The Art Of Screwing Up: How NCAA Refs Live With Their Mistakes

In the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament, 16th-seeded UNC-Asheville trailed top-seeded Syracuse by three points with 38.2 seconds remaining, Orange inbounding the ball. This was a big moment for the Bulldogs, and it would prove to be a big moment, too, for a man whose name and face you wouldn't even recognize. In fact, what happened next in the game would stick with Eddie Corbett for weeks. There was a reason he'd always told his daughter to stay off SportsCenter and Facebook, wasn't there?

UNC-Asheville forced an errant pass that bounced off the hands of Syracuse guard Brandon Triche and back out of bounds in front of the Bulldogs' bench. The players began to celebrate, but the ref on the baseline had his left arm extended, pointing down the court. Syracuse ball. That was Corbett.

Boos from fans filled the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. "How did they think that went off of Asheville's hand?" said TV commentator Reggie Miller. "This is unbelievable."

Syracuse went on to win, 72-65. In the aftermath of the game, that blown call became seen as the game's pivot, the injustice that derailed UNC-Asheville's upset bid. UNC-Asheville coach Ed Biedenbach hinted at it when he told reporters, "Syracuse is better than Asheville, but tonight Asheville was the better team." The director of men's basketball officiating for the NCAA—Corbett's boss—told a national TV audience, "He didn't get it right." The play was shown repeatedly on the sports networks and dissected by pundits. The next day a group named "Ed Corbett is the Worst Referee Ever" popped up on Facebook, filling up with photos of sad Bulldog players with captions such as "Are you kidding me!!!" and "So Sad =(."

"I was on SportsCenter and all of the talk shows for two straight days," said Corbett, 60, in an interview 10 months later at a diner near his home in Hastings, N.Y. He said it with a detached shrug, as if he were ordering another coffee.

Corbett is one of the best referees in college basketball. During his 35-year career, he has established himself as one of the go-to officials for big games. He has worked four title games and two semifinals. He works regular season and conference tournament games for the Big East and ACC. He was on the court for the 2013 Sweet Sixteen game between Ohio State and Arizona and a Big East semifinal. Corbett knows he made a mistake in the UNC-Asheville game. "We know when we fuck up," he said. "If I missed a call, I know."

Only 98 officials are invited to the tournament every year. After every round, half are eliminated based on performance. That number continues to be sliced until just nine officials are invited to work the Final Four. Corbett continued to work games until the regional weekend in 2012. Without his pedigree, he said, his season would have ended with that mistake. "I told [my boss], ‘I'm a big boy. I can take the heat off everybody else. I can go home,'" he said.

In January 2013, Corbett was working yet another Syracuse game, this time with the Orange visiting top-ranked Louisville in one of the regular season's biggest matchups. Corbett made another late game call, this time an out-of-bounds decision in favor of visiting Syracuse. The fans again exploded in boos. "Twenty-thousand unofficial officials," as TV commentator Mike Patrick called them. A chant of "You suck! You suck!" filled the arena, but it soon died out. Replays had shown that Corbett's decision, like the overwhelming majority of his whistles over the years, was a good call.

The truth is, Corbett was in position to blow that call last year only because he gets so many other calls right. There is an art to that. Turns out, there's an art to getting calls wrong, too.

***

The NCAA's head of officiating, John Adams, looks for three things in a ref: Most fundamentally, an official must get the calls right. Secondly, Adams wants his officials to be adequate communicators. He looks for an official who deals with coaches, players and the staff at the scoring table "politely, concisely and forcefully." Finally, Adams looks at how officials "manage major moments": a technical foul, a last-second play or an angry coach. The more attention a play gets from fans, the more attention it gets from the supervisors.

There are also observers in the stands—usually former officials—who fill out a form evaluating the performance of the game's crew. Like Adams, they rate officials on whether the right calls are made and on how they communicate with others; they have cosmetic criteria, too—demeanor and appearance. It's difficult to find a chubby official at the high levels, and perfect posture is the norm.

Of course, basketball is too subjective for any universal standards. Different observers and supervisors see the game differently. The Big East, for example, has a reputation for allowing its officials to tolerate a more physical game than other, "softer" conferences.

