Bob Holliday

NCAA tournament gets the best refs, but what about chemistry?

Posted April 12

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils listens to a referee during the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 19, 2017 in Greenville, South Carolina. (Lance King/WRAL contributor)

“Poems are made by fools like me

But only God could referee.”

-- Lou Bello, 1974

The late Lou Bello, one of the ACC’s better and certainly more flamboyant officials, wrote a poem, “Referees,” which he recited on the radio back in the mid-1970s. Most of Lou’s work is lost in time. But I’ve always remembered the punch line which you see here. If officiating was a thankless task in Lou’s time, it has become nearly impossible today, with the constant scrutiny of referees and replay of controversial calls, both during and after games.

That said, it seems to me we heard more conversation about officials during the 2017 NCAA Tournament than we have heard in recent years:

  • So many fouls called
  • About calls not made
  • Lengthy monitor reviews

Individually, officials work harder to improve their performance on the court than ever before. They get reviewed more frequently by representatives of their conferences and the NCAA, both in person and on video. I have read the accuracy rate this season was something like 94 percent. Yet the conversation about officiating continues. To me, many of the shortcomings on the court stem from the system: We select the best refs, all stars if you will. But many of them have never worked together before.

1983 and the story of an all-ACC crew

The men who called the ACC’s championship game in 1983 – Paul Housman, Joe Forte, and Dr. Hank Nichols – advanced to the NCAA tournament that year as a complete crew. In my view, they were the three best referees of their day in the ACC. They may still rank with the best ever to call games in this league. All three were good individually, and yet their cohesiveness stood out in NC State’s win over Virginia.

Like NC State, Housman, Forte and Nichols advanced to the Final Four in Albuquerque. Jay Jennings and I covered the event for WRAL-TV and saw the three of them in New Mexico. We were staying in the same hotel. We chatted for awhile, and the three agreed to a television interview.

I remember asking Nichols (Dr. Hank was then a member of the faculty at Villanova) about the technical foul he had called on Virginia Assistant Coach Jim Larranaga very late in State’s win in Atlanta. I wanted to know whether he considered the time element in making that call. Larranaga had lept off the bench onto the court in protest of a charge/block call that had gone against UVA’s Othell Wilson. Nichols, the dean of officials in the ACC in that era, said simply, “No. That was clear cut.” One other thing I remember from that interview: all three men talked about how much they had worked together and how comfortable they were working together. Again, these were three top officials, individually, but they worked as a unit.

I thanked them for talking with us and wished them well Saturday. It turned out they would be working the Louisville-Houston game.

For those of you too young to remember, the Louisville-Houston game is considered one of the greatest NCAA semifinals ever played. There was so much speed and so much athleticism. And there were dunks. Houston alone had 13 dunks. These were not your rebound, put-back slams. Most were transition dunks. And Louisville had almost as many. Houston outran and outdunked U of L in such impressive style, that most in America were ready to hand the Cougars the big trophy right then and there.

My friend Mr. Bello always liked to say “great game, great officiating; lousy game, lousy officiating.” I will always believe the teamwork of Housman, Forte, and Nichols, working together seamlessly to cover all the angles on the court in a 94-foot battle, played a part in the quality of that national semifinal.

As every NC State fan knows, there was one more game to play. My partner Jay and I saw the three ACC officials back at our hotel. I suggested that since NC State had beaten Georgia to advance to the final against Houston their tournament might be over. Surely they would not be allowed to work the championship game?

"Doesn’t matter,” Joe Forte said.

Nichols added, “They select the best crew.”

The guys indicated the final decision would come down Monday morning.

Monday night, April 2, 1983, we’re about to leave the hotel to make the short drive to The Pit, scene of the national championship game. Who do we see? Yes indeed: Housman, Forte and Nichols. They are dressed for work, smiles on their faces.

I reported live on the WRAL News at six that the NC State-Houston game would be officiated by an all-ACC crew. As I was breaking this news, I imagined that I was speaking to Cougar Coach Guy Lewis. The look on his face was apoplectic. But of course, this was all in my imagination. There was no way Coach Lewis could be watching WRAL.

The only officiating issue I remember from that game is Clyde Drexler’s foul trouble. And the Houston bench miscounted his fouls. Drexler was whistled for his third personal foul in the first half. The bench thought he just had two fouls. So Lewis left Drexler in the game. Then he picked up his fourth foul. The fact that he was not available for much of the game’s final 25 minutes was not the fault of the three ACC officials working the game. Honestly, I don’t remember officiating being a factor in that game. Which is how it’s supposed to be!

And yet, appearances! NC State pulled off one of the great upsets in NCAA tournament history in defeating Houston. And three officials from the Wolfpack’s conference called the game. Therefore …

A change in the system

The NCAA decided to change the system by which officials are chosen for the men’s basketball tournament.

To be sure, referees are still chosen on merit. Conferences nominate their best officials. Those who perform best advance, in some cases all the way to the championship game. But the officials compete (and it is a competition) as individuals. They are often paired with referees they don’t know and certainly have never worked with. Although most officials now work for more than one conference, there are more than 1,000 in the pool for the NCAA tournament. It stands to reason that the 200 or so who make the cut will be largely unfamiliar with one another’s philosophy and style. Communication, which is so important when three men are trying to work together as one, can be challenging. That unfamiliarity shows at times.

In football, we see better chemistry among crews of officials in my opinion. That’s because conference crews stay together. Football has an advantage over basketball in the matter of officiating because there are far fewer games. And the matchups are known well in advance. And so when a Big Ten team meets an SEC team on January 1, an ACC crew can be assigned to work the game. Or if an ACC team meets a Big 12 team, a PAC 12 crew might get the assignment. We get the best of both worlds – a crew used to working together with no concern about conference partiality.

Now what to do about basketball?

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  • Scott Spaine Apr 12, 5:06 p.m.
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    I think that the referees were pretty bad this year. No consistency with their calls and way too many "touchy" fouls. Really needs to be looked at in the off season. They are the reason that games are so long and are riddled with stoppages due to the over abundance of foul calls. And how come the television audience can see a reply and understand what happened but it takes the "refs" 20 minutes to make a decision on a call? Change the charge block calls and we would actually have a physical game. If the National Championship games had gone to overtime we would have seen the bottom 5 players on each team playing.

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