
All-Access: Referee Tim Higgins

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The brokenhearted Syracuse fan needed a place to vent his rage, and the man in zebra stripes provided the perfect target.

"Hey, Higgins," he screamed, "thanks for the Valentine's Day massacre."

Tim Higgins, Bob Donato and Tim Clougherty -- between out-of-bounds calls, jump balls, fouls and timeouts -- probably blew their whistles more than 100 times in the course of the Louisville-Syracuse game Sunday.

The Cardinals and Orange took 104 shots combined. They battled for 75 rebounds and launched 28 free throws.

Most of the 31,053 people at the Carrier Dome, however, will forget the 14 3-pointers Syracuse missed and the 15 errant field goals hurled by Wes Johnson. They'll overlook Brandon Triche's oh-fer afternoon and the 11-point lead the Orange surrendered.

Tim Higgins
Higgins knows every whistle is scrutinized now more than ever.

Instead they will remember one call: the intentional foul Higgins whistled on Kris Joseph with 18 seconds left and Syracuse down two.

In the minds of the 31,053, that play decided the game.

"Higgins has to be banned" headlined the thread of a Syracuse message board, and a fan tweeted, "Hey look, it's Tim Higgins making the game about himself. I'm shocked."

The man at the center of the storm verbally shrugged.

"It's one call in a game, that's all," Higgins said. "It doesn't matter what time of the game it is. You make the call and move on to the next one."

There is no group of people in college basketball more universally vilified, scrutinized and misunderstood than the officials.

They are perfect candidates for the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," thanklessly trying to maintain decorum and impartiality in a work atmosphere all but simmering with insanity and emotion. They endure slurs, verbal abuse and questions about their character.

And that's on a good day.

On a bad day, they are a "SportsCenter" highlight.

"It's a very tough job, especially in this league because the coaches tend to lose their minds," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I will say this: I used to call them homers. Those days are over. No one is a homer anymore. They're professionals."

Higgins agreed to allow ESPN.com to follow him for four days to glimpse into the world of an official.

Thursday, Feb. 11

NEWARK, N.J. -- Most people would contend that Bobby Gonzalez is one of the Big East coaches Pitino is referring to when he says Big East coaches "tend to lose their minds."

The fiery Seton Hall coach can be a handful.

Not to Tim Higgins.

Contrary to popular belief, officials don't sit around commiserating over which coaches are the worst or which fan bases give them the most grief. In fact, before a game a crew will go out of its way to not discuss the teams or individuals involved.

So when Higgins arrives at work at the Prudential Center for the Hall's game against Notre Dame, he doesn't enter the building thinking he'll have to placate or handle Gonzalez.

Higgins
Despite what fans might believe, fiery coaches like Seton Hall's Bobby Gonzalez are not a problem.

"Ideally a coach is gonna coach, the players are gonna play and the ref is gonna ref," he says. "It's when one of those groups deviates that we have a problem."

It happens. Higgins has given out his fair share of technical fouls to players or coaches who have stepped out of line.

Once he even tossed a cheerleader, mortifying his two daughters who were in attendance and stunning his youngest, who saw Jim Valvano "draw a circle around Daddy," when explaining the play on a telestrator the next day.

"I used to open my mouth way too much," Higgins says. "The best thing you can do is listen and move on and the best thing you can say is we disagree. You can also say I absolutely got it right or I blew it."

And then he pauses and smiles.

"But you can't overuse that last one."

At 63, Higgins has been around the block a time or two in college basketball. He grew up in lockstep with the Big East, rising up the ranks from a college kid looking to earn extra money working high school games to a lower Division I official to calling games in which John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca prowled the sidelines.

There was no grand plan at work. He kept officiating because he enjoyed it and the extra money helped put three girls through college.

It always has been more an avocation than a vocation.

Each official is an independent contractor, hired by various leagues to work games. Top-tier officials are well-compensated -- based on ability, they're paid anywhere from $700 to $1000 per game, plus travel and expenses. But for Higgins and many others, college officiating isn't a full-time gig.

