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The Men Behind the Stripes

Arlington, Tex. — Of the thousands of referees to call games during the college-basketball season, only 100 get the chance to work the NCAA tournament. Of those, just 10 make it to the Final Four.

Among this year’s tournament officials are police officers and school administrators and retired members of the military. At least one owns a roofing company.

The most common occupation? “Let me tell you,” says Jamie Zaninovich, commissioner of the West Coast Conference and a member of the NCAA’s men’s basketball committee. “You could buy a whole lot of insurance from these guys.”

The men behind the stripes—no female officials were selected for the men’s Final Four—have one of the most thankless jobs in college sports. No matter how fairly they call a game, it’s impossible to please everyone.

During the national semifinal games here on Saturday, the jeers rained down despite what many observers viewed as a pretty controversy-free night on the floor.

Many referees spend years calling games at junior colleges or lower levels, hoping to land one of the few coveted openings in Division I. Once they make it, there are no handouts. Referees must pay their own travel and training costs. And a majority make just $600 to $700 a game (a select few conferences pay as much as $3,000 a night).

The ones who make it to the Final Four have often learned to navigate a highly political system that some say is not unlike the coaching profession.

“Getting there is like getting underneath the right name coach,” one Division I assistant coach says. In other words, it helps to know someone who can open doors.

J.D. Collins, the head of officiating for the Mid-American Conference and Summit League, had an opportunity to work the Final Four in 2008. Before taking the court, he and his colleagues were escorted through San Antonio, the host city, by a police motorcade. He says it’s impossible not to get butterflies working in front of a stadium full of people and millions more on TV. But once the ball was in play, they went away.

After the game, he had more than 80 voicemails and texts from friends and family members. But the moment didn’t last long. Years later he injured his knee, and he never made it back.

Pat Adams, one of this year’s Final Four officials, started out making $2.50 a game in an intramural league. In recent years he has worked for many of the elite conferences, and he is on the road about four nights a week during the regular season, he told the Press-Register, a newspaper in Mobile, Ala., in 2011.

When he returns home to his wife and family, there’s one rule, he told the newspaper: He isn’t allowed to make any decisions.

“We make about 250 to 300 decisions a game,” he said. After that, he just needs a break.

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