John Feinstein: A Referee's Whistle-Stop Tour

By John Feinstein
Sunday, March 8, 2009; D09

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.

"It has gotten to the point where you schedule with referees in mind," said Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley. "The good news is we can get those guys on their off nights from the BCS leagues. The bad news is we have to pay them BCS prices. Obviously we think it's worth it."

Hall worked full time at the software company in Denver until the end of 2003, when the company was bought out and he was given the chance to take a buyout.

"My wife said to me, 'You've been killing yourself trying to work two jobs; it's time to choose one or the other,' " Hall remembered. "It took me about a half a second to decide which job I wanted."

The travel, he admits, can be wearing, although living in Denver makes it easier for him to get places. He has missed just two games in 27 years because of travel delays, although he did once have to hitch a ride from a snowbound airport in Wichita -- after his plane arrived seven hours late without a cab or rental car in sight -- to get to a game five minutes before tip-off.

"I flagged a guy down and said, 'I'll give you 100 bucks if you can get me to the arena,' " he said. "When we got there, the guy didn't want to take the money. His buddy was in the back seat and he said, 'I'll take it.' I left it there and ran inside."

On another occasion, Hall and two other officials who live in the Denver area were completely snowed in on the eve of the NCAA tournament. So was the Colorado basketball team that was supposed to play a first-round game in Winston-Salem, N.C., against Indiana.

"The NCAA finally decided the only way to get them out was to bus them to Colorado Springs -- the roads were virtually empty -- and charter from there," Hall said. "Their bus stopped on I-25 to pick the three of us up so we could fly with them. No way were they getting off the interstate and taking a chance on getting stuck. It was the only possible way for us to get out of town."

Hall has four children, who often tease him about how much he's away during the season.

"One night I guess I was giving Whitney, my 16-year-old, a little bit of a hard time about something," he said. "I went into my study and I heard her say, 'Mom, is there any way Dad can get a game tonight?' "

This season, Hall was gone for 20 straight days during one stretch. Like many fathers, he has learned to text-message to communicate with his kids.

"I sent a long text to my 14-year-old, Madi," he said. "I was asking about school and soccer and cleaning her room and getting along with Whitney -- everything. I got an answer right back: 'Who is this?' "

Hall will work five conference tournaments this week: the Sun Belt, Missouri Valley, Big 12, Mountain West and WAC. Then, a week from today, like the coaches and players, he will wait to hear if he has qualified for the NCAA tournament. It will be 23 straight years if he is chosen. If he makes the tournament, he will work a maximum of four games -- two the first week, one the second week and one -- he hopes -- in Detroit in April.

That workload will feel like a vacation after the schedule he has worked since mid-November. Then again, in all likelihood, there will be some National Invitation Tournament games in between. In the life of a top referee, a night off is a night wasted. David Hall hasn't had many wasted nights this winter.

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