Higgins' real job is vice president of sales for Kamco Supply Co., a Brooklyn-based building materials company. Bob Donato is a retired high school principal. Big Ten official Tim Hutchinson is a Chicago fireman who spent more than 25 years on the city's tough West Side and tells chilling stories of carrying barely alive or already dead children out of burning houses, tales that quickly put the "pressure" of officiating in perspective.

For every one of them there is a trade-off. Hutchinson covers for his fellow firemen when they take summer vacation; they cover for him during the season.

Higgins' trade-off came with Kathy, his wife of 30 years. She stayed home and raised their three girls while he gobbled up Marriott points and frequent-flyer miles between his sales job and refereeing.

"How lucky can you be? All I wanted to do was make some beer money back in college," says Higgins, who also works for the Big Ten and Atlantic 10.

On this night, Higgins will have a relatively easy game. Gonzalez and Jeremy Hazell spiritedly question an out-of-bounds call, but Higgins talks to both and the game continues on without incident.

Tim Higgins
Higgins, center, is a VP of sales for a building materials company. Bob Donato, right, is a retired high school principal.

That, Higgins says, is how most nights go. He points to the sheer volume of games versus the number of controversies as evidence that more often than not, the games and the officiating coexist seamlessly.

Basketball has changed, and officiating has, too, right along with it. Gone are the days when the way referees called a game depended on the league they were working in (or when one league, the Big East, allowed a player six fouls).

In 1986, former ref Hank Nichols was hired as the NCAA's national coordinator of basketball officials and made uniformity his first priority. Each league no longer writes its own set of rules and interpretations. Today rough play is now rough play in the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the A-10.

John Adams, the current coordinator, has taken the job a step further, pushing uniformity, points of emphasis (this season it's rough play and elbows) and the incorporation of technology better than ever before.

Throughout the course of the season, officials (who annually take a written test and attend a clinic to be recertified) receive video montages of plays, some that were called obviously right, some obviously wrong and some that are a little more subjective.

The clips serve more as refreshers than tests and are part of an effort to keep guys sharp.

And being sharp is even more important today with the increased scrutiny on the game.

Where once there was a game of the week on television, today there are more televised games than even the most addicted fan can handle. Countless camera angles, constant replays and even the beauty of high-definition television allow armchair fans to scrutinize every borderline call.

No mistake goes unnoticed, and the really glaring ones are put on a replay loop on national television. There's even a Web site that tracks referees' calls.

If that's not enough, there's also Big Brother. The Big Ten has an actual war room stuffed with televisions to allow Rich Falk, the league's supervisor of officials, to monitor games. In the Big East, Art Hyland, the league's director of officials, watches tapes of every game.

Currently the Big East has 45 officials under contract, and the ones who don't cut it simply won't be under contract next year.

"Sometimes we don't lose anybody, sometimes guys retire by their own choice and sometimes guys aren't offered a contract," Hyland says. "There's no set number. Some years it's zero, but I'd say the most ever is three or four."

Higgins is blessed with an Irishman's good nature and the tough skin of an elephant, traits that serve him well when fans scream and coaches yell and announcers question his wits.

At Seton Hall one frustrated fan unleashed with a familiar refrain: "Be consistent, Higgins. It will be the first time."

"No question there is more accountability," Higgins says. "But if you have a problem with it and don't want to be accountable, you won't be here. If you work enough, that black cloud is going to find you. It's inevitable. The question is how long is it going to be over you?"

Friday, Feb. 12

NEWARK, N.J., to STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A snowstorm turned what was going to be a hellacious week into merely a tedious one.

The schedule called for Higgins to officiate the Northwestern at Iowa game on Wednesday, Notre Dame at Seton Hall on Thursday, Michigan State at Penn State on Saturday and Louisville at Syracuse on Sunday.

Tim Higgins
Traveling is part of the deal for refs. Tim Higgins is a master at it.

But Higgins couldn't get a flight out of North Jersey, where he lives, and consequently had to beg off the Iowa leg.

So at 3:30 p.m., with one game in the books, Higgins begins the four-hour ride to State College.

