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The Madness of Tim Higgins Isn’t Really Higgins’ Fault

Posted on February 11, 2011

Last night, NCAA Referee Tim Higgins blew his whistle and his call. Television replays showed Alabama's JaMychal Green did not touch the baseline, yet Higgins called Green out-of-bounds. Even though the game was a low-interest conference game in the currently unsexy SEC (broadcast on ESPN2), Twitter exploded with outrage over the call: "Tim Higgins" actually trended nationwide. (Not that making something a trending topic at 11PM EST is very difficult.)

The Twitter hive-mind works quickly: @ULismyhothot quickly pointed out that the Vanderbilt/Alabama game was Tim Higgins' fifth game in seven days. (Statsheet.com's referee reference confirms Higgin's schedule.) But that shouldn't be an issue, according to Tim Higgins himself in this February 17th, 2010 feature with ESPN's Dana O'Neil:

Higgins has one word for the notion that officials' performance slips because they're overworked -- hooey.

Usually, he says, when an official is working a string of games, he's working from one central location. Higgins, for example, once parked himself at a hotel and did games at Xavier, Cincinnati, Dayton and Louisville -- all short rides from one another. (The schedule, however, doesn't always work that way. Clougherty, who worked Xavier at Florida on Saturday night, flew to the 1 p.m. Louisville-Syracuse game from Florida on Sunday morning).

Typically Higgins will fly in on the morning of a game, grab breakfast, lunch and a nap.

"You go into any concierge lounge after 9 a.m. and all you'll find are officials -- hockey officials, NBA guys, college guys," he says. "The rest of the world has gone to work. We're sitting around until 7 or 9 o'clock at night. It's not that hard. You have to concentrate for what, two hours?"

Yeah, it's not that hard, is it?

(This TwitPic was provided by the always smarmy @ClayTravisBGID.)

You can get righteously indignant about Higgins' and his call. But that doesn't address the real problem: College referees are independent contractors that are hired by the conferences and kinda-sorta regulated by the NCAA. Again from O'Neil's feature story:

It always has been more an avocation than a vocation.

Each official is an independent contractor, hired by various leagues to work games. Top-tier officials are well-compensated -- based on ability, they're paid anywhere from $700 to $1000 per game, plus travel and expenses. But for Higgins and many others, college officiating isn't a full-time gig.

Higgins' real job is vice president of sales for Kamco Supply Co., a Brooklyn-based building materials company. ...

According to this 2009 John Feinstein article, the mid-major conferences try to schedule important games on Tuesdays and Thursdays to draw in top-tier officials who have the night off. According to this 2009 USA Today article, refs must work a minimum of 25 games prior to the start of conference tournaments before they are considered to work the NCAA Tournament. And the NCAA really can't tell a conference how to hire/fire officials, but the NCAA does have a really nifty website that the refs can visit... when they're not travelling thousands of miles a day to get to the next game.

If there are so many officials who are trying to make refereeing a full-time career -- as asserted by John W. Adams, the NCAA's coordinator of men's basketball officiating -- then why not make them full-time NCAA employees proper? Because the conferences don't want to lose control of the officials; the conferences in particular don't want to be funding referee training & upkeep. The refs won't want to make more changes because they can make more money than NBA refs as independent contractors. (Which explains why NBA refs have been making a little money on the side.)

As long as the NCAA will let him, Tim Higgins will whistle. There's nothing particularly wrong with that except that refereeing should be the ONLY thing Higgins is doing. Regulations on how many games a ref could work in a week -- along with a consistent, fair 12-month salary -- might prevent teams like Alabama from getting unfairly treated. Would Higgins have made that bad call if he was required to spend the night in Nashville the day before the game? I don't know, but here's what he told Dana O'Neil:

"I gotta tell you, there is no better feeling in the world than to work your game, get in the car and drive, have dinner, get back to the hotel room, turn on the TV and see the guys at 'GameDay' just throwing the ball up," Higgins says. "Give me a noon game any day. I'm the best noon official you'll find."

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