Benner/Sports and NCAA and Sports Business

Meet the guy who can call a foul on the referee

March 9, 2009
John Adams was speaking by cell phone from northern Indiana somewhere along U.S. 31 en route to witness a University of Notre Dame/ Villanova University contest in South Bend that will be his 55th game of the season. It's a number that will reach 75 by the time the nets are cut down and One Shining Moment is played in salute at conclusion of the NCAA's Division I men's basketball tournament next month.

"I'm really having fun," Adams said with a laugh. "I get really good seats, and I got to spend 10 minutes with [ESPN's] Erin Andrews."

Ah, the perks that go with serving as the NCAA's national coordinator of men's basketball officiating.

But don't get the wrong idea, because the gig comes with serious responsibility, starting with Selection Sunday March 15 when, as the 65 tournament teams are announced, Adams will be charged with assisting the Division I men's basketball committee with choosing and assigning the best 94 officials in the country to work the games.

And that's when the scrutiny of every official — and every call — steps up.

"I'm looking forward to the tournament to see how some of our rookie officials do and if the veterans have bought into the direction we're trying to establish," Adams said. "But I don't want it to look like the officiating has changed for the tournament from the regular season. I want it to be seamless."

Adams, a former Indiana high school and college official himself, was promoted into the NCAA's hot seat upon the retirement of longtime NCAA officiating coordinator Hank Nichols last year.

While his powers are somewhat limited — he can't grab the whistle and make the calls — Adams can use his bully pulpit to lobby for the kind of game he'd like to see and establish what he refers to as "absolutes" that he wants to see from the Mountain West to the Ivy League.

For example, this year, if a defender places two hands on the dribbler, it's supposed to be an automatic foul. Same goes for any time a dribbler is tripped.

But overall, Adams is in pursuit of a college game that features more "freedom of movement."

"We need to free it up and get some juice back in the game," he said. "We need more balance between the offense and the defense. We need to reduce the rough play in the post, the illegal screens and the way cutters are checked [bumped]. Teams can't run an offense."

Adams communicates preferences and concerns almost daily with conference officiating coordinators. He also oversees four regional coordinators who themselves scrutinize officials.

"We're trying to communicate our expectations on a constant basis across the country," Adams said.

An example he cited was the recent rash of incidents involving high-flying elbows.

"We had five or six high-profile incidents," he said. "We ramped it up and got the referees on board."

Adams also has been emphasizing "fitness and mobility" among officials.

"We're looking for referees who more closely mirror the athleticism of the players," he said. "We created [with the help of Ralph Reiff at St. Vincent Sports Performance Center] a 15-minute video that addressed fitness, nutrition and stretching. These guys need to run with athletes who are 20 to 30 years younger. We've got some guys who delude themselves into thinking they can get in shape by jogging up and down the court for a couple of hours."

On another front, however, Adams would like to see some of the "name" officials work less.

"I don't see how you can be at your mental and physical best when you're working 10 nights in a row," he said. "We have some guys who referee 100 games a season. It's a free market and [the NCAA] can't regulate it, but there needs to be better checks and balances."

As the tournament progresses, Adams and his team will evaluate every call, and non-call. Last year, the average grade was "south of 75 percent," Adams said. This year, he'd like to see it improve to 82 percent to 85 percent.

Of course, the goal is the impossible: 100 percent.

Unless you're like most of us sideline officials in the country, who never have missed a call.
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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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