Except the highway isn't interested in offering a four-hour trek. Sun glare and the upcoming long weekend have created heavy traffic on Interstate 80, adding a good hour to the ride and reintroducing Higgins to the part of the job that he and almost every official hates the most: travel.

They all have war stories.

Donato once arrived in a town but his bag didn't, necessitating a quick run to the mall to buy black pants, shoes and a referee shirt -- "I stripped the guy at Foot Locker," Donato jokes.

As Higgins heads up past the Dupont/Pittstown exit on I-81 he says with a laugh, "This is my hill. They should have a wreath or something." One time when he was rushing to get home from Penn State to catch a flight for a game at Notre Dame the next day, Higgins was stopped cold by a sea of tractor-trailers. Unable to navigate the barely plowed exit ramps, they had run out of gas or parked on the interstate.

Higgins slept in his car.

By now, he is a master traveler.

He never leaves home without his monthly copy of the OAG -- the official airline flight schedule and guide. It lists every flight originating from every city in the country, a priceless tool when you need to get out of, say, Chicago in February.

He knows which hotels are near which good restaurants -- the Syracuse Courtyard is across the parking lot from Grimaldi's, a favorite stomping ground of Big East coaches -- and knows the hotel staff members by name.

The latest criticism facing college referees is that they work too much, do too many games in too few nights and can't possibly be sharp. Had he not been snowed out of Chicago, Higgins would have officiated four games in five nights in two leagues in four states. On average, he says he'll do about 60 regular-season games.

Higgins has one word for the notion that officials' performance slips because they're overworked -- hooey.

Usually, he says, when an official is working a string of games, he's working from one central location. Higgins, for example, once parked himself at a hotel and did games at Xavier, Cincinnati, Dayton and Louisville -- all short rides from one another. (The schedule, however, doesn't always work that way. Clougherty, who worked Xavier at Florida on Saturday night, flew to the 1 p.m. Louisville-Syracuse game from Florida on Sunday morning).

Typically Higgins will fly in on the morning of a game, grab breakfast, lunch and a nap.

"You go into any concierge lounge after 9 a.m. and all you'll find are officials -- hockey officials, NBA guys, college guys," he says. "The rest of the world has gone to work. We're sitting around until 7 or 9 o'clock at night. It's not that hard. You have to concentrate for what, two hours?"

Higgins arrives in State College at 6:30 p.m. He and Hutchinson grab dinner, return to the hotel at 9 p.m. and agree to meet for breakfast at 8:30 the next morning.

"I'll tell you this much, if your judgment is compromised because you're reffing too much, you won't be reffing too much for long," Higgins says. "If you can't get the job done, you're out."

Saturday, Feb. 13

STATE COLLEGE to SYRACUSE -- It is 10 a.m. in the Courtyard Marriott lobby.

"Wheels up," Higgins says.

Higgins
Keeping up with All-Americans running up and down the court is not exactly easy for middle-aged men.

He makes the quick drive to Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center, pulling into the loading dock parking area.

"Always park facing out," he says. "In this job, you never know when you're going to want to leave in a hurry."

A PSU representative greets Higgins at the door and escorts him to the officials' locker room. The universities roll out the red carpet for their visitors, making their athletic trainers available for taping and their training rooms for stretching -- as well as supplying a security guard who will escort the officials onto the court, off the court and to their cars.

Penn State, winless in the Big Ten, hosts league-leading Michigan State today -- but none of that matters to Higgins, Hutchinson or John Hughes, the three officials assigned to the game.

There are 10 guys on the court and all 10 will be treated the same. That old complaint that star players get all the calls simply isn't true, Higgins says.

"They're all faceless," he says. "I just see the play, not the players. If you look up to see a guy's face, you're not going to see the play."

In fact, Higgins will watch a game more intently than anyone yet often have no idea what actually happened. Against Notre Dame, Hazell blitzed the Irish for eight 3-pointers.

Higgins had no clue.

The real trick to officiating is being in the right place to make the right call. Consequently, there is almost a wordless ballet going on between the three referees. The goal is to have two guys on the ball side and one guy on the weak side at all times.

Whenever a ref whistles a foul, he moves to the weak side in order to keep a constant rotation and prevent officials from staring at the same part of the action for an entire game.

