When Charlie Range blew his whistle with 2 seconds left last Sunday, sending Washington’s Todd MacCulloch to the foul line, it not only brought about free throws that won a game over UCLA, it touched off a lively debate about the advisability of officials’ calls that turn a game at the end.
Which, without a lot of imagination, can take you to another hidden, hot topic in the Pac-10 Conference: the gradual, but inexorable, loss of many of its most veteran officials.
Nobody wants to say much about it, but it’s there. For fear of reprimand, coaches can’t criticize officials or Booker Turner, the man who supervises them for the Pac-10. And officials are loathe to comment because it could affect the recommendations they need to work the NCAA Tournament.
Still, interviews with coaches and officials leave little doubt that while the Pac-10 is the most prestigious athletic conference in the West - perhaps the nation - the level of satisfaction with some of its policies on basketball officials is skimpy.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Pac-10 officiating needs work,” said Oregon State coach Eddie Payne, and he spoke this a day before being ejected from OSU’s game at Washington Feb. 12.
Whether Range, a respected, longtime official, should have made the call he made Sunday can be debated endlessly, but the fact is, some officials wouldn’t have blown the whistle. Generally, the more entrenched official would be willing to do it, and those are becoming an endangered species in the Pac-10.
To be sure, the phenomenon isn’t entirely new. Frank Bosone, an investment planner from Bellevue, bolted the Pac-10 in 1984 when the Pac-10 supervisor of officials was Frank McIntyre.
“I was disappointed in the leadership at that time,” said Bosone, who still works four other leagues. “I felt there were better opportunities elsewhere. Since that time, I’ve had those opportunities present themselves.”
They have, in the form of NCAA appearances each year, a Final Four effort in 1990 and six regional finals.
“I didn’t see that happening in the Pac-10,” Bosone said.
It is a time of upheaval in Pac-10 officiating, and it has touched other levels. Two Seattle-area officials, Ron Omori and Ron Richardson, also have been dropped by the Pac-10.
Omori still works the WCC, whose supervisor of officials, Bob Herrold, said, “Omori feels more comfortable. He doesn’t have the B.S. to put up with.”
The lopping of state of Washington officials, combined with the recent heart attack of veteran Steve Wilson of Shoreline, means that there are no Washington officials working a full schedule of Pac-10 games. In a highly charged sport in which any sort of perceived edge can be troubling, that raises eyebrows, among them those of Bob Bender, the UW coach.
“Booker is very receptive to our concerns,” Bender said, referring to the dearth of Washington officials. “It’s not a reluctance on his part. We have to have people, whether it be from the conference office or veteran officials whom Booker puts a lot of confidence in, get up here and watch the junior-college (postseason) tournament, or (high school) state tournament, or Division II or NAIA games.
“But that’s one of the dilemmas. When are they going to find time to do that?”
Turner, a longtime Pac-10 official, scoffs at the issue, saying, “I’m from Southern California, and for years, we only had about two officials from Southern California. That has nothing to do with it.”
The bigger controversy is over the purge of veteran officials and the movement to youth. Or, as one coach says, referring to the frequent absence of a traditional “lead” official or referee, “There are times when you look out there and go, ‘Wait a minute! Did somebody get sick?”’ Of course, the question is whether the quality of Pac-10 officiating has declined without the veterans. Asked if the standard is as high, Arizona State interim coach Don Newman said, “I don’t know if it’s up to (that level). You’re talking a lot of years of experience. If you think it’s going to happen right off, no.”
A number of games this year have been manned by a relatively inexperienced lead official. One crew in Corvallis erred once, and possibly twice, on the shooter on foul calls, sending Corey Benjamin to the line when it should have been his brother Sonny. Injury and illness recently to three lead officials, including Wilson, has further thinned the manpower.
Last year, as the Pac-10 was sending an unprecedented four teams to the NCAA Sweet 16, only one league official - David Libbey, who works other Western conferences - remained among the 12 nationally who did the four regional final games.
