Kansas City, Mo. — You can compare Big Eight Conference basketball teams to squads in the Big 10, the Pac-10 and the ACC.
Apparently, however, you'd be wasting your time comparing Big Eight officials to zebras in those conferences.
"We don't have Big Eight Conference officials. That is a misnomer to say that," said John Erickson, the former Big Eight supervisor of officials, now known as assistant conference commissioner.
If there are no Big Eight refs, Mr. Assistant Commish, who are the 46 men assigned to Big Eight games this upcoming season?
"They are NCAA-approved officials assigned by the Big Eight conference to work for member schools," Erickson said. "These same officials work for 16 other conferences across the country."
He said that except for some league officials in training, his pool of 46 officials spreads out and works games all over the country. It's much different from when Erickson took the job as league supervisor of officials eight years ago. At that time, the Big Eight had 27 officials who only worked Big Eight games.
"It seems the more conferences you can work for, the better you get recognized and established," Erickson said. '''Established'...that is a key word for an official.
"There is a trust factor, which means the coaches have confidence in the handling of the game, even if they disagree with the calls. If a coach loses confidence in an official to regulate and manage the game, then that official has not established himself."
The refs who work Big Eight games, who have day jobs as "ranchers, oilmen, presidents of companies, attorneys, superintendents of schools, football coaches and former coaches," for the most part have established themselves, Erickson says.
"Having been a coach (at the University of Wisconsin), I sometimes see them as players," Erickson said. "There are nights I think they are terrific. Other nights, some things happen -- some of which maybe they caused, some they haven't caused -- that brings controversy and it is difficult then."
Erickson, a 1949 graduate of Beloit (Wis.) College, notes there has not been a lot of controversy during his seven full seasons with the Big Eight.
"We have not had a fight in the league in the last three or four years," he said. "We have had some very difficult calls. Last year, we had six highly-disputed calls. By highly-disputed I mean where coaches sent in a fax memo and discussions ensued where I had to review (the calls).
"Think of how many calls there are in a game. I'm talking about six calls in an entire season that really caused some controversy, some difficulty."
The league is willing to listen when a coach has a beef. However, a coach can't simply pick up the phone and call Erickson at the league office in Kansas City.
"About four years ago, the athletic directors put in place a system which said the coaches would have to submit all their concerns of officiating in a game in writing to me or on a fax. This would substantiate what they were talking about and give me a chance to review it," Erickson said.
"The athletic director was brought into the loop because he had to sign onto the form they were sending in. If a coach has a deep concern about a play, he has an opportunity to get a response from the conference. I think on the other hand, it eliminates an emotional response a day after any game."
If a number of faxes concern a certain ref, well, it could influence Erickson when it comes to assigning big games.
"With most of the 46, I have a very good relationship. Not with all of them because, like a coach, when you don't play a player as much as someone else, they don't think quite as much of you. I understand that," Erickson said.
"It's an honor to the league we have had any number of excellent officials who would like to work in Big Eight basketball because of the excellence of the game."
Of the five new officials added to the Big Eight mix this year, three have Final Four experience.
"I really believe you can't have a high level of excellence in any sport unless your officiating is also pretty good," Erickson said.
Hence, he must compensate the officials as well as other leagues.
"I've never related what they get," Erickson said. "The officials who work our games are paid as well as any conference in the country. They get a fee for working a game, they get a per diem. They get travel. If the weather forces them to stay another night, they get consideration. We have a responsibility to get the officials to their homes.
"Carl James (commissioner) has given leadership in this area, to not spare anything when it comes to safety and welfare of officials in their travel.
"The weather in the winter...I can count on one hand the times officials have missed a game. These officials are committed to their work and I have great respect for them."