Perhaps the easiest way to measure what this season has been like for college basketball officials is to consider an old axiom about officiating any athletic contest: The best job is done when the officials go unnoticed. In that regard, already it has been a very long season.
In the newspaper and on television, coaches' complaints about officiating have percolated almost daily. And while many of those involved in the game believe that the number of grumblings is not unusual, there is little doubt that officials are under more scrutiny than ever.
Perhaps the most memorable moments of the season have been Indiana Coach Mike Davis rushing onto the court -- in the middle of play -- to argue the lack of a foul call and Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick's well-publicized postgame tirade last month.
A few days after Esherick's beefs were aired on highlight shows seemingly around the clock, Maryland Coach Gary Williams complained of a lack of communication with the ACC office and accused an official of making a threatening comment. Williams subsequently apologized and official Doug Shows was suspended for his next assignment.
Others who have complained about officiating include Virginia's Pete Gillen (twice), North Carolina's Matt Doherty and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt. During one recent game, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hewitt was so upset with referee Ted Valentine that he turned to the people seated at the scorer's table and said: "All this money, and this is what we get? Unbelievable."
Last week, after Seton Hall had the equivalent of a power play -- six men on the court -- for a critical stretch near the end of regulation of its 93-82 overtime victory over Georgetown, Esherick said little. Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma last month on a last-second shot that television replays showed should not have counted because of a shot-clock violation. (Unlike end-of-half situations, shot-clock violations are not reviewable.)
"It seems like it comes and goes in cycles," said Dale Kelley, coordinator of officials for five leagues, including the Big 12 and Conference USA. "I can't put my finger on it for any definite reason. I think one of the things that may factor in is there are so many more games televised today and I think officials are being scrutinized a lot more than in the past."
Rick Hartzell, a veteran official and the athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa, said he thinks some preseason points of emphasis identified by NCAA officials might be responsible for the recent outbursts.
"The way they're asking us to referee games these days . . . puts more of an onus on officials," Hartzell said. "Change that and, dealing with veteran coaches, it's going to be hard for them. Once you change the way it's been, then people have a hard time getting used to it. I think all of that is understandable. That's part of it. The second part of it is kind of like a snowball rolling downhill. When officials have a little trouble, whether it's the NFL, college basketball or pro basketball, it becomes the thing to do to whack officials [although] I'm not saying officials are blameless. And then there's the one everyone knows, the pressure of winning games."
And the pressure on coaches, everyone agrees, is on the rise.
"That has been increasing every year because of the emphasis of being in the tournament and those teams' seedings," said one high-ranking college basketball official. "Staying in the profession demands that they win games. That's tremendous pressure. I don't think there is any doubt there is increased pressure on coaches over the past several years. I don't see that abating at all. All you have to do is look at the paper at the end of the year and see how many coaches lose their jobs."
Displeasure with officiating is nothing new and is not limited to college basketball. In the fall, Joe Paterno's disenchantment with Big Ten college football officials was well documented. The NFL went through a spate of controversial calls during its playoffs last month. Ohio State was able to win the college football national championship in part because of a debatable pass interference penalty.
Making things tougher on college basketball officials is the parity that seems to have overtaken the sport. With more teams in the hunt for postseason berths and what seems to be an increasing number of close games, there are more critical plays to officiate. And with many players getting bigger, stronger and faster for their positions, it does not get any easier for officials.
So why do officials subject themselves to the scrutiny of fans and verbal abuse from coaches?
Top officials can make a sizable sum of money in a short amount of time. An official in a top conference can expect to earn $700 to $800 per game, plus a per diem of about $150 and travel expenses, according to Kelley. Many officials work as many as five or six games a week and up to 80 a year. That translates into the potential to earn in the neighborhood of $80,000 during the five-month season.
Most officials hold other jobs, often in sales so that they can have flexible schedules. Others have their own businesses or took early retirement so they can referee full time.
While coaches might substitute for a player in a rut, conferences have little recourse against a struggling official. The top officials generally work in the premier conferences and schedules for every official are usually planned well in advance.
"Most people who get into officiating do it because they want to stay in the sport, they do it because they like it," said one official who works in several conferences. "At some point, the creme de la creme can make money off it. But the vast majority do it because they like it."
Virtually every conference has a rule stipulating that any criticism of officials will result in disciplinary action.
"If you let public criticism run rampant, you destroy confidence in the officials with players and fans," said Hank Nichols, the NCAA coordinator of men's basketball officiating. "And that's not a good situation."
Nichols, though, said he does not think that point has been reached.
"You have to remember, historically during a season there are going to be complaints about the officiating," he said. "And historically some of them are public criticism. Referees usually live with that. That's part of the deal."