The official nearest midcourt is in charge of fast breaks, but a trailing official has to follow because it's not exactly easy for middle-aged men to catch All-Americans gunning at full speed to the hoop.

Higgins
It's mostly wordless, but the refs are in constant communication when on the floor.

"The hardest thing to deal with is what you don't see," Higgins says. "You know something happened, but you just don't see it. If you get a good look at our level, chances are you're going to be right. It's when you don't get a good look that it's impossible."

The toughest call almost everyone agrees is charge/block. To get a charge/block right, you have to see the beginning of the play, Higgins says. Thus, if an official can't get ahead of the play, the trail referee often has a better view.

But for another glorious day, Higgins enjoys yet another clean game -- devoid of complaints and dustups. By 2:14 p.m., he is back in the car and en route to Syracuse.

With clear skies and no snow until he is about 30 minutes outside of Syracuse, he arrives in good time, checking into the hotel at 6:30 p.m. By 7:30, he's having dinner with his oldest daughter, Colleen, her friend Dave and Donato.

At 9:30 p.m., he's back in the hotel.

"I gotta tell you, there is no better feeling in the world than to work your game, get in the car and drive, have dinner, get back to the hotel room, turn on the TV and see the guys at 'GameDay' just throwing the ball up," Higgins says. "Give me a noon game any day. I'm the best noon official you'll find."

Sunday, Feb. 14

SYRACUSE -- For 39 minutes and 42 seconds, the game between Syracuse and Louisville is no different than your typical Big East game: It's physically brutal, tension-filled and intense.

But from an officiating standpoint, it's relatively simple. There are a few minor complaints -- Pitino met Donato on the court at halftime to argue an out-of-bounds call -- but for the most part it's benign.

And then Higgins calls Joseph for the intentional foul with the game hanging in the balance. The Carrier Dome, Boeheim and Joseph erupt.

The fans went back and vented on the message boards.

Interestingly, Boeheim and Joseph put it in perspective:

"It was right in front of me," Boeheim will say later. "He hit him on the shoulder. He went for the ball and hit him. He didn't grab him. I don't know where it was intentional. It probably doesn't matter. The kid makes the two free throws."

Says Joseph: "I just tried to go for the ball to get him to go to the line and shoot the double-bonus. But the ref saw it differently. He's just doing his job that he gets paid to do, so I'm not going to argue with the call."

Pitino
Rick Pitino no longer thinks refs are homers, but he's still upset with a few of them.

More than anything, that's what really roils Higgins and his colleagues: that people think they don't care and that they intentionally make calls to affect the game.

UConn fans are monitoring the Huskies' record in games John Cahill calls, and Syracuse fans already are sifting through the record books, looking for historical anecdotes to support their belief that Higgins has it in for them.

In Louisville, the fan base and even Pitino are furious at late-game decisions in two games (late-January losses at Seton Hall and West Virginia) that have left the Cardinals sitting on a precariously bubble-ish ledge of 16-9.

"I'm very upset with three officials; I like them, I respect them, but I'm not very happy with them," Pitino said. "I had two games I should have won. But you know what? It happens. They blow calls."

And they know they do. And they don't like it any more than anyone else.

Higgins still remembers (as do most Villanova fans) a game 10 years ago between Villanova and Miami. He called a Hurricanes bucket good when it actually came a tenth of a second after the game clock had expired.

It was in the days before replay, and there was nothing Higgins could do.

"Fans never forget and that's good," Higgins says. "They're fans. They aren't supposed to forget. I don't have a problem with that at all. It's part of the business."

What does gall him is that people think he's merely some mercenary cashing a paycheck, indifferent to what sort of job he's doing.

He doesn't expect to be liked, doesn't care if he's appreciated and knows he'll never be understood.

It would, however, be nice to not be misrepresented.

"None of us want to make a mistake -- none of us," he says. "We desperately care about this game and anyone who says otherwise could not be more wrong. But you have to be able to give yourself a break and move on. We're human. We make mistakes.

"Every one of us would like to be the guy to officiate the first perfect game."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.