Longtime college basketball official John Clougherty received a unique honor this spring, as he became one of the newest members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Clougherty, the ACC’s current Director of Officiating for men’s basketball, worked 12 Final Fours and four national championship games in his distinguished refereeing career. Clougherty recently announced that he’l be retiring from his current position with the ACC at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season.
Clougherty made a recent appearance on the David Glenn Show to discuss his officiating career, tell a few stories about some of the more memorable games he called, as well as his thoughts on how to improve modern college basketball.
John, welcome back to the David Glenn Show. How are you?
Thanks David. I’m terrific. And really, to go into the class with the guys that you mentioned is really almost unbelievable.
Did John Clougherty actually grow up dreaming of being a basketball official, or did it just work out that way?
It just worked out that way. I’m not sure anybody really grows up thinking they’re going to be an official, unless you’re maybe a Brian Kersey, whose father was a renowned NBA official. For most of us, no, your ideas and your thoughts are, “Well, maybe I can be good enough to play baseball or football, or something like that.” But certainly not a basketball official.
And how did it work for you? Somewhere along the line, I guess the light bulb moment happens? And you say, “Well, I’m not going to stay in sports as a participant or as an athlete,” and then you just wanted to find another avenue?
With me, David, certainly in college and like most college students, I didn’t have a whole lot of extra money. And the intramural program was offering three dollars a game for intramurals.
If you did three games an evening, and you did that a couple times a week, you might get 18 dollars or something like that. And 18 dollars took you a long way as a college student. You could buy a pizza and take a girl to a movie. And you find out early on whether you like officiating, or if it was something that you felt like you could do. And then one thing led to another. Many officials get early starts, and find out quickly whether it’s something they like.
Even in our industry, in the media, I have had young media members where somebody started a thread on a message board about them and attacked them personally. And I literally have a young, crying person in front of me asking me what this industry is all about. How do you handle young people who say they want to make a life out of officiating, given that you guys get even more dramatically bad negative feedback than we do on this crazy side of the fence?
You know, the first thing I would tell a young aspiring official is don’t quit your day job. That would be the first thing I would tell them, because you can have a short life as a referee. You would find out real early whether negative comments, people directing harsh words at you (would affect you). If that bothers you — if you’re the type where you’re sensitive to criticism – then you need to find another vocation to do. Because officiating any sport, whether it’s rec ball or the highest level of basketball, you have to have some pretty thick skin if you’re going to be a referee. And if you’re not, then you’re just going to suffer through it. And that’s no fun at all.
I mentioned the 12 Final Fours, the four title games in those many, many years where you were wearing the whistle yourself before supervising these guys. I’m sure there’s a lot of the expletives and crazy negative stories. But what’s an example of one of the nicest things that a player or a coach ever said to you as an active official in one of those games that you were working?
There’s one that I remember. And actually, there was a story recently written about it. In 1989, Seton Hall played Michigan in the Final Four. It was the first overtime game in 26 years, and I made a call with four seconds to go. A deciding call. And certainly a questionable call — a call that any fan or media could question. It was a 50-50, and I made it. If you’re a Seton Hall fan, you’re thinking it’s the worst call you’ve ever seen. If you’re a Michigan supporter, you think it’s a great call.
Afterwards, the media, as they would do, the story was the call. And P.J. Carlesimo said that John Clougherty is the best that there is. And that’s who I would want on the game. And if he made the call, I can live with it. P.J. took the high road. Another coach, if he had wanted to, he could just have murdered me. He literally said the guy is the best there is, so I can live with it.
After the Seton Hall-Michigan game, that famous game from way back, did you ever encounter a situation later in life where some stranger wearing a Seton Hall sweatshirt comes up to you and either does or says something inappropriate?
Actually, there’s a story behind that too, David. The supervisor kept me away from Seton Hall, because I was working in the Big East at the time. And he kept me away from Seton Hall for two or three years. But it was clear it was time to send me back. And he sent me back when there was a change of coaches. Louis Orr was the coach at Seton Hall at the time. And it was my first time back. And I knew I was going to get hammered.
During a timeout, I’m standing at a free throw line, where I’m supposed to be. And it’s very quiet. It’s in the Meadowlands, and it’s very quiet. And one fan screams out, “Clougherty. How does it feel to make the worst blankety-blank call in the history of basketball?”
Everybody could hear it, and there was no place to go. You just have to stand there and take it. But it was not very pretty.
Are coaches reasonable most of the time, even if fans aren’t reasonable most of the time?
I think coaches are very reasonable most of the time. Seldom do I get any of our fifteen coaches that will call me without having done some due diligence, and looked at their plays. They will not call me just because they’re upset. They’ll call me and have some real, hard evidence that these plays are missed, please look at them, please tell me what you think. They’re not going to call me and hurt their credibility simply because they’re angry or upset. They want to call me and make sure that they’ve looked at the compliant that they have.
Did you ever feel unsafe during or right after a basketball game?
