Tough Calls, On the Court and Off

By Bob Katz/School Administrator, August 2015

During a basketball game, what role on the court most resembles the job of school administrator? That little riddle was definitely not on my mind when I began researching a book about the high-pressure, intensely disputed, real-time dilemmas that college basketball referees routinely face.

It was only upon meeting Ed Hightower, an elite basketball referee (assigned to 12 NCAA Final Fours and four national championship games) and veteran school administrator recently retired after 19 years as superintendent in Edwardsville, Ill.), that I realized there could be parallels, ones that might prove illuminating, between these seemingly disparate professions.

One of the first comments Hightower made to me in the quaint grandeur of his high-ceilinged school administrative office (it’s housed in the former home of a prosperous 19th-century banker), was that his job as superintendent had important characteristics in common with officiating college basketball.

“As superintendent, I make hundreds of decisions that are going to be challenged by someone,” he said. “But somebody has to be in charge. It’s the same on the court. The basketball arena is a very, very partisan place. If fair and balanced is my goal, what are the chances of pleasing all 16,000 people?”

Overlapping Aspects

I attended many games that Hightower officiated. Part of the challenge I’d set for myself was to try to watch the game from the ref’s point of view. Is there a game within the game that is both dramatic and unnoticed by most spectators? How is the competition perceived differently when fairness, not victory, is the goal?

This overlap between Hightower’s two jobs, school administrator and referee, enriched my research and was a recurring feature, whether adjudicating a difficult school bus incident from his cell phone in the Madison Square Garden locker room right before a game between Cincinnati and St. John’s University or amiably shooting the breeze with a guileless 5th grader at a McDonald’s in rural Indiana en route to Bloomington for a nationally televised contest from the 17,000-seat Assembly Hall.

And it was a school administration analogy Hightower eventually employed to clarify one of the aspects of refereeing that I’d found most vexing.

Indispensible Quality

Nearly every referee I spoke with cited a baffling, undefined X factor they insisted was an indispensible quality to doing the job well, to being first-rate. Sure, you needed to know the massive basketball rulebook cold. You needed to understand the complexities of the game and possess the self-confidence to manage the irascible, even sneaky, players and coaches. But you also needed the X factor.

With mounting frustration, I tried to find a sharper explanation. It’s not that the refs were being mysterious or evasive. Rather, it seemed there was an inexplicable something else that the job also required.

I pressed Hightower to pin it down. The closest he came was to discuss preparedness and how that affected a recent call he’d made concerning Edwardsville schools. The winter of 2013-14 had brutalized the academic calendar, with 10 snow-day cancellations by the second week of February.

The forecast for the greater Edwardsville region, beginning Tuesday night through the morning hours, was for snow accumulation of several inches or more. At 3 a.m., Hightower awakened and dispatched a handful of school buses to run the rural areas of the district and report back on road conditions. At 4 a.m., he called the police for a report on the conditions of the main arteries in town as well as rural subdivisions. At 4:30 a.m., the director of buildings and grounds, whose crews had been out working on the sidewalks and parking lots at each of the district’s 14 buildings, phoned in an assessment. Throughout, he’d been studying updated weather reports via the Internet and TV.

Shared Fortitude

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., he decided to proceed with a normal school day. It proved to be the correct call. Additional calendar complications were avoided.

“I’ve minimized the opportunities to make a mistake,” is how Hightower explained the process. “When I go into a basketball game, same thing. I know the rulebook. I’ve met with my two other refs. We’ve discussed the two coaches and their styles of play. I’m in good shape, physically. So when I go out there, it’s just a matter of, do I have the intestinal fortitude to put the air in the whistle?”

Might there be a comparable X factor instrumental to being a successful school system administrator?

You make the call.

Bob Katz is author of The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball (ForeEdge). E-mail: