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Now out of stripes, Libbey reshaping WCC officiating

So intent were the 6,000-plus Gonzaga congregants on identifying and bonding with all the new Zags – Is that Manny? Which one is Dower? – that few noticed their favorite old bugbear sitting ringside at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday evening.

Call it the kraziest development of all at Kraziness in the Kennel.

It’s the first time Dave Libbey’s been in the house without being booed even once. Which means – also for the first time – a crowd that got in free may feel it didn’t get its money’s worth.

He was here to check out the new men – not the ones in shorts, but a couple in stripes as the new coordinator of men’s basketball officials for the West Coast Conference.

Equal parts notable and notorious, Libbey has mothballed his own stripes after 30 years, during which he became a lightning rod for fan outrage and indignation up and down the coast.

“Oh,” he said with a smile, “maybe occasionally.”

Yet while the paying customers railed against his theatricality and propensity for interjecting himself in game-altering ways, Libbey was being selected to work 23 NCAA Tournaments and eight Final Fours. And his fearlessness was prized by coaches desperate for an even shake in a hostile gym.

“All that controversy,” he said, “but I never got fired. I worked some big games and had a pretty good career. I have no problem with what the fans thought of me. It’s what my guys think about me now that counts.”

There must be something to that. Since taking the WCC job in May, he’s reshaped his stable of referees, adding some veterans from other Division I conferences – including the Pacific-10.

“I just walked up and asked them, because I worked with them,” he said. “I went to all the top officials in the Pac-10 who weren’t working this league and told them I wanted them to work our games, too. I’m not getting them for 18-20 games, but I’m getting them enough that you’ll see some new faces out there. I only have about nine or 10 guys now who aren’t Pac-10 officials. They want to work here.”

There is, of course, one inevitable question.

How much is Libbey the supervisor expecting his workforce to call games in the manner of Libbey the referee?

“Look,” he said, “we’re not going to have 47 Dave Libbeys running up and down the floor. That isn’t what this is about.”

But he is demanding a level of accountability that may have been missing before. He’s stressing video review and game breakdown – laptops and DVDs will be equipment as standard as a backup whistle – to build on training and education. WCC zeebs did a three-day session in conjunction with the Pac-10 under former NBA supervisor Ed Rush.

“We’re not going to get them all right, but we’re going to know why we missed them and how to get it right the next time,” he said. “We’re changing the approach – that it’s not just blow the whistle, collect a check and go have a couple of beers. There’s accountability and training and we’re going to spend more time on that.”

But, yes, he will also be disappointed if his officials don’t live up to one Libbey standard.

“One of the things we’re talking about,” he said, “is courage.

“I want them to have the courage to do what other officials can’t or won’t. If they have to make a call with two seconds to go, you make it. If you have to pass on it because it wasn’t there, you pass on it. Courage is important. Anybody can hide, be a safe official, make the obvious call. Turn on your TV and you’ll see plenty of that.”

He does not necessarily expect that to be a comfort to his portable Greek chorus.

“We have one job – to keep this game fair,” Libbey said. “I understand fans may think differently than I do, but they look at it with their hearts. We’re looking at it with our eyes.”

But if they shouldn’t react in horror to Libbey now being management instead of labor, surely they can be allowed to see a certain irony.

“Yeah, but people who make that comment really don’t know anything about me,” he said. “I had 94 feet to control and 10 guys banging each other and coaches going crazy. So maybe my personality on the court isn’t my personality off it.

“You ask anybody – I’m really a pretty funny guy.”

It’s a call that won’t go undisputed – but Dave Libbey is used to that.

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