In Ted Valentine’s world, nobody notices if he blows his whistle 99 times and gets the call right every single time. Just let him miss one call, however, and he knows he’s going to hear it from the coaches, the players and the fans. Depending on the timing of a bad call, he knows he can go from un-noticed to public enemy number one in a heartbeat. That’s the life of a big time college basketball official and Valentine wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“You get it right and nobody notices … it’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Valentine in an interview with Gator Country last weekend at the 2007 Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina. “Get it wrong … well, everybody knows it when the referee makes a mistake.”
Players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes. It’s acceptable for them to screw up. When an official blows a call, however, it’s unacceptable. Fans will accept it when their favorite player makes a horrible play. Part of the game, they say. When a coach makes a bad decision, it’s also part of the game. Let the official make the mistake and the same coaches and players that have made their share of mistakes are all over his case. And when a coach and players turn on the referee, so does everybody in the house.
When Valentine makes a mistake, he says he does the same thing he’s been doing since he started calling games as a 22-year-old Division I referee some 26 years ago.
“My father always taught me that if you’re a man, you own up to your mistakes by going to the person you wronged and admitting you made a mistake,” Valentine said. “When I make a bad call, the first chance I get I go to the coach and say I blew it. I made the wrong call.
“As soon as I do that, my conscience is clear. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do and now I can get back to calling the game.”
Unfortunately, in both college basketball and the pros, one bad call too often leads to another. A bad call on one end of the floor is complicated if there is a makeup call at the other end.
“You can’t do that,” said Valentine. “You can’t let it snowball on you like that. You try to make up one bad call with another? So you get a call wrong at the other end and that’s supposed to make up for the bad one? When that happens, as an official, you’ve over-stepped your responsibility.
“You want to know how you make up for a bad call? You make up for it by getting the rest of the calls right. That’s how you do it.”
Because of his seniority — Valentine is one of the most experienced officials in the college game and considered one of the best — he is generally the crew chief, responsible for getting the other two officials on the same page.
“We’re the third team on the floor,” Valentine said. “You have two teams that play against each other and you have the third team — the officials. All of us have a job to do. Our job as officials is that we are the guardians of the game. We are the ones who are supposed to enforce the rules and we do that by calling the game with consistency.
“You want to know what makes a good officiating crew? It’s when we’re all seeing the game the same way and we’re consistent in that the game gets called the same way at both ends of the court. It’s not our job to level the playing field by taking the advantage away from one team and giving it to the other. Our job is to call the game with consistency and get the calls right at both ends. You can’t let the players become antagonistic toward any of the officials on your crew. You have to treat the coaches the same way, too. You have to handle them all the same way. If you’re letting one coach talk to you, you have to let the other coach talk to you. When it comes to making calls, if it’s a charge at this end, then the same call’s a charge at the other end. If you’re going to let the big guy bang at one end, you have to let the big guys on the other team bang down at the other end. But you don’t take the advantage away from one and give it to the other, and you don’t try to even things up for a bad call.”
If he sees an official on his crew do a makeup call, the first thing he does at the next timeout is take the official aside and question him.
“I usually pull the person over — always if it’s a younger official — and ask him why he made that call?” Valentine said. “I bring up the previous call and I ask ‘did you make the second call because of the first one?’ I want to get it in his mind is that you can’t try to even things up. Mistakes are something you make. You don’t try to right your wrongs with a makeup call. As soon as you think you have to make up for a bad call, you’ve taken the game out of the hands of the players and the coaches. You are influencing the outcome of the game unfairly.”
He hears all the talk about how the game has changed over the years. People complain that it’s less of a finesse game now and more of a physical game. Valentine has an answer for that.
“There’s no way the game is going to be the same as it was in say the 1970s,” he said. “You’ve still got a 90X50 court, the same size court as you’ve always had, only now the players are bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster and more athletic than they ever were back then.
“Because of that, the game has changed. It’s more of an up and down game now. The game moves faster. The players jump higher. I don’t know if there’s more contact now than there was in the 1970s, but the players are so much stronger than they were then so the collisions on the court are more noticeable.”
He prefers the up tempo game because there is less of the hard physical contact. When games slow down in the half court, there is more contact because then the shot clock comes into play and everybody on the court is fighting for position.
“Bigger, stronger guys with longer arms cover more space,” he said. “In the half court game it probably slows things down because these guys take up so much space. That’s why I like the up and down game more. It’s a faster paced game and the shot clock doesn’t come in play as often. It’s more of the pro game. You just don’t see that many half court sets when there is so much transition.”
He is in favor of some rules changes. He would like to see the five-second closely guarded rule eliminated. He would like to see a sixth foul added and he would like to see the college game adapt that small semi-circle in the lane to help officials determine the blocking-charging calls.
“We’ve got a shot clock,” he said. “Really, there’s no need for the five-second closely guarded rule if you’ve got a 35-second shot clock in play. You add a sixth foul and that kind of atones for the possibility that one of the five fouls might have been iffy. You hate to see a game decided because a kid fouls out and one of the calls might not have been the right call. The sixth foul would be the right thing to do.
“You put that circle in, a player’s feet are inside the circle, it’s a block. If they’re outside the circle, then you know that the offensive foul — the charging call — is a possibility. You add that circle and you make it less of a possibility that a bang-bang call under the basket gets called the wrong way and decides a game.”
A native of Ohio, Valentine now makes his home in Charleston, South Carolina. He’s an in-demand official in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. At NCAA Tournament time, he is a fixture. He called Florida’s 2006 NCAA championship game win over UCLA and he was the lead official in the 2007 semifinals when the Gators beat UCLA again.
The Florida Gators of the past two seasons rank among his favorite teams of all time.
“I loved the way they played and I loved the way Billy Donovan coached that team,” he said. “They were kids who understood their roles and had such great chemistry. They played hard and they played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. It’s a team game and they were definitely a team.”
Now that Al Horford has gone to the NBA, Valentine can safely admit that the big guy was his favorite player.
“He never said a word,” said Valentine. “He just got out there and did his job. He played hard. Oh, you’d make a call and he’d make this little noise but overall, his demeanor never changed. He’d smile at you when you got a call right, even if the call was against him. He knew if it was the right call.
“He’s going to be a great pro. He’s obviously got the physical skills and the body to play in the NBA but he’s also got the emotional makeup to last a long time. I really enjoyed all those kids, but I have to say, Al Horford was my favorite.”
Valentine says he’s not sure how much longer he will officiate but when he decides to hang up the whistle, he won’t call a press conference.
“My dad always told me that the best way is to go out the same way you came in,” said Valentine. “Nobody noticed me when I became a college basketball referee. I don’t want anyone to notice that I’m gone, either. I won’t be calling everybody to say I’m gone. I’ll just go and that’ll be that.”