I had a game between Memphis and Temple, and Temple had beaten Memphis. And was we came off the floor, an intoxicated fan got to me and bumped into me. And I reacted to it, but the security was right there. Had the security not been there, this guy was clearly drunk as a skunk, and wanted to take issue with me.
John Clougherty, nowadays he’s the Director of Officiating for the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s also one of our 2015 inductees to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. You probably are limited in what you can say about active coaches, since you still have a leadership role. But are there any retired coaches that you can share a story — either the guy you looked forward to having his games because he was fun in some way, or the guy who you dreaded having his games because you knew it was going to be a long night?
Bobby Cremins, he’s just such a terrific guy. I enjoyed officiating any game that his teams were involved in. If Bobby got upset and said something to you, the next time you transitioned, he’d say, “John, I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
He just didn’t have any meanness in him. Not at all. He would apologize if he yelled at you. There was (Jim) Calhoun at Connecticut. You knew because of his competitive spirit and how he battled, that he was going to question you a lot, and you may have to manage that bench. There was a guy at Pittsburgh that was the same way. They were long nights, but when you had nights like Cliff Ellis and Bobby Cremins and Dave Odom, it was a joy to go to work.
When you think of the family tree, but one of your sons does college basketball. I’ve seen your family in football and baseball. This sounds like an officiating family. When you guys have picnics or reunions, do you talk sports? Do you talk officiating? Or would it be just like any other family’s reunions?
Well, I don’t know what the other family reunions are like, but our family reunions, we’re either talking about officiating, or we’re talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Those three things probably are the most talked about. But I’m very proud of the boys. Patrick my middle son, was an exceptionally good athlete and an All-American baseball player at NC State.
My oldest son, Tim, officiates basketball in major conferences. He’s worked the Big East and the ACC, and has gone deep into the NCAA (Tournament). And my youngest, Conor, is a football official on the ACC staff. So it must be in the genes.
The NCAA recently announced a new National Director of Officials. His name is J.D. Collins. What can you tell us about J.D. Collins? And what can you tell us about whether the person in that national college basketball supervisory role, can he have the ability to make the game better? To help change it rules-wise and enforcement-wise, maybe in a way that makes it an even better game?
David, you really ask some really great questions. First of all, J.D. Collins, I know very well. I visited with him when I was at the Final Four. I hired him in the ACC. He only worked with me for a year because he ended up getting injured. His knees. He couldn’t officiate. But he was a quality official, and I think he’ll work very hard.
I have my doubts whether he can make a difference. And the NCAA probably would not like me to say it, but in that position, it’s hard to make a difference. Because he has to pass on a philosophy to the supervisors. In his position, he can’t reach down to young referees and teach them and instruct them, and do the things that you have to do to make an official better. His work is to reach out to me and the other 36, 38, 40 supervisors, pass on things that he wants done. And it’s our job to make a difference with our officials.
That’s more of an administrative job than it is a hands-on, let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work and see how we can get these games refereed better. He’s removed from the ACC officials. He’s not working with them on a daily basis like the supervisor. That’s a big job. I’m not sure he can make a huge difference.
If you were sort of king for the day, and you were the one voice in this room, and you said this is how through rules changes or enforcing things, we could make college basketball an even better game, what would be on that short list for John Clougherty?
There was a philosophy that was handed down year after year after year about advantage/disadvantage. And good officials can make that distinction. I would tell them, “Let’s not make this game black and white. It’s not a game of absolutes. It’s a game of advantage/disadvantage. No harm, no foul.”
But I think there’s been a trend that we can take a mediocre referee, and he can referee these games if we make them black and white. If this happens, it’s a foul. Not every hand check is a foul. Not every bump in the post is a foul.
Incidental contact is still in the rule book. We can’t lose sight of incidental contact. We are interrupting the game because of these absolute black and white. And I trust referees are good enough to make decisions on advantage/disadvantage. And that’s where I would say we’ve got to continue along those lines.
You’ve told us in the past how this whole world works as far as officials being independent contractors, and you supervise them. But there are restrictions on how you supervise them because they’re independent contractors. Do you think we’ll ever see the day — or do you even think it would be a good idea — for the NCAA or conferences to employ full-time officials, where you have more influence on them, and maybe they don’t have such crazy schedules? Would that be a good thing in your eyes?
It would be the best thing. But logistically, I don’t know how a league can go to the expense of hiring a large group of referees. I think they could even do it if all it involved was paying a salary. But with benefits and insurances and retirement programs, it becomes so expensive. But once you have that, and you have control — it’s no secret my top referees, how many games they work. And it would be good if they didn’t work so many multiple leagues. But we don’t have that now. But it would be a good thing if we could.
I could say, “For the next two weeks, you’re coming to Raleigh, and we’re going to do film work for two weeks.” These guys have got other jobs now, and I don’t have that control. I don’t know how you would get there. But if you had unlimited funds like the NBA does, it would be the best thing.