Even the rulebook itself allows for subjectivity. The 2012-2013 NCAA basketball rulebook contains 157 pages' worth of instructions. Some calls—like out of bounds, goaltending and shot clock violations—are the same regardless of circumstances. Others are not so clear. Section 1, Article 1 of the rulebook, for example, reads: "A player shall not hold, push, charge, trip or impede the progress of an opponent by extending arm(s), shoulder(s), hip(s) or knee(s) or by bending his or her own body into other than a normal position or by using any unreasonably rough tactics." This rule requires the officials to decide for themselves what "impeded," "progress," "normal," and "unreasonably rough" mean.

Much more goes into a call than the presence of contact on a given play. "What is a foul on Monday might not be a foul on Thursday," said veteran official Steve Turner, who has worked high school and low-level conferences in the Northeast for several decades. Officials often take into account the score, the game situation, previous calls, the athleticism of the players involved, the potential for a game getting out of hand—all of these criteria weighed and held up against one another, on the fly.

Sometimes, this requires a certain degree of situational thinking. Late in a tight January game in Hoboken, N.J. between Division III rivals Stevens Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College*, the three-man crew of Turner, Stevie Robinson, and Jorge Diaz encountered one of the most difficult plays in officiating: the "blarge." A St. John Fisher player drove to the basket and straight into the chest of a seemingly stationary defender. Diaz, in the lead position under the basket, raised his arm in the air to call a block. Turner, in the trail position near half-court, ran toward the key, lunged, and dramatically punched his arm to signal a charge. Based on their proximity to the play, Diaz's call should have won out, but Turner's theatrics made his decision more difficult to overturn. St. John Fisher coach Rob Kornaker flew into a rage. He screamed in Diaz's face: "That's bullshit. You saw that one. You blew it." He was loud enough to be heard from the stands. This was behavior that would typically draw a technical foul.

"The only defense, the only thing we have against coaches is a technical," Robinson said later. "Sometimes we have to get them to shut the hell up." Diaz did not give Kornaker a technical, but instead calmly told him that they had missed the call. Punishing Kornaker for arguing while in the right would have doubled down on the mistake of the missed call, perhaps further fraying the relationship for the future.

On his way out of the arena, Robinson rounded a corner to see the St. John Fisher team waiting for its bus. The players' conversations stopped. A tense silence lasted 30 seconds until Robinson had passed them all. "Terrible," one player muttered under his breath. Robinson stopped at the door to the parking lot, turned, and yelled down the hallway, "You'd better watch your mouth, son." Once outside, he said, "We remember that stuff for next time."

Or take a call made by Dennis Allocco in a December 2012 game between LIU and Hofstra. After trailing favored Hofstra by double digits for most of the game, LIU began a furious comeback that found the Blackbirds down by two points with the ball out of bounds under Hofstra's basket and 1:07 remaining. LIU ran a back-screen lob play for forward Julian Boyd, who rose high to catch the ball in the air with one hand and slammed it through the hoop. Allocco blew his whistle when a helpless Hofstra defender grabbed Boyd around the waist on his way to the basket. The whistle made it a perfect highlight—exclamation point on an already-spectacular play. Boyd's dunk was the No. 2 highlight on SportsCenter's top 10 plays that night. No one in the building had an issue with the call. Certainly not the LIU players. Not even the Hofstra coach. The only person in the room who regretted the whistle was Allocco himself.

In a later interview, Allocco said he received an email from his supervisor Tom Lopes that evening. Lopes asked whether the foul was necessary. Yes, the defender had committed a foul by bumping an offensive player with a straight-line path to the basket, as per Rule 10, Section 10 of the NCAA rulebook. Lopes's argument was that the contact did not have an effect on the outcome of the play. Boyd's dunk would have been the same whether or not there was contact. Therefore, Lopes believed, there should not have been a foul called. "It probably didn't need a whistle. I should have left the game tied," said Allocco. Calling the foul gave LIU a free throw for the lead and changed the complexion of the remaining minute of play. "That subtle impact changed the game."

