We are about to enter one of the most popular times of the year for sports fans: The NCAA post season basketball tournament, more commonly known as March Madness. A field of 68 teams starts the tourney and, through spirited competition, the number gets whittled down until only two are standing to vie for the title of national champion.
Many are probably not aware that the officials who work the NCAA postseason tournament are going through the exact same process. A select few are chosen to work the tournament and then, based on their performance, they either go home or move on to the next stage of the tournament. An official’s goal is no different than the coaches and players in March Madness: to advance to the Final Four and a shot at the national championship game.
Ted Hillary, a highly respected, retired college basketball official, who worked four Final Fours, including the 1989 national championship game, has seen it from both perspectives. As a college player in 1970, he led his St. Joseph’s College team to the NCAA College Finals. He was the most competitive and focused athlete I ever competed with or against. Hillary was also my teammate, roommate and lifelong friend. Who better to provide a perspective on March Madness from the view point of a basketball official working the tournament?
Following graduation, after a tryout with the Indiana Pacers fell short, Hillary headed back to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and looked for a basketball coaching position. “I was an education major because my dream was always to be a basketball coach,” he says. “But there were no positions open so a friend of mine suggested we look into refereeing basketball games. I loved the game and officiating kept me close to it.”
Hillary began his officiating career working junior high CYO games but quickly climbed the ladder. Within two years he was working high school games. “I got lost on the way to the first varsity game I ever worked,” he remembers. That didn’t prevent him from eventually finding his way through the challenging maze of officiating hierarchy.
Five years later Hillary began working college basketball games in the Mid-American Conference. The following season he worked his last high school game, Michigan’s Class A state basketball championship, a game in which a young Ervin “Magic” Johnson led Lansing Everett High School to the title.
In 1982, Hillary began working the Big Ten Conference and stayed for 32 years in a legendary career that gained him recognition and praise as one of the finest referees in the nation. That view was affirmed when he was named a recipient of the prestigious Naismith College Official of the Year award.
Hillary described the lifestyle of a college basketball official as rewarding but difficult at times. “The higher you go in officiating, the tougher the travel becomes,” he says. “In the beginning, I could drive to every game, but Minnesota, and often be home late the same day.” When the Big Ten expanded, Hillary was often on the road for weeks at a time. He spent much of his time in hotel rooms and airports. “It can be a lonely profession,” he says.
It also means spending lots of time away from family. “I was on the road for four months, working four and five night a week,” Hillary says. “When I walked through the door at the end of the season, my wife, Kathy, was waiting there with our three boys and told me, ‘the kids are all yours,’ ” he laughed.
After more than 40 years and 2,000 games, Hillary retired in 2012. He is currently one of four NCAA regional advisers who evaluate and assist in the selection of officials chosen to work the NCAA postseason tournament.
There are nearly 900 officials working college basketball games across the country, all hoping to get a shot at refereeing the tournament. J.D. Collins, the national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, created the procedure for evaluating and selecting those referees chosen to work the tournament. There are four regional advisers who assist in the process. Their task is to find the 100 best basketball officials in the nation to work March Madness.
The process begins with the major conferences across the country supplying a list of officials they believe are worthy of consideration. That number can be anywhere from 315 to 350 officials. Each one is evaluated during the season two to three times and usually once during their conference tournament. The four regional advisers are on the road for four months observing, appraising and rating those officials.
Hillary, the Midwest regional adviser, says young referees who are not on the list, can still make an impression. “I was recently at South Dakota State, rating an official, and a young referee caught my eye. I put him on our futures list which earmarked him for further consideration down the road. You never know when someone is watching,” he advised.
The regional advisers rate the officials in six categories, ranging from their fitness and communication skills with players and coaches to call accuracy and game management. The evaluation does not end there. “When the game is finished, I go courtside and download a copy of it from the XOS HD replay monitor to my IPad. I go back to my hotel room and watch the game all over again. I can scroll to an exact play and make a decision if the call was correct, Hillary says. I review every play, every call. It’s very time consuming.”
When asked what separates great referees from good ones, Hillary pointed out the role that physicality plays in the evaluation process. “We are looking for officials who can separate illegal contact from marginal contact,” he says. A tough task when considering the increasing role that strength plays in the game today.
In late February the four regional advisers meet with J.D. Collins in Indianapolis and begin to pare the number of officials down. “We have a conversation about every official we’ve seen” Hillary says. “We get the number down to about 130 and then J.D. takes the names home and makes the final decision on the 100 who will work the tournament. It’s tough to get into that select group.”
The evaluation continues through each stage of the tournament, with those officials who grade highest advancing to the next round. Every Sunday night there are officials waiting by their telephone hoping for the call that they are working another week. In the final week of the tournament, there are just nine (and one alternate) left standing to work the Final Four, the pinnacle of college officiating.
Hillary is enthusiastic about the state of college officiating. “Referees are expected to be perfect when we walk into the gym and get better from there,” he says. “The level of talent and experience is the highest I’ve ever seen. We don’t get it all right, but we’re close.”
Reach Bob Seggerson at firstname.lastname@example.org