When I was coaching basketball, I deliberately did not want to know in advance who was refereeing our games, home or away. But I would sit anxiously on the bench in pre-game, waiting for the arrival of the officials to the playing floor. Anyone who has coached knows exactly what I’m talking about. Their arrival produced mixed feelings depending on the stripe shirts that made their appearance. Simply put, coaches, for various reasons, have their own preferences when it comes to the referees assigned to their games.
When Jon Derryberry and Steve Oren made an appearance, I relaxed, because I knew exactly what kind of game we were going to get. We were going to get a basketball game uninterrupted by a constant barrage of whistles. Most coaches, players and fans are not interested in suffering through a parade to the foul line and when these two guys are on the game, unless it is extremely physical, they can count on an even flow to the contest. And the sentiment of the crowd is not going to influence their eye sight.
Derryberry and Oren are closing in on working 2,000 basketball games together during their careers and are very well known to coaches and fans in our area of Ohio. In fact, they are so familiar that many coaches and fans simply pronounce their names in one breath, Derryberry-Oren. You can’t imagine one without the other. Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or maybe Bert and Ernie. “People we don’t know will come up to us in public now and ask us where we are working that night,” says Derryberry.
Derryberry and Oren have a combined 79 years of experience calling basketball, football and softball games. They have seen it all and survived with their sense of humor in tact despite enduring one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. Once a game is completed, there is a chance that at least half the crowd is disappointed in the performance of every official. And advances in social media can spread that disappointment around in a hurry.
Steve Oren found his way into officiating during the 1976-77 season by refereeing in the CYO for $2.50 a game. “It was a great way to begin officiating,” says Oren. “Joe Elliot, a veteran official, was at the scorer’s table and he would call me over with tips and advice. I learned a lot just listening to him.”
The blizzard of 1978 played a role in his advancement to high school varsity games. “I had one varsity game scheduled that year,” remembers Oren. “When the blizzard hit there were so many rescheduled games that needed covered, I ended up with nearly 30 varsity games.”
Jon Derryberry began his career in 1980 after being encouraged by his former ninth grade basketball coach at Wapakonta High School. “After I graduated, I was working construction across from the school and Don Arnett walked across the street and talked me into getting my officials license,” says Derryberry. “Early in my career, I worked with Dick Nogel and Joe Geddings. They had a huge impact in helping me develop.”
Oren says he and Derryberry became partners following a particularly difficult game he worked with another young official. Oren remembers, “I was working a game with a guy and he was blowing his whistle almost every time down the floor. The game took forever. I decided to find a partner who saw the game the same way I did.” Enter Jon Derryberry.
They became a two-man crew in 1984 and in the last four decades they estimate they have driven thousands of miles together in west central and northwest Ohio traveling to and from games. They have spent enough time together that they answer questions in unison sometimes. Oren jokes, “Jon has seen me naked more times than my wife.”
When I asked them what the toughest part of their job was, I was surprised by their answer. I was expecting stories of disappointed coaches and fans. Instead, they agreed, “It’s getting into a freezing car after a game and not getting warmed up until we are practically home.” Oren added, “It’s also going to work in the morning, driving to a game that night, refereeing the game, getting home at 11 (p.m.) and then starting all over again the next day.” The fact is, most people do not appreciate the time and effort that officials invest in their profession.
Derryberry did address the difficulty of trying to please coaches and spectators in the heat of a passionately played game. He recalls, “We worked a local game that came down to the last possession and I made a call that affected the outcome of the game. The home team and fans weren’t happy. The next morning on a radio talk show the coach was interviewed and asked about the call. He said that the official did not wake up that morning with the intent of favoring one team over another, he just called it as he saw it. I appreciated his remark and the respect he showed.”
Derryberry and Oren also work together in the fall doing football and in the spring doing softball. Years ago, Oren was umpiring home plate in a softball game in Wapakoneta when he called the batter out on a high pitch. “She got pretty angry with me and let me know it,” remembers Oren. The discussion continued after the game and Oren eventually settled the argument the best way he knew how. “I married her,” brags Oren. Laura Oren still claims the pitch was high and outside.
The friendship between Derryberry and Oren extends to the off season. They are passionate baseball fans and for years have gone on extended excursions across the country in the summer attending major league games. “We’ve seen games in every major league baseball park in the country,” says Jon. “And we have plans to travel to Atlanta this summer to see the Braves in their brand new ballpark.”
We take officials for granted and when they do come up in conversation it’s often in the form of a complaint. Derryberry and Oren have been around long enough to be included in plenty of those conversations, but the truth is, this area is lucky to have these two men who have dedicated their lives to the often thankless job of officiating high school contests. Jon and Steve have woven themselves into the fabric of high school sports in this neck of the woods and deserve our respect and appreciation for their commitment.
And that appreciation extends to all of the men and women who take up the challenging job of pulling on the stripes.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.