MORGANTOWN — Bob Huggins’ relationship with college basketball officials has and has not changed this season.
No. 10 West Virginia’s coach earned four technical fouls in the first 30 games of the season. That’s not a big number. It’s just a number. Trivia, at best.
One time, an official asked Huggins if he wanted a technical foul, which was thoughtful. “Like I’ve never had one,” Huggins replied before getting one more.
Another time, Huggins fell after losing his balance and losing battles to gravity and a weak hip he says needs to be replaced. He was objecting to a charge called against one of his players when he hit the deck. He said it was an accident. The official didn’t believe him.
Huggins was deeply disappointed with the officiating in his team’s loss at Kansas, and it was so difficult to understand and accept that he took solace in believing it can’t possibly happen again — but if it does, he’s basically vowed to get himself thrown out of the game.
Certainly, he’s as invested in what happens between the whistles as he is in what causes the whistles.
“Sometimes I think we’re trying to put too many absolutes in a game that really doesn’t really have absolutes,” he said after one Big 12 game, wondering why play is so often interrupted to penalize slight and meaningless actions that themselves don’t interrupt play.
On another occasion, though, he was curious why that day’s game wasn’t stopped more.
“I’ve got to figure out how to get our guys to drive it and get fouled,” Huggins said. “Everyone else has figured out how to do it against us.”
This is all familiar if not funny stuff, characteristic of his 35 seasons on the sideline. But this is also where Huggins steers that pickup truck with no rear-view mirror into a new lane. Always willing to counsel and critique on the spot, Huggins has another idea to help officials. Count him among the many who want to see the NCAA take control of officiating. It would benefit him and his sport, but Huggins said it’d be good for officials, too.
“I think it would be a great move on the NCAA’s part to bring them in house,” Huggins said. “And I think it’d be good for them. Then they could have insurance, they could have retirement, the whole deal. I think that’s great — and then they’re working for the NCAA.”
Officials work for officials. They’re independent contractors. There are freedoms and benefits involved, and it won’t be easy to talk them out of the present arrangement.
“They do it, obviously, to make a living,” Huggins said. “I wouldn’t begrudge anybody for making a living. We’ve got too many people in this country who don’t want to work.”
Insurance, retirement plans and other perks of traditional employment are lures, but many officials have traditional jobs and perks. They officiate for their bank accounts, their airline miles, their hotel points and their rental car rewards, and they do it as many times as they want.
Whether officials would change isn’t the question. It’s one that would have to be answered, but it’s better to wonder if it would work.
Taking on an army of officials and covering everything for those employees, from benefits to salary to travel expenses, will cost the NCAA a fortune. Add infrastructure that has to exist, like education and evaluation programs, because what’s the purpose of taking control if the NCAA can’t exercise any control?
“Let’s be honest. They just signed a multi-billion dollar contract,” Huggins said. “They can afford it.”
From there, the NCAA would be in charge of the two things that matter most: the activity and accountability of officials.
The NCAA would handle scheduling. The nation could be divided into four or six regions, and officials would be assigned to one area and limited to a set number of games in a week, month or season. No more of one official working 87 games in 30 states in the first 109 days of the season.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’d be fresher,” Huggins said. “It’s just so much better for them. They’re not flying across the country. Everybody knows how tough air travel is today. You wouldn’t have to fly out and do a Pac-12 game and then come back and do a game here.”
If officials aren’t so busy, perhaps they aren’t deemed overworked and tired, and maybe then every decision isn’t scrutinized. From there, it’s possible a referee or an official could be treated like a coach or a player and speak for any action during a game.
Conferences have heads of officiating, and they do evaluations and hand out tips, but some believe conferences aren’t too harsh because they don’t want to lose officials to other leagues and replace them with lesser parts. And if it’s fair to ask a WVU player why he struggled against Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone that he’s seen twice all season, then it’s fair to ask an official about some of the 48 fouls called in the first WVU game he’s worked all season, but officials don’t talk to reporters now because no one can tell them to.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Huggins said, “to be protected.”