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Relationships between H.S. basketball coaches, refs can be complicated

| Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, 10:18 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Bethel Park coach Ben O'Connor questions an official during a game against Mt. Lebanon on Jan. 31, 2014.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Chartiers Valley's Tim McConnell coaches during a game against Montour earler this season in Collier.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
New Castle coach Ralph Blundo argues a call during a game against Hampton on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at New Castle.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Seton-La Salle coach Mark Walsh talks to an official during a game at South Fayette earlier this season.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Neshannock coach John Corey talks with an official during a game at Beaver Falls on Feb. 4, 2014.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hampton coach Joe Lafko questions an official during a game at New Castle on Feb. 7, 2014.

Don't hear too much and don't listen too long, but sometimes the coach deserves an answer.

The advice for new high school basketball refs comes from one longtime official who learned there's more to the job than just calling fouls. Maybe more now than ever, solid communication skills also are crucial.

“Some coaches can get pretty vocal,” said Rege Giles, a retired official who works as an evaluator and rules interpreter for the WPIAL. “But they don't have the right to say anything they want. That's where a veteran official will say, ‘I've heard enough.' ”

Yet, he has seen young refs who just aren't patient enough.

“They come in with the idea that there should be an adversarial relationship between the two,” Giles said.

The in-game interaction between coach and official is typically professional, but it can be tricky. The relationship drew added scrutiny this season when a WPIAL boys basketball coach was suspended for his actions toward an official.

“I don't think the (coach-ref) relationship is as good as it has been,” said Bill Sinning, the WPIAL Board of Control representative for boys sports officials. “But I will tell you that probably 98 percent of the coaches are very reasonable.”

In recent days, the league cautioned its playoff officials to “take charge and command the respect they deserve,” said WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley. Similar reminders are made each season. Physical contact is rare, but verbal jabs are not.

“I think there's an assumption by some people that they have the right to verbally abuse and degrade a game official,” said O'Malley, who included fans in the equation. “At no time should somebody have license to call you anything under the sun.”

The job wasn't always that way.

“I think the relationship has changed,” said Giles, who acquired his officiating card with the Westmoreland County chapter more than 40 years ago. “I saw some really wild coaches when I worked. They could just destroy a younger official, but then there was more camaraderie between coaches and officials.”

A few factors have influenced the relationship. Among them was a 2004 PIAA rule change that allowed high school basketball coaches to stand during games.

“Now they're up, they're active and they're more involved in the game,” said Sinning, a retired referee. “The officials now have to be able to deal with the coaches. If there's a call, the coaches are going to be right there asking why. I tell our guys they're entitled to that explanation. They might not be entitled to it right that second. But within a reasonable period of time, the head coach is entitled to that explanation.”

That rule change has been beneficial, Chartiers Valley coach Tim McConnell said.

“Now that we're able to stand, we're able to communicate better with the refs,” McConnell said. “If you look back, when we had to sit, it was hard to get a referee to come over to you. I'm not sure they like it. But as coaches, we like it. I think the refs listen to us more.”

For coaches, it's not what you ask but, often, how you ask it.

“There are different ways of asking without screaming, touching or becoming aggressive,” Gateway boys coach Mitch Adams said. “You can get your point across. It's like being in a marriage. If you're going to sit there and scream at each other every day, that relationship isn't going to work.”

But that tact doesn't always come naturally. Especially when what you think was a block was called a charge. Or when fouls are being called in only one direction. It's a learning process, Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjar said.

“When I look at myself now compared to when I first started, I've tried to make a conscious effort to change the way that I address the refs,” Skrinjar said. “I try to ask for things in a different way. … Not that I'm old, but in my first couple years of coaching I was probably screaming more. Now I try to use a calmer voice and communicate with less volume. More casual conversation rather than being loud and boisterous.”

There were 65 referees working boys playoff games Friday and Saturday. Each referee has to pass a PIAA test, attend a rules meeting and chapter meetings. But most communication skills are learned through experience.

“(New officials) may know the rule book upside down, left, right and backwards,” Giles said, “but there are still game management things that can affect the attitude of the game.

“Anybody can just slap a technical on someone, but are they able to give the coach an answer that maybe won't placate him but will let him know why something happened? That's not in the rule book. They don't have to know that to pass the test, but I think that's the true test: when officials can deal with situations and prevent them from becoming overblown.”

Sinning believes television has changed the coach-ref relationship. The antics from NBA and college games have trickled down to the high school level. Now, the assumption goes that if a coach isn't animated, he must not be trying.

“Those guys are held to a totally different standard than the high school people,” Sinning said. “The PIAA will tell you, and I feel strongly, that our sporting events, no matter the sport, are an extension of our classrooms.”

PIAA officials read a sportsmanship code to coaches and team captains before each game. The language includes the line that “actions meant to demean opposing contestants, teams, spectators and officials are not in the highest ideals of interscholastic education and will not be tolerated.” Then the officials must enforce it, which doesn't always happen.

“We try to inform the officials that you can be your own worst enemy if you're unwilling to enforce (the sportsmanship code) from the beginning of the game,” O'Malley said.

Each referee has his own red line. For most that includes profanity, personal attacks or questions of integrity. One technical foul forces the coach to sit. A second leads to an ejection and would make the coach miss the next game as well.

Like coaches, officials also have a reputation.

“Coaches know what to expect,” Sinning said. “They know what the individual guys will take, and they know what they won't take. They pretty much know where the line is, and sometimes they're willing to cross it. When the officials get into trouble is when they do something different than what they've always done.”

The WPIAL has an officials evaluator at each playoff game to write critiques. Class AAAA uses an online system to collect feedback from coaches and officials for every section game. Sinning reads the reviews and uses them to decide who should officiate the next playoff round.

“We tell the officials, please make sure you take care of business,” Sinning said. “If the evaluator says they didn't, or they let the coach complain the whole game and then at the end decided to act on something they should have in the first quarter, then I look at that very critically.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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