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Michigan coach John Beilein argues with official Mike Eades during the game against Michigan State on Feb. 5. Fans wonder whether college basketball refs are overworked.

Heavy workloads test referees’ ability to stay sharp

Mike Eades officiated a late-night, Big Ten showdown between Michigan and Indiana this season, and early the next afternoon was 900 miles away calling a game at Connecticut. John Gaffney? He called two Big East games 185 miles apart – on the same day. And then there is Karl Hess, who refereed games 22 of the first 23 days of the season, including 16 straight.

Fans have noticed and many are wondering whether college basketball refs are overworked, tired and prone to making bad calls or no calls at all.

Coaches and the people who make the referees’ schedules don’t go along with that. They insist that only a small number of officials actually keep those crazy hours and they usually are considered the best in the business.

There are about 1,000 referees registered with the NCAA officiating website who identify themselves as Division I officials. Of those, only 109 called 50 or more games over the four-plus months of the 2011-12 season, according to Statsheet.com, a website that tracks officials’ workload.

“Those are the people everyone sees night after night on television because they go from the Big East, to the ACC, to the SEC, to the Big Ten,” longtime Big East officiating coordinator Art Hyland said. “They tend to cause this issue that they’re working too much. Now, I would say to you that there are some officials who do work too much, but it’s not that many.”

Active officials are reluctant to speak with the media about any phase of their jobs, especially during the season. But John Higgins, who works mostly in the Big 12 and Missouri Valley Conference and is among the national leaders in games called this season, said the great majority of referees are like people with other occupations.

“If (refs) work four or five days out of seven, it’s no different,” he said. “The only thing is, ours is a two-hour day and everybody else’s is eight.”

While declining to comment further, Higgins did acknowledge travel can take a physical and mental toll.

Hess and Roger Ayers – both of whom work mostly in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East – started last week as the national co-leaders in games worked this season, at 79, or an average of 5.1 a week.

Tim Higgins (no relation to John), who retired from officiating after last season after 30-plus years in the Big East, Big Ten and ACC, said the media and athletic administrators seem more concerned about fatigue than the officials themselves.

“There is a reason the (same) guys are there every night,” Tim Higgins said. “Even if a guy is tired, he probably still is better than anyone else you get.”

The best refs can overcome the energy-sapping stress caused by travel, sleeping in a different bed four or five times a week and the night-in, night-out pressure cooker that is officiating Division I games. They’re able to keep up with the pace of play, get into the right position to make calls and maintain clear judgment and even temperament.

“When you get into that arena and that band is playing and the kids are screaming … if you can’t get up for two hours to get the job done, you’re not going to be around long,” Tim Higgins said.

NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams said the NCAA has no position on how many games a season or how many consecutive nights an official should work. Adams said an official must work at least 25 regular-season games to be eligible to be among the 100 selected for the NCAA tournament.

It’s up to the conference’s officiating coordinators, who handle assignments through the league tournaments, to decide how much work is too much.

Adams, Hyland and Southeastern Conference officiating coordinator Gerald Boudreaux agree that four is the optimum number of games a week for the top refs. Only 27 have averaged that many games a week this season, according to Statsheet.com.

Adams said an official who can drive an hour from home for his games probably would have no problem working as many as 13 or 14 nights in a row. But then there are the refs who might work a game in Miami one night and in Syracuse, N.Y., the next.

College officials are independent contractors who earn about $2,500 a game in the power conferences. The pay typically covers travel and room and board.

Adams said for most of the officials who call 60 or more games a year, this is their main source of income.

Eades, Gaffney and Hess are three of the sought-after refs.

Eades worked Michigan-Indiana, a No. 1-vs.-No. 3 game on Feb. 2. It tipped off at 9:05 p.m. in Bloomington. At 2 p.m. the next afternoon, Eades was in Storrs, Conn., for South Florida-Connecticut.

Gaffney called the DePaul-Marquette game on Feb. 9 that started at 1 p.m. CST in Milwaukee and made it to South Bend with 90 minutes to spare for the 9 p.m. EST game between Louisville and Notre Dame that went to five overtimes.

Another ref had been scheduled to work the game in South Bend, but he couldn’t get there because of a winter storm. Hyland had notified Gaffney at 8 a.m. that he would have to pull double duty.

Tim Higgins, the retired ref, described an official’s routine this way: Arrive in the city of the game he’ll work by midmorning, do a workout at the hotel gym, take a nap, call the game, get up the next morning and repeat.

“It’s the travel that’s tough,” he said.

North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried is concerned about the referees who work 80 or more games a season. A total of 23 reached that threshold in 2011-12.

Gottfried said he worked 70 nights a season during his two years as an ESPN analyst, and he saw refs from the previous night’s game at the airport at 5:30 a.m. to make flights to their next game site. Late or canceled flights cause anxiety for most travelers, and officials are no different.

Gottfried, who wishes there were a way officials could make the same money without having to work so many games, would like to see the current system changed.

“I don’t think that’s healthy for the game,” he said.

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