Spent some time on the phone this week with Bill McCabe, the Pac-12 coordinator of men’s basketball officiating since 2006. He’s leaving the job effective June 30.
Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, has undertaken a major shakeup in the football-officiating program, and we won’t make any assumptions about basketball, other than to note that while the Pac-12 announced this as McCabe’s “retirement,” he is continuing in the same role for the Big West.
“He did a terrific job,” NCAA national coordinator of officiating John W. Adams told me. “He really moved Pac-12 officiating up with its peer conferences in the country.”
McCabe forwarded an upbeat e-mail he sent to his charges – the 51 officials who do Pac-12 games – and cited advancements in the officiating program, among them improved and quicker methods for game review, a website for clarification and counsel on borderline calls, and a merit-pay system that he describes in that e-mail as “far more successful than imagined!”
Over the years, I’ve seen an interesting progression of Pac-8/10/12 officials’ coordinators, who have a difficult job, perhaps as difficult as the officials themselves. They have to shepherd a program for training, maintenance and improvement of their officials, while balancing that with the demands – sometimes unrealistic ones – of coaches. Tough position.
Years ago, back to the 1970s and ’80s, there was kindly Frank McIntyre, who, if you could pick your grandfather, would be that guy. Later came Booker Turner, the former official, who was seen by some as so unyielding and dictatorial that he couldn’t be questioned. Later still was a 180-degree turn in background to Lou Campanelli, the former California coach.
Then came McCabe, who told me he really wanted to be football coordinator of officials, but was talked into the basketball job by Scott’s predecessor, Tom Hansen.
“Lute Olson (ex-Arizona coach) said to me, ‘What can we do to improve officiating?’ I said, ‘Put a DVD in their (officials’) hands 30 minutes after the game,’ ” McCabe recalls.
McCabe worked to do just that and now, Adams says the Pac-12 is “really technologically advanced compared to some other leagues.”
Now, through the technology of flash drives, memory sticks and video feeds at the games, officials can have a DVD in hand when they leave a locker room and can assess their performance against that of a “game-grader.” (In the past, the availability of video might have been as random as an official setting his own DVR at home.)
With innovations like that, McCabe says, “Now we have some of the best-trained officials in the West. List the top 25 officials in the West, and those are the top 25 in the Pac-12. The overall training was non-existent before I took the job.”
Says Adams, “I really was impressed with the job (McCabe) and his director of training, Ed Rush (former NBA director of officials), did in developing depth in their staff. I just finished my fourth year (as national coordinator). My recollection is that in 2008-09, the best officials in the Pac-10 were as good as any in the country; I just didn’t think they had the depth. They’ve really worked hard to develop the next generation of officials.”
The merit-pay system is an intriguing beast. Among its backers were Ben Howland, the UCLA coach, and former Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love. There were two schools of thought: On one side, why shouldn’t the best officials be paid more than their peers per game? On the other: If they’re doing the same work – and they are – why shouldn’t they be paid the same?
McCabe implemented what he calls a fixed-fee tier system. Officials fell into one of three tiers based on a rating: One-third was McCabe’s rating, one-third the game-grading system addressed above, and one-third a rating by the coaches. (If the official worked a high-level NCAA-tournament game, say in the Final Four, that would put him in the top tier.)
Now, the top 12 of McCabe’s 51 officials get $2,700 a game (including expenses). The next 15 receive $2,200. And the rest get $1,600. Officials pay for their expenses.
“As soon as I did it,” McCabe says, “they did it everywhere in the country.”
(Random thought: Even if you build in the cost of travel, hotels, food, etc., that’s a good chunk of change, even in a notoriously tough occupation. Most officials work more than one league – some work four or five games in a busy week — and they get their schedules early enough to map out minimum pricing. So if you’re making $1,600 a night, you’re very likely netting above $1,000 a game after figuring in expenses.
(That pay has risen pretty substantially. I recall doing a story – I want to say it was in like 1995 – which cited top college officials’ pay as being in the $600-700 range per game, not including expenses. Even with apples-to-oranges adjustment for expenses not being included back then, that’s a nice upgrade in pay.)
McCabe gave an unusual tip of the cap to USC’s Kevin O’Neill, the candid USC coach, whom he says is as respected by officials as he is liked (generally, at least) by media members.
“If you took a vote of the officials, all 51 of them would vote for him as their favorite coach,” McCabe said. “They love him. They think he’s fair. He doesn’t continue to harbor it (when there’s a questionable call). He doesn’t get technicals. They just think he’s the fairest.”
McCabe is certain officiating has improved in the Pac-12. Others might disagree; that’s the nature of it. I see improvement, although I still see a tendency in this league to over-officiate – to call too much, to blow the whistle on the borderline call, to weigh in against physical play. And that often goes against the grain of what we see in the NCAA tournament.
But I will say this: For some reason, I don’t think officials are as identifiable as they used to be. Back in the day, everybody in the crowd knew who Charlie Range was, or Booker Turner, or Louie Soriano. They were almost rock stars in their own stripe-shirted way.
Now they seem more anonymous. Maybe there are simply more of them and they’re thus spread thinner. Or maybe it’s just a personal observation, based on who-knows-what. But I’m guessing Bill McCabe thinks it’s just fine that way.