That old truism about basketball officials? That if you don’t notice they’re a part of the game, they’re doing a hell of a job?
Well, it’s a myth, or maybe just plain malarkey. The best ones you do notice because they do the game no harm and, yes, because even if they’re 100 percent right they’re 50 percent wrong. They will always be noticed.
Except when they’ve gone.
Three nights before Christmas, Randy Burkhart worked an 8:30 tipoff between San Jose State and James Madison in a Las Vegas hotel arena dotted with 840 gambled-out zoms. There was no drama, no fanfare and no gold whistle when the horn blew on his officiating days.
At the age of 50.
“But my knees are 70,” he said over the creaking and popping.
The video reviews he put himself through after games had begun to expose flaws. He wasn’t getting to spots quickly enough by his standards. To run in transition had him “looking like Hopalong Cassidy because I couldn’t push off,” though his friends might tease that the same was true during his days as a tight end at Whitworth three decades ago.
In 25 years of calling games – 20 at the NCAA Division I level – Burkhart was anywhere from competent to terrific every time out, and that meant never mailing it in. So this was no time to give even the appearance that might be the case.
College officiating takes a ding for his departure, even as he insists it’s never been better.
“Fans won’t agree, and you may not,” he said. “But guys are getting better. Those who aren’t are getting dumped. Every call you make in the West Coast Conference and Pac-12 is evaluated and graded, and so are the ones you don’t.
“You could hide a little bit back in the day. If you had a bad game, you might be OK because, ‘Hey, we’re in Bozeman.’ That’s not true anymore.”
Back in the day, Randy Burkhart was a young junior high teacher who finally caved to the entreaties of his old high school football coach, Dan Niksich, to get in the game.
“Man, I don’t want to get yelled at,” Burkhart thought.
Nonetheless, Niksich outfitted him with a shirt, an old pair of black coaching pants and some well broken-in Spot-Bilt shoes.
“I wore those suckers forever,” he said. “Finally, Dave Libbey looked at me one time and said, ‘I know those pants. You have got to go spend some money.’ But I’m the cheapest guy on the planet.”
Possibly. Fact is, he arrived at the same arena for every D-I game he worked in the same ensemble: “foldable” blue blazer, olive green slacks, black shoes. Holes required replacing the slacks and shoes, but only in the last three years.
“But I would always buy my partners a Keystone Light after the game,” he said.
Actually, if you take Burkhart’s word, referees reach for their wallets even less than they call three in the key.
He relishes tattling on fellow zebra Scott Harris, who mistakenly packed two left shoes on a trip to work an Idaho game – and wore them rather than buy a new pair. And on Tom Spitznagel, who forgot his dress shoes for an officials’ meeting in Los Angeles and claimed a pair of size-12s at the hotel lost-and-found to slide on to his size-8 feet.
“That’s the ultimate cheap,” he said, admiringly.
A story guy more than a scrapbook guy, his list of favorite games is short – Washington State’s epic 51-47 win at Gonzaga in 2007 when both were ranked tops the list.
“You know you’ve made it in Spokane basketball,” Burkhart said, “if you’ve gotten the Kennel Club to hit you with the ‘That ref sucks!’ chant. Which I’ve had a few times.”
Maybe more than anyone. In the days when conferences were just as cheap as officials and skimped on travel, referees often drew more games close to home. Burkhart once worked three Zags games in a five-night span, assigned by different leagues, in Spokane, Missoula and Pullman.
“After the WSU game, (coach) Paul Graham called Lou Campanelli, the Pac-10 assigner, and asked if I was the traveling official for GU,” Burkhart laughed. “Good question, right? My buddies (were) calling me the referee for the Harlem Globetrotters. Told me that when the ball went out of bounds for GU I should call, ‘Our ball!’”
The extra paydays made vacations and Christmases nicer, the flipside being that his wife, Delon, went to “hundreds of kids events without me.” That part he’s happy to put away; the chops-busting and friendship not so much.
“It’s the camaraderie that’s unique,” he said. “You’re in a hostile environment every night with two guys on your side. Nobody else is rooting for you. In fact, they’re waiting for you to mess up. Then they give it to you.”
And Randy Burkhart heard it all. You didn’t think he was going splurge on earplugs, did you?