Meet Dick Honig, the Phil Knight of the ref clothing business

Dick Honig had a great career as a Big Ten official and made an impact on aspiring referees from all over the country with his apparel shop based in Ann Arbor. He loved trading stories with the customers and made Honig's a go-to spot for referees. Dan Murphy

Dick Honig's office phone doesn't ring anymore.

If you've watched a college football game at some point in the past 30 years there's a good chance you've seen Honig's handiwork without knowing it. The 75-year-old, freshly minted retiree spent the majority of his adult life involved in every imaginable aspect of the sport's officiating world. He wore the white hat for a laundry list of notable Big Ten matchups and bowl games. He has checked other referees' work as a replay official and critiqued refs on television for the Big Ten Network. He has coached them in camps around the world. Most significantly, he has clothed them at Honig's Whistle Stop -- an officiating apparel company that grew to be as recognizable in the referee community as Nike is among the young men with whom the officials share a field.

And if you've ever garnered the courage to slip into one of those black-and-white magnets for verbal abuse that he sold, there's a good chance that you've had a particularly pleasant conversation with the boss as he sat behind his desk in a modest office making sure your knickers didn't bunch and your stripes fell properly across your chest. It is, he says, what he'll miss most about his work.

Honig started the business in his basement in 1984 and built it up himself. He framed and hung the drywall in the office space he purchased a year later when Mrs. Honig decided she'd like to reclaim her garage from the stacks of boxes and racks of garments that had invaded it. He bought the place from a moving and storage company on an industrial road a few miles from the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Save for a plywood sign out front with the name "Honig's" printed above a hand-painted referee whistle, the brown-colored, metal warehouse that serves as headquarters for the international company would still easily be confused with a moving and storage business from the outside today.

Ain't it just like a referee to try to sneak by inconspicuously on the outskirts of one of college football's landmark stadiums?

For referees, Honig's is the landmark -- a regular pit stop for anyone who worked a game in the area. It was a sad day when they had to start turning away flag-toting pilgrims last month. Honig sold the company to force himself into a semblance of retirement, and the new owners decided they didn't need the physical location anymore for a business that does most of its sales via the internet.

Before the web, Honig's made its mark with a mail-order catalog and a steady stream of sales over the phone. The whole family, his wife, Lee, and their four daughters, all fielded calls and packed orders. This took some customers by surprise in the early days, especially one Southern gentleman who got Mrs. Honig on the other end of the line when he rang in search of a new jockstrap.

"I'd like to purchase the A33," he mumbled, blushing through the phone.

"You need a jock," she replied. "OK. What size?"

Long pause. "Um, regular?"

"No, sir," she said. "I need the size of your waistband."

Honig always handled the most unhappy or difficult callers himself. He, of course, had experience in handling outraged customers. Actually, he says he adopted the rule from his father, Leonard, who made his living as a district manager for the Richman Brothers clothing company in Detroit. Leonard retired into a part-time job helping his son start the new retail business and remained a staple of Honig's customer service until a few months before he passed away at 91. He taught Dick that not only was the customer always right, but the customer should always hear that from him.

Even at the company's height, when its list of registered clients reached nearly 400,000, Honig picked up the phone as often as he could and delighted in the bits of small talk before getting down to business. He wanted to know about your last big call or your next gig, whether it was coming on a Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium or a Friday night on some scrubby patch of grass in an old Pennsylvania steel town.

"We were a face, not a name," he says. "We wanted to be a face."

Honig has plenty of stories of his own to trade, and the crowded walls of his office are a testament to many of them. There are dozens of footballs and baseball bats on the walls from the various sporting outfits he helped to outfit, ranging from MLB to the XFL. There are keepsakes from the games he worked on the sidelines: among them a couple of Rose Bowls, the 1993 Peach Bowl (the first major college game played at the Georgia Dome) and the 2001 BCS championship, where he forgot which side of the commemorative coin they decided was heads and which was tails as it spun in the air at midfield. When the coin hit the ground, an Oklahoma captain leaned over his shoulder and hollered, "We'll start on defense!" Honig assumes the Sooners won the toss.

"He's known from coast to coast, and his biggest draw was helping others. His legacy will be the assistance and guidance and being a mentor. He didn't get any money for that, he just did it because he's got that whistle in his blood." Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's coordinator of officials

There is a Sports Illustrated magazine where Honig's face made the cover amid a pile of Ohio State Buckeyes hanging next to a story he wrote himself. That one was for Referee magazine about the time a Jeep driven by a kid "drunker than a skunk and 18 years of age" plowed through the office wall one summer evening and parked on top of Honig's desk. Luckily, Honig had gone home for a couple of hours to mow the lawn.

That was his second-closest brush with the funeral business, topped only by the time a friend promised to transport Honig and the rest of his Big Ten crew from Chicago to a Hawkeyes game in the back of a limousine. Due to an unfortunate (perhaps intentional) clerical error, they made the four-hour drive to Iowa City in the back of a hearse.

There's a framed membership card (No. 01) for the European American Football Officials Association. That hangs next to several other plaques Honig collected on his annual international trips to help train officials all over Europe as well as China, Japan and Russia. He hosted camps throughout the U.S. too (which certainly didn't hurt his retail business) and ferried as many young officials up the ranks as he could.

"He's known from coast to coast, and his biggest draw was helping others," says Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's coordinator of officials who refereed two Super Bowls and once upon a time rode in the back of a hearse to an Iowa football game. "His legacy will be the assistance and guidance and being a mentor. He didn't get any money for that, he just did it because he's got that whistle in his blood."

The international trips also contributed to the most notable corner of Honig's office -- a glass menagerie overflowing with zebra figurines collected from all over the world. There are hundreds of them, all of which somehow survived their display case being tipped over by an alcohol-piloted Jeep and suffered only a couple of broken legs and tails.

The zebras will need to be relocated soon, along with the rest of a lifetime's worth of memorabilia. That should keep Honig busy in retirement. He plans to continue working as a rules analyst for Big Ten Network and training the next generation of referees at a handful of camps because officiating seems to be as inextricable from Dick Honig's life as the clothing business was from his father's.

The young officials who rise to the industry's most sought-after jobs going forward will have their stripes supplied for free by major apparel brands that have recently become interested in another way to sneak their logo onto a television screen. The weekend warriors who don't work those big games will get their gear through some channel of the internet, and they'll all slog their way through a maze of automated touch-tone menus and email receipts when a shoe doesn't fit right or a jersey number gets sewn on in the wrong place.

None of this, of course, is unusual or of any real consequence to regular sports fans, who allow a referee to slip into their consciousness only when he misses a call or finds some other way to upset a crowd. And in a way, despite all his contributions and the words above, not even Dick Honig can escape that fate.

Apologies for the spotlight, but it appears your calls will be missed.