Allocco is keenly attuned to the subtleties of a game. In January, I watched a game alongside veteran observer Jerry Salvato from the unfilled stands of Baldwin Gym in Madison, N.J., where Drew University was hosting Moravian College. Drew was ahead by a healthy margin as the clock ticked down to under a minute. Moravian's coach sent four guys from the back of his bench to the scorer's table to enter the game. Drew had the ball and was chewing clock. Without a stoppage, those players wouldn't have had a chance for some elusive playing time. With the clock at 40 seconds, Allocco blew his whistle and said, "My timeout," and bent to tie his shoe, even though his shoe was not untied. Salvato laughed. Allocco, untying and retying his shoelace, was pulling what Salvato identified as "the old shoelace trick." With the clock stopped, Moravian's benchwarmers could now enter the game. "No one else will notice," Salvato said, "but the coach will see it and appreciate it." In the locker room after the game, Allocco said: "Those kids work hard in practice. They deserve to get into the game."

***

Officials are remembered by fans only for the calls that they miss; the mistakes stick with the refs as well. Each official has a call in his or her past that lingers. For Allocco, it's starting the clock late on a last-second play, which allowed just enough time for a game-winning half court heave that never should have counted. Robinson once lost track of the foul count and denied a team free throws it had earned. Denise Brooks remembers looking at the replay monitor to judge if a fouled shooter was shooting a two- or three-point shot, only to see that there had been no contact on the play.

"I definitely lost sleep," she said. "It would be not human to not care."

For Eddie Corbett, it all goes back to UNC-Asheville and Syracuse. "I struggled with that one for a long time," he said. "It stuck with me for a good month." In the minds of the public, Corbett's missed out-of-bounds play was the sole reason that there wasn't an historic upset that night. Never mind that Asheville missed 14 three-point attempts or committed 22 turnovers. Never mind that the proper call on the play would have been to assess Asheville a foul and give Syracuse free throws. Publicly, Corbett was the reason for the Bulldog's loss. "We make mistakes. Coaches and players make errors," said Corbett. "They get the benefit of the doubt."

Corbett was not particularly concerned about being criticized himself. He'd grown used to it over the years. His main concern was the people close to him, specifically his 34-year-old daughter. "I told her to say off of SportsCenter, stay off of Facebook. They're going to be beating me up," he said. Corbett had to do lot of explaining to her when she was a child. "She doesn't understand," he said. Why are they booing Dad? she would wonder.

The Art Of Screwing Up: How NCAA Refs Live With Their Mistakes

Corbett got into officiating in 1978, beginning with youth games for fifth- and sixth-graders. His wife wasn't working, and he wanted to supplement his bartending income. "It all absolutely had to do with making a few dollars," he said. There were some guys in his neighborhood who did youth games and suggested that he pick it up. He knew the game pretty well, after all, having played in high school and in rec leagues afterward. As he started working the games, he found he enjoyed it and had an aptitude for it. "Before you know it, it became a hobby. Then it became an even bigger hobby. Then all of the sudden it became tremendously big business for me."

He has had 35 years to adjust to the world's perception of his night job. "No one remembers who officiates 90 percent of games," said Corbett, who, when he's not officiating, works as a utility maintenance worker for Con Edison. "There are going to be 10 percent that are impossible to ref. Those are the ones people remember." Mistakes, he said, are a key part of the game. The way to become a great official is to own your mistakes and learn from them. "You need to make mistakes in games that don't really matter," he said.

The criticism may not bother him anymore, but that doesn't mean he is deaf to it. Corbett admits that he hates ESPN commentator Andy Katz for the way he scrutinizes officials. Of Dan Dakich, the sportscaster and former coach, Corbett said, "He and I will have a conversation before my career is over." Corbett believes Dakich is overly critical of him because of a "hangover" from an incident in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament. Dakich, the head coach of Indiana at the time, picked up a dead ball early in the game and shot a jumper from the sidelines. Corbett, unamused, gave him a technical, an embarrassing scene that Dakich would have to answer for in the postgame press conference. His relationships with coaches and media figures aren't entirely adversarial. Corbett has great affinity for ESPN commentator Bob Knight, who was not known for bestowing kindnesses on the officiating crew as a coach. He said Knight is much more sympathetic as television personality because he understands how things work in the heat of a game. Corbett also praised Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon for a halftime TV interview in which he responded to a leading question about a missed call, "We're not worried about that."

