Sports Officials………RC

Aw, the job of officiating a ball game! The word thankless won’t even touch this occupation. Other than a politician, this may be the most criticized position in the world. Some of it is deserved and some is not………………………

I paid a big part of my way through college officiating all types of games. Upon my arrival at West Texas State in Canyon I headed for the intramural office looking for work. Like so many other high school kids, I had hoped to be offered a scholarship to play football but there just wasn’t any demand for 180 pound linemen who could run a 6.4 forty yard dash. I knew that I wanted to be involved in sports and I thought officiating would be a golden opportunity…………………

Back in the day when I went to school we as players were never and I mean never allowed to ever say anything but yes sir and no sir to any official of any kind. And that was the way that it was in most high schools in Texas and probably the entire country. Because of that, I thought that refereeing would be fun and simple and I could get paid for doing something that I loved. Wrong!……………………

Working in the intramural office served me well while in the coaching business because I learned to make schedules, handle budgets, and referee games. If you want a tough assignment just try officiating a game that is being played by your peers. And much of the time those guys were older than me…………..

On the campuses at West Texas State, as I’m once again sure was the case around the country, the social fraternities were just manic about being crowned the university champions according to how they finished in all intramural sports.

So when they played any type of game there was plenty of complaining about the officials. The only protection that the student officials had was the intramural director. Fortunately for me our director of intramurals was a man named Dr. Sturdy Wanamaker who also was the director of basketball officials for the Missouri Valley Conference. Even though small in stature, he was tough and protected those of us who chose to make that hard earned dollar calling college intramurals………………………….

Dr. Wanamaker taught an officiating class and most of the student refs on campus took his class. He is the one who taught me that fundamentals of refereeing is so much more important than knowing the rules. Knowing the rules is vital as we all know but any ref worth their salt only has questions about a rule once or twice in a game. However being fundamentally sound and constantly moving to be in position to make the correct call happens on every play and will keep officials out of trouble for bad calls…………………

I traveled all over the panhandle calling ball games, mostly basketball for all the 5A schools such as Pampa, Borger, and all the Amarillo schools. We would from time to time drop down into the lower classifications but we got some really big games. I learned so much from Dr.Wanamaker and on the drive home we would critique our performance. It was fun and educational for me………………………..

After I graduated from college, Dr. Wanamaker was determined that I would go on to graduate school. He had played basketball for Stephen F. Austin where he earned his Bachelor’s degree, and then got his Master’s at Sam Houston State. He earned his Doctorate from A&M. He tried to get me to enroll at any of the three but I wanted to stay near home so he got me in at Texas Tech on an internship program.

I was going to get paid for teaching a P.E. class and going to school. What a deal! He had decided that since I would be in nearby Lubbock that he would continue making sure that I could officiate the big games in the Lubbock area. He assured me that within two years that he would have me working at the collegiate level. I was excited. But then with a military draft number of 25 Uncle Sam came calling and I passed my physical to enter the U.S. Army. So I had to give up my internship and thus never had the opportunity to continue officiating because after the draft was postponed, I began a career in coaching……………………

Believe it or not having been an official at the highest level of high school sports was almost a curse instead of a blessing for me. I had been taught how to referee a game and taught properly. I knew the fundamentals forwards and backwards. The reason that it was a curse for me is because as a coach, I had no patience for officials who had no clue about fundamentals and for lazy people who wore striped shirt just for the paycheck. I was never flagged in a football game but have been teed up many times in basketball games. And most of the time I was right but every one of those times, the ref had the whistle. So I lost and eventually learned to keep my mouth shut as much as possible………

I loved calling basketball games much more than football even though football was my coaching love. But in basketball, everything happens quickly and usually one violation at a time. In football there can be as many infractions as there are officials on any play. Then the referee has to sort out which infractions to enforce and which one has priority over the other. It can be very complicated at times. Still both sports were fun to work…………………

I never called much baseball but did some. Officiating is like coaching: if you are going to referee a certain sport then you need to study and become a student of the game. I could never do that with baseball even though I love that game too. But I just couldn’t make myself learn the rules as thoroughly as was needed to be effective. So when I did work baseball, I never felt that I had done the game or the players justice. So I didn’t pursue that game……………………..

These days even after being long retired from coaching, when I go to a game, especially basketball, I find myself paying as much or more attention to the officiating than the game itself. I still get really upset at poor officiating. I just want to walk out on the court between quarters and show those guys what they are doing wrong. And about 99% of the time it is not a lack of knowledge about the rules, but a lack of officiating fundamentals…………………………….

The pay for officials has become much better and so it is getting a little easier to recruit them. But I will forever argue that if anyone chooses to do this more for the money than the satisfaction of a job well done, they will never be an adequate ref. Of course that same philosophy probably applies to any job that we do in life. The really great and dedicated officials deserve great paychecks. And it is so obvious which ones they are. I truly admire their work and when they work a game I find myself as caught up in their action as much as the players………………………..

The Abilene area has had some legendary officials in the past. Of course one of the most notable was the colorful Curly Hays and his pal Shorty Lawson. Those guys worked some of the biggest college games, such as the Cotton Bowl, and many others in the old Southwest Conference. It was fun to watch them work. In 1981 I was coaching at Class A Aspermont and we were playing Motley County in a quarterfinals game at Spur. When I received my official’s card it had Curly Hays’ name listed.

I thought it was a misprint and called the chapter. They said that there was no error, that Curly liked to get out into the small towns from time to time and work their games. He was more than impressive on the field……………

In closing, I will say that I believe that more than 90% of the people who officiate games for a living do it because of their love of sports and because they love kids. It gives them the satisfaction of being able to be part of a game that they once played themselves. They get to keep in touch and they stay conditioned both mentally and physically. Let me encourage those who long for their playing days to consider becoming an official. Just remember, to become a student of the game, learn the rules, and by all means learn the fundamentals……………….

Just a side note: In my second year of coaching I was an assistant on the bench in a basketball game with a man named Jerald McCanlies whom I considered my mentor. We were coaching at Aspermont and was playing Abilene Wylie in a district game. Remember this was 1973 when Aspermont and Wylie was the same size.

During the game we felt like we were getting the raw end of a badly officiated game. Coach McCanlies called one of the officials over to the bench and asked the official if he would get a technical for what he was thinking. The official said, “I don’t think so”. So Coach McCanlies said, “I think you are the worst official that I have ever seen”. Needless to say that was followed with a technical. It was so funny. So much for the life of an official…………RC

About Ronnie Clifton

Ronnie Clifton was a Texas Football Coach for 29 years. In addition to football, Clifton also served as the head coach in basketball and both girls and boys track. “I loved being involved in and playing sports as a kid, and I soaked up every ounce of available information about any sporting event; I also love to write. What better combo for me than becoming the writer of a sports blog?”
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