Inside the (refs’) Road to the Final Four

FINAL THREE: Mark Whitehead, a Denham Springs native, joined two other top-flight officials who made the grade and earned this Final Four assignment working Oklahoma’s blowout semifinal loss to eventual NCAA champion Villanova in 2016.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Nobody cheers for 11 men whose performance is pivotal to the outcome of this weekend’s NCAA FinalSBJ spotlight Four.

Their highest compliment is not being noticed during, and after, they go up and down the court with young men who are at most, half their age.

They’re in uniform, with their jersey design a timeless standard: black and white vertical stripes.

How did they get there? For over a decade, Shreveporter Tynes Hildebrand helped choose the best officials to work the NCAA Tournament, culminating with the Final Four assignments (a trio of three-man crews, plus two alternates). One of this weekend’s referees, Keith Kimble of Arlington, Texas was calling college games around Louisiana on a regular basis not too long ago.

The Final Four picks emerged from 104 whistle-wearers who, over a seven-month stretch, survived scrutiny by a group of evaluators and conference coordinators. Some of the best refs didn’t work the first weekend, held out on purpose. They entered the assignment pool for the Sweet 16, along with the top graders from the first and second rounds.

How did Hildebrand and his colleagues evaluate them?

“Did he get the call right? Did he make the wrong call? Or was there no call when there should have been one? We totaled the numbers and the officials with the highest percentages moved forward,” said Hildebrand, who has lived in Shreveport with wife Julia for the past several years.

“No calls and missed calls are negatives. About nine out of 10 calls during the season, and in the tournament, the top officials get it right.”

Until retiring following the 2014 Final Four, Hildebrand was one of four NCAA regional officiating observers.

Since then, he actually gets to watch the games.

“I don’t think I ever enjoyed the games. You never watch the game. You’re watching the trail (official), the center, and the lead, and we had about 75 criteria that we looked at: their positioning, signaling, decorum, on and on,” Hildebrand said.

“These days, I enjoy watching the tournament like everybody else.”

The 91-year-old played basketball for H. Lee Prather at Northwestern State from 1950-54, then became a teacher and coach. He got the head coaching post at Northwestern in 1964 and kept it for 16 seasons, infamous for his outbursts with officials but respected around the country for his basketball knowledge. He helped head coach Henry Iba and colleagues including Bob Knight pick the 1972 USA Olympic Team. He and John Wooden developed a friendship.

The Final Four, even after his coaching days ended, became an annual reunion of coaching colleagues – until it turned into a work assignment when he began grading officials in 1997, and especially once he was tabbed one of four regional observers when that system was created in 2006.

Traveling far and wide throughout the season, from hallowed venues like Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas to mostly-empty gyms in remote locations, was quite an experience. There often was time for him and his frequent travel partner, Julia, to see sights, even visit friends and family. That wasn’t the case in March.

Once the initial pool of 104 referees was chosen, with Hildebrand working from his longtime home in Natchitoches, he headed north.

Through the four opening round games in Dayton, and the first two rounds, the evaluation team included conference coordinators and observers gathered in a command center at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Every official in every game got rated either “highly recommend, recommend, do not recommend.” Officiating director John Adams took input from his regional coordinators and made assignments for the second weekend, and the Final Four.

In the Sweet 16, Hildebrand and the other regional observers went to regional sites, grading from a prime courtside seat during the games.

“Sitting next to Verne Lundquist and Bill Raferty, getting to know them, that was a joy for a country boy from Florien,” he said.

The observers got game videos, retreated to hotels and graded again that night to compare to the on-site ratings.

“My grades didn’t change much,” said Hildebrand, a 2014 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

Now just a fan with a very unique perspective, Hildebrand said officiating in this March Madness hasn’t been as bad as many believe.

“The kids now are staying in the weight rooms, and are stronger and faster. The post play is a wrestling match, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “The officiating has generally been really good. Some of it, average, I’ll put it that way.

“There’s more missed traveling than ever before, and double dribbling. It’s a hard game to officiate. But the fellows we’ll see this weekend, they’re just dadgum good officials.”