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Working while they whistle

For college basketball coaches, the game within the game is schmoozing the officials.

Published March 14, 2004

The blowout was in full bloom, and there wasn't much coach Billy Donovan could do about it. Trailing by 20 points at home to Mississippi State, his Gators were going to lose.

Might as well schmooze.

Official John Clougherty just happened to linger near the Florida bench when Donovan, always looking for a competitive edge, took a stab at turning one night's misery into another night's possibility. He told Clougherty, "After the way we played tonight, they ought to pay you double - once for having to ref and once for having to watch."

Rim shot!

"I make them laugh all the time," Donovan said.

Hey, you never know.

With college basketball season in the throes of March Madness - the NCAA Tournament field will be announced today - coaches across the country are packing their clipboards, school-color neckties and antacid tablets for the Big Dance. But to play the game within the game they'll need a full repertoire of quips, icy stares and, um, choice words. Basketball is sport, but working those officials is an art.

"Officials would never admit to being affected by coaches, by crowds, by the conditions of a game, but we know that what makes sports so great is there is a human element," said ESPN analyst Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach.

"It's not a precise science. That's why we play the games, because the outcome is in doubt. Officials are one variable that factors into the outcome. Coaches try to utilize charisma, intimidation, fear (and) humor to get a desired outcome."

Yes, coaches, those sideline-stalking control freaks, try anything and everything to sway the guys in stripes. They charm and chide, berate and befriend. They plead. They cajole. They question. They throw fits and hurl insults.

Sometimes - yes, it's true - they even curse.

"It's not malicious," said Barry Mano, a former NCAA Division I basketball official and founder of the National Association for Sports Officials.

"It's coaches feeling perhaps they can persuade or influence. I think the reality of the situation is that it doesn't occur. I haven't known a ref in all the time I've been in this business, which has been three decades, where coaches really modify the official's behavior. Unless a coach goes a little nuts and we end up reacting versus responding."

A little nuts, eh?

It seems a coach's manner in dealing with officials is often an extension of his personality. North Carolina's Roy Williams, similar to his mentor Dean Smith, is fairly staid, choosing his spots wisely. Stanford's Mike Montgomery micromanages to the point he could easily be a fourth official. Purdue's Gene Keady, who years ago taught a junior college class in officiating, catches referees off guard by challenging their positioning. Texas Tech's Bobby Knight, well, think Tony Soprano in a sweater.

"There are more insidious things going on than just people screaming at us," Mano said. "The screamers are easy to take care of. It's when they're chipping away at you, or every time there's a timeout they seem to sidle up next to you and lodge a complaint. They're never coming by to say, "Great call, Barry. You're doing a really good job tonight, Barry.' And if they do that, what do we think? "Oh, this guy's working me.' "

As for Donovan, in his 10th season as a head coach, the 38-year-old has gone from raving sideline lunatic to crafty conversationalist. As a first-year coach at Marshall in 1994, Donovan said he led the Southern Conference in technical fouls. Now, with his act toned down, the hardest part is remembering to put his hands in his pockets.

"Most of the officials, they don't want you talking with your hands," said Donovan, who likely uses his hands to order a plate of eggplant parm. "They'll say, "Billy, put your hands down right now and just talk.' It looks from a visual standpoint that I'm screaming and yelling. They don't want the theatrics. They want it to look like it's a civil conversation.

"They're human beings. If you're aggressive, hollering, yelling, screaming, they'll say, "I'm not going to talk to you if you're going to be like that.' "

Of course, it's not polite for coaches to say they "work" officials. Few, in fact, will admit to such blatant behavior. Rather, they call for an open dialogue with officials during the course of a game.

That's what they call it - dialogue.

"I don't think you work an official," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Somebody who hasn't coached or played the game came up with that expression. Good officials just want to make sure they have a good atmosphere for the game, and you don't have it unless you have some communication with the players and the coaches."

Never mind that Lavin, in his first season with ESPN, calls Krzyzewski a "master" when it comes to working officials. Not only is Krzyzewski successful, intelligent, articulate and a three-time national champion - c'mon, who's going to T him up? - but the venerable Coach K possesses a laser-like stare.

"He uses the ol' stare-down pretty effectively, even from long distance," Lavin said. "Some of those officials try to hide, but it's like radar. He's looking right through the guy."

For officials, managing the game and its participants is as much as part of their job as calling it. Recognizing an over-the-back foul is easy compared to calming an irate coach. Ability to control a volatile situation is so crucial, NASO publishes a 32-page booklet titled When They're in Your Face and how to deal with it.

The booklet offers suggestions for handling verbal challenges, resolving conflicts, managing conversations and developing thick skin. For instance, there is a difference between telling an upset coach, "I know exactly how you feel," and saying, "I understand everything you just said to me, but in this game, this is what we're going to do."

Training is on-the-job.

"In these basketball games, there are little kindling fires all over the place," said Mano, the NASO president who lectures throughout the country.

"We do have the ability to go over and pour gasoline on something and make it a lot worse, but that's not our job. Our job is to go over there and size things down, make things better. That's a challenge, but that's also part of the fun of it, to be able, when things are very hyped up, to be calm amidst all that chaos."

A rare few make their living as officials - Mano estimates someone working 80 games a year in as many as six conferences can earn roughly $80-100,000 - but most have full-time jobs in addition to their officiating work. The best officials, Mano said, are responsible for preserving the integrity of the game.

NCAA refs work in crews of three and are mixed and matched so that no three work together regularly. Often, veteran officials are assigned with inexperienced ones. Rookies, or what Mano calls "young punk referees," are easy targets for veteran coaches. As much as coaches scout opponents, they also scout officials.

"Coaches are pretty smart, and they know, just like parents and kids, how far they can push," Mano said. "We have to have the courage to take care of it. And as coaches become more and more media stars, there's additional pressure there. We're not looking for wimps in this business."

This season, men's college basketball is testing something the NBA and WNBA do effectively. When an official calls a foul, that person takes the position closest to the team benches when play resumes, known as the trail position, to encourage communication.

So far, it seems to be working.

"For years there was a general philosophy that after you report a foul you want to get away from the coaches," said Bill Topp, editor of Referee magazine and a men's basketball official at the small-college level. "What that set up over the years is when a coach has a complaint, the coach is having to yell it across the floor and be even more demonstrative and loud. Now, there is an opportunity for dialogue."

Of course, any official worth his whistle is wise to the ways of manipulation. So, for all the energy coaches put into working officials, what's the payoff? How much is one self-deprecating comment worth? A traveling violation? A charging foul, maybe?

"Do you get calls? Do certain guys get calls?" Donovan said. "I think the officials try to officiate the game as fairly as they possibly can. But I also think they're human beings. If they feel they did a poor job, they try to give you an honest and fair shake."

Schmooze or lose.

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