NCAA tournament 2012: Higher pay, fewer games for refs is right call

John Feinstein
Columnist March 23, 2012

Bo Ryan was speaking in measured, calm tones on Thursday night after his Wisconsin team had come up just short against top-seeded Syracuse in the East Region semifinals at TD Garden. He’s been coaching too long and been through too many games to take a wild verbal swing at anyone, even after one of the most difficult losses of his career.

But he couldn’t resist one not-so-subtle shot.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

“I thought we played a great game defensively,” he said. “A really great game. I know not everyone on the floor agreed with me on that, but that’s what I thought.”

The people on the floor he was referencing wore stripes. Coaches talk all the time about wanting their players to get to “50-50 balls.” Ryan clearly believed his team hadn’t gotten many 50-50 calls.

Whether he’s right really doesn’t matter because the game was ultimately decided by a brilliant defensive stand on the final possession by Syracuse, which allowed the Orange to escape with a 64-63 victory and a date with second-seeded Ohio State in the region final on Saturday night.

But Ryan’s frustration fits in with a bubbling sense among those in college basketball that officiating in the NCAA tournament has been less-than-perfect this season. It came up in Boston on Thursday night and it came up in Phoenix, where the three officials working the Michigan State-Louisville game sent Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng to the free throw line for a one-and-one when Chane Behanan had been fouled. After Dieng missed the first free throw, stand-by official Chris Rastatter got the attention of his partners and pointed out the mistake. Because it was a correctable error, Dieng’s miss was wiped out and Behanan went to the line and made both shots.

All of that came a week after Ed Corbett, one of the game’s most respected officials, missed a critical out-of-bounds call in the final minute of Syracuse’s NCAA tournament opener against UNC Asheville, denying the Bulldogs the ball trailing by three.

Has the officiating gotten worse, or has the scrutiny received by officials ratcheted up?

“I think there’s a lot more scrutiny,” former Maryland Coach Gary Williams said in a telephone interview. “But I also think you have a right to expect guys to be at their best during the NCAA tournament. You want the players rested and ready to play, you should expect the same from the officials.”

Which raises a critical point that has been an ongoing issue for years: Are top officials working too much?

Yes, according to John Adams, the NCAA’s supervisor of officials.

“In an ideal world I’d like to see the top guys work no more than 72 games in the regular season,” Adams said Friday. “That would be four games a week for 18 weeks. The problem is the top guys are working between 90 and 100 games a year right now. If you take, say, 20 games away from them when they’re making about $2,000 a game after expenses, that’s about $40,000. Most guys aren’t going to give up $40,000 in income for the chance to work no more than four games, and in most cases less than that, in the NCAA tournament.”

Which might explain why someone like David Hall was working his fifth game in nine days — and his 95th game of the season — on Thursday night. Prior to officiating the Syracuse-Wisconsin game, Hall had gone from Dayton (for the Vermont-Lamar play-in game) to Greensboro (for two early-round NCAA tournament games) to Seattle (for an NIT game Tuesday night) to Boston.

The NCAA has a 24-hour rule for referees, which means they can’t work a game in another tournament (NIT, CIT, CBI) the night before an NCAA tournament game. Even though he had to travel cross-country on Wednesday, Hall was okay because he wasn’t working consecutive nights.

“Referees should be like teams,” Williams said. “You get invited to the NCAA tournament, it’s an honor. You don’t go and play in the NIT, too. You focus on doing the very best you can in the NCAAs. Of course, if a referee doesn’t advance from the first week to the second, then, okay, go and work the NIT or those other tournaments.”

Again, money is a factor. The NCAA pays officials less for the NCAA tournament than they make a lot of the time in the regular season. The bigger conferences pay officials between $2,500 and $3,000 per game, out of which they must pay their expenses. Thus, Adams’s net number of about $2,000 per game. During the NCAA tournament, officials are paid $1,200 the first weekend, $1,400 the second weekend and $2,000 if they make the Final Four, with the NCAA paying their expenses.

According to the NCAA, about 40 percent of the $846 million it generated in revenue in 2010-11 went to championships, programs and services. That’s about $338 million. Wouldn’t it be possible to extract maybe $500,000 from $338 million to pay officials well enough to prohibit them from working anyplace else as long as they are still in the NCAA tournament? If officials were paid $2,500 the first weekend, $5,000 the second weekend and $10,000 the third weekend, the NCAA probably wouldn’t go broke. And it would give Adams a better chance of setting some kind of maximum number for regular season games officials could work.

“Certainly it would help if we made the financial incentive more attractive,” Adams said. “And I believe in competition. These guys are competing to advance just like the teams are. The more of that the better as far as I’m concerned.

Those new standards might explain why some older, highly respected officials — among them Jim Burr and Tim Higgins, who have worked 27 Final Fours between them — aren’t in the tournament this year. It also might explain why some officials who have worked a lot of games this season didn’t advance out of the first weekend, even though their work is highly respected by most. One of them is Brian Dorsey, a familiar face to ACC fans and this season’s leader in total games worked to date — 100. Dorsey’s season probably isn’t over: He worked the Old Dominion-Mercer CIT game Wednesday night in Norfolk.

“Players hit the wall sometimes late in the season, so do officials,” said Williams, who admitted he was surprised to hear how little the NCAA pays officials in postseason. “The question is do they hit the wall while they’re still working? That’s what you don’t want.”

And what you really don’t want is people talking about the officials and not the players when a game is over. Paying the officials more and demanding that they work less wouldn’t solve everything. But it could be a major step in the right direction.

For more columns by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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