“There’s a whole group of us, probably 20 guys, that should probably be doing the Pac-10 and aren’t,” Stupin says. “Basically, it’s the supervisor’s choice. He (Turner) puts some crews out there that don’t have a whole lot of experience. It shows on the court.”
Says one Pac-10 coach, “We’ve seen some really good, young officials coming into the league now. I think all of us would like to see veteran officials who have gone through that maturing process in position to help others get through it as well.”
Some background: Officials are independent contractors who typically work for more than one league. Many have a league affiliation that predominates, based on long associations, better pay or proximity to home.
The Big 12’s success in landing a couple of Pac-10 officials is partly due to a $575 per-game stipend for top-tier officials, compared with $530 in the Pac-10, and, officials say, a more generous travel allowance.
But there are other issues. Some officials say Turner is slow to generate a schedule, citing delays caused by television considerations. That had something to do with Reischling’s departure.
One former Pac-10 official says, “What happens is, supervisors will ask for priority: ‘Will you take me first?’ Are you going to wait for your schedule until late September or October, not knowing whether Booker is going to give you five, 10 or 15 games?
“He’s just a lousy manager.” Understand, the criticism of Turner is no more unprecedented than a coach questioning a referee’s call. In the best of times, the job is thankless. McIntyre, a one-time fireman, came under fire as Turner’s predecessor, and it was often said that one problem with Pac-10 officiating then was its lack of young, rising officials.
Turner draws a variety of brickbats, including that he fails to communicate, that he has a hair-trigger temper and that his administrative skills are lacking.
“When I was working, I didn’t have communication,” Turner said. “I went out on the floor and worked. I don’t need to pacify anybody here. Communication - they get all kinds of communication. I can’t get out on the floor and work for them.
“You’re talking to somebody who’s been through all of this, so when these people tell me that bull, I don’t want to hear that.”
Turner acknowledges something of a youth movement in the league, saying, “Veteran officials are going to move on. You have to have youngsters. Somebody has to take their place. In order for them to be replaced, they (younger officials) have to have work.”
That doesn’t assuage one Pac-10 coach, who says of Turner, “His interpersonal skills are horrible. He’s defensive, he doesn’t listen, he flies off the handle easily.”
Defending Turner, Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen says, “First of all, he works very hard at it, and in my opinion, he has a really good relationship with the officials, and they have responded to his leadership.
“We have high standards for officials, we direct that they come to the game well-dressed, things like that. It establishes a pride. I think Booker does all those things really well.”
Regarding the loss of veteran officials, Hansen says, “Booker can’t put Garibaldi and Range on every game. One of the things we’re concentrating most on is trying to identify who will be the next group of lead officials.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Nice knowing you You’ve heard of animals eating their young? The Pac-10 devours its veterans. A chief concern among coaches is a trend that finds respected, experienced officials leaving the league or not being retained by Booker Turner: Jim Stupin of Cypress, Calif., worked his last game for the Pac-10 in 1993 and now does the WAC, Big West and West Coast Conference. Officials rise through the NCAA Tournament through observers’ ratings, and Stupin has worked three Final Fours, in 1990, 1993 and 1994. Tom Harrington of Chico, Calif., was let go by the league in 1993 after Pac-10 administrators said he breached a league policy. Harrington, still working other leagues, has done four Final Fours, including championship games in 1992-93. Willis McJunkin of Kent, who did a national semifinal game in 1985, was “retired” by the Pac-10 three years ago but continues to work the Big West. How did McJunkin find out his two decades of work with the Pac-10 were done? Not through a letter or phone call, but by word of mouth. Mark Reischling of Petaluma, Calif., worked some 430 games over 19 years with the Pac-10. The two parted company last August when Reischling, who worked three other western leagues, wanted more input into his Pac-10 scheduling. When Turner balked, Reischling quit. Bob Garibaldi of Stockton, Calif., a veteran of a quarter-century in the Pac-10, has limited his appearances in the league and is now fanning east to the Big 12. That conference invited him to do its postseason tournament last year and has increased his workload in 1997-98. - Seattle Post-Intelligencer