To Corbett, the critics are more annoying than hurtful. He doesn't watch basketball on TV. The only sports he does watch regularly are golf and soccer. When he does catch the occasional game, it's always with the sound on mute. "Nobody lets the game breathe anymore," he said. "Everybody has to say something at every point of the game." He rarely discusses the job with strangers. He's tired of having the same conversations. "Everybody wants to know, which coach is the biggest jerk," he said. "I never tell people what I do," he said. "My wife knows, too. She doesn't tell people, either."

Corbett calls a basketball game with the same low tolerance for theatrics. "You have to be able to go out there and put your arm around a guy and talk to him," he said. "You also have to be able to tell them to shut the fuck up." In a December interview, he shared an anecdote from the previous night's game, a closely contested matchup between Iona and Manhattan College. The players had been jabbering back and forth for most of the second half. Corbett put an end to it during a timeout. "I told them, 'The next guy to open his fucking mouth gets a technical,'" he told me. Corbett was also eagerly anticipating a trip to the University of Connecticut. During his last visit, a couple in the stands had heckled him the entire game. He smiled at the thought of kicking them out of the building. "They won't make it to the first TV timeout," he said. Upon his next visit to Storrs, he was genuinely sad to find they weren't in the stands

After three decades, Corbett still gets a thrill when he's on the court, but the work that it takes to get there has worn him down. He plans to scale back the number of assignments next year and retire after the 2015-2016 season. The biggest struggle for Corbett is the travel, the mid-winter trips to Wisconsin or Nebraska or Syracuse, where the weather invariably plays havoc with a travel itinerary. "If I could do a game every night at Madison Square Garden, I'd do it until I'm 70," he said. There was a period in his career when Corbett would regularly do more than 100 games in a year. He worked 86 in the 2012-2013 season. On a Monday morning in January, he recounted his travel schedule for the previous few days. "From Tuesday to Sunday, I had nine flights. I worked four games. That's over 20 hours of flights for eight hours of actual work," he said. "The day I stop refereeing, I'll be the happiest guy in America. I'll never have to get on another plane or drive home in a snowstorm." Even if Corbett retires as planned, it seems there will be an Eddie Corbett officiating games for the foreseeable future. Corbett's son, who goes by the same name, was working his way through Division II conferences during the 2012-2013 season.

The elder Corbett will retire from both officiating and his day job a with a comfortable nest egg. "The game has been very good to me," he said. "It's become big business. I've made several million dollars refereeing basketball." The income from basketball allowed him to pay for private school, college, and the weddings of both of his children without debt.

Though his knees and back ache, Corbett still gets up and down the court like a young man. The area around his eyes may have sprouted wrinkles, but his vision is still as sharp as ever. During a January game between Seton Hall and the University of South Florida, he didn't hesitate to stick his head within a few inches of the flailing elbows of two large players who were on the ground fighting for the ball. He squatted next to the them, his eyes narrowing in concentration. The ball came loose and a Seton Hall player took it and dribbled to the other end of the court. Corbett's whistle stayed silent, and he settled into position as the trail official in the front court.

On Feb. 9, Louisville and Notre Dame slugged it out in South Bend, Ind., through five overtimes. Five overtimes means six last-minute situations. Six different chances to make a game-altering mistake. It was no small victory for Corbett and his colleagues that they weren't featured negatively in the highlights or mentioned in recaps of the game. "It's exciting," he said. "Especially four or five overtimes, you know it's going to be talked about nationally. I probably had 20 text messages [from other officials] busting my balls when I got back to the locker room." Any official who works a game that gets national attention can expect a healthy combination of congratulations and playful chiding from his colleagues. At the same time, working a long, tense game like that is grueling. "Two hours to do anything at that level of concentration is enough. When you do that many overtimes, you're basically doing another period," he said. "The next day, I turned my phone off for the day," he said. "I was so tired."

In its Feb. 18 issue, Sports Illustrated ran a large photo of Notre Dame fans storming the court at the conclusion of the game's fifth and final overtime. The picture shows a busy mess of hundreds of elated fans in blue and green as they swallow up the Irish players. In the bottom right corner, out of focus and cut off at the waist, is a man running off the court. You see him only out of the corner of your eye, a barely noticeable figure in black and white. Just the way Eddie Corbett likes it.

Mike Bebernes is a writer based in New York. Originally from Southern California, he is currently studying journalism at Columbia University.