John Feinstein: A Referee's Whistle-Stop Tour
If today is Sunday, then David Hall is in Hot Springs, Ark. On Saturday he was in Lawrence, Kan., after spending Friday in St. Louis and Thursday in Tucson, having flown there from San Diego.
Such is the life of a college basketball referee these days, especially those -- such as Hall -- who work almost nonstop from November until late March or the first week in April, if they are among the chosen nine who work the Final Four.
Hall will work a quarterfinal game tonight in the Sun Belt tournament. It will be the 98th game he has refereed this season -- a new high for him, topping the 97 he worked last season. With luck, he will go well beyond 100 games before his season is over.
"I'm lucky because refereeing is my full-time job," Hall said last week during a quick stopover at home in Denver. "I think if you have another job and you take a heavy schedule, you're burning the candle at both ends a lot of the time. I know the last few years that I was doing both, it was difficult. There were probably times when I didn't do my job at home [he was treasurer for a Fortune 500 broadcast software company] as well as I should have or could have. Now, I don't have that issue."
Hall is one of a growing number of college referees who are giving up their "real" jobs in large part because the money for officiating has gotten so much better. Referees working in the six power conferences generally make $2,000 and up per game, plus first-class airfare and expenses. That means the top officials are making well into six figures during the five-month season.
"Years ago, you couldn't do it this way," Hall said. "Now a lot of guys are like me -- working very, very hard for five months and then being able to take it easy the rest of the year."
Hall, 54, began refereeing as a freshman at Colorado. After graduating in 1976 with a degree in accounting, he moved up the refereeing ladder from high school games to his first college game when he was 23. Four years later, he got hired to work in the Western Athletic Conference.
"I was lucky," he said. His baseball coach Irv Brown "was the supervisor. I wasn't any better than the other young guys. I knew Irv; it was that simple."
He was good enough to add the Big Eight to his résumé two years later and in 1987, at the age of 32, worked his first NCAA tournament. He has worked every tournament since, including two Final Fours. In 2000, he had the national championship game between Michigan State and Florida, and four years later, he worked the Connecticut-Duke semifinal.
"I think I caught a break that first year," he said. "Hank Nichols had taken over as the [officiating] supervisor, but he was still doing games. He decided to work different conferences around the country to get a feel for how guys reffed. He came out here and I worked a Colorado State-Wyoming game with him. It went three overtimes. When it was over, we were all exhausted. Hank just kind of looked at me and said, 'Is it always like this out here?' "
The answer, of course, was no. But Nichols remembered Hall's work and included him in the tournament that season. Hall began getting more and more games and more conferences asked him to work their games. This season, he was assigned games by six conferences: the Pacific-10, Big 12, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Sun Belt and WAC.
Guys such as Hall and East Coast officials Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Mike Kitts (among others) are in so much demand these days that the second-tier leagues have taken to scheduling more games on Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to get them to work.