Calling an NCAA game, as an amateur

DUNCANVILLE, Texas -- It's a good 690 miles from Princeton, Ky., to Duncanville -- a relatively straight, if not always visually appetizing drive that takes you southwest through Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Texarkana, Texas, then on through downtown Dallas before you finally come to a stop on the outskirts of Big D. It's about a 10½-hour trek without stopping, but, of course, you have to stop at some point, at least for bathroom breaks and food.

The four grown men are now recounting their trip. They're resting in a hotel room for a short spell before they go to work at their "dream" jobs, the ones they hope will take them on the road to their Final Four -- whenever and wherever that might be. Asked where they ate, they all speak at once:

"Country Buffet."

"Brown's Country Buffet."

"It was outside of Little Rock."

"Wasn't it outside of Little Rock?"

"Brown's Country Buffet is all I can remember."

"It was around Bryant, Ark."

"There was a big spread of whatever … catfish, chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese."

In the early morning hours Friday, they had arrived in Duncanville, a town with this most intriguing Wikipedia category, listed right after "Demographics" and "Education": "Reports of Alleged Paranormal Phenomenon." There is no Country Buffet here, but there is a Whataburger, which would become a staple for Ford Branch and his three buddies over the course of their three days here.

The men paired up and shared rooms at the local Hilton Garden Inn. They skipped a day from their real, better-paying jobs. They each paid $575 to be here. They each refereed two, sometimes three basketball games a day at an AAU tournament being held in Duncanville. And they did this while, in some cases, readily getting chewed out by other, more experienced officials, not to mention the coaches whose games they were calling.

Such is the glory of trying to make it big as a college basketball official. As the NCAA and its member conferences look to improve the quality of officiating throughout the country, they face the unending challenge of dealing with, well, amateurs. That is, all the officials at all the games throughout the country are independent contractors, freelancers who, in most cases, work regular, full-time jobs that can be counted on to pay their bills, feed their families, provide their medical benefits.

That's right, they're all moonlighting in the billion-dollar business that is college hoops -- a stark contrast to their counterparts in the pro leagues (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL), who all are union employees, with full benefits and the kinds of salaries that can keep them from having to work a second job.

And so for Ford Branch, pharmaceutical salesman by day, college basketball official by night, his work as a referee provides him no guarantees. There are no benefits. There is no pension. There is no health plan. The average Division I ref might make $50,000 a year, if he can officiate 40 to 60 games a season, but that's before taxes -- and that earning power goes away the minute a guy is injured or sick or can't work for whatever reason.

"If I go down one night, we would be in trouble," Branch, who is married with two young children, said of the idea of working full-time as a referee. "I don't really want to have that pressure.

"I don't use this income as something to have to pay the bills. It's more of, you know, putting away for the kids for college and for vacations."

Branch is among 70 mostly young officials who came to Duncanville to be part of an officiating camp run by Curtis Shaw, a longtime NCAA referee who recently became the director of officials for a four-conference consortium led by the Big 12. The other leagues overseen by Shaw are Conference USA, the Ohio Valley and the Southland.

While some of the nation's top college coaches have gathered here to scout and woo some of the nation's top high school talent at an AAU event dubbed the Great American Shootout, Shaw and his camp counselors are doing their own evaluating, seeking up-and-comers with the talent to reach the top levels of college officiating.

"I'm here just to get on the floor and learn and improve, get critiqued and evaluated," Branch said. "And also networking, talking with guys and just kind of using the whole system there to step up the ladder to the next step."

Shaw spent 21 seasons refereeing Division I games, calling 18 NCAA tournaments and seven Final Fours. He knows the system, and he knows the challenges of maximizing quality while dealing with officials who are balancing entirely separate lives and jobs.

"It makes it difficult, and it's one of the aspects that we're looking at how we make that better," Shaw said. "It's my duty as a coordinator to try to handle all those situations as best as I possibly can. If I've got somebody who lives in western Kentucky, I can't realistically expect them to drive to south Florida to officiate a ballgame when I know they have to be at work the next day."

Asked whether he could envision a scenario with full-time officials, at least in the power conferences, Shaw said, "I just don't think it's feasible. I think the costs of employee benefits, the costs it would take to hire them away from their full-time jobs, I don't think that's out there."

Shaw and John Adams, the NCAA coordinator of men's basketball officiating, both indicated that one of the clearest challenges they face is an aging workforce trying to perform its duties in what is truly a young man's game, a game whose participants seem to get faster and stronger every year.

It's a fascinating contrast: 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young men, with ridiculous athletic ability and seemingly boundless stamina; and men who sometimes are in their 40s, 50s or even 60s trying to watch them closely, officiating in some cases as many as 80 to 100 games a season.

"The ideal official," Adams said, "would be a 35-year old guy that can run like a deer and that has 20 years experience, which would mean he would have to start at 15 and that's not happening. So here's what we have: 50-year-old professional athletes or older trying to work 75, 80, 90 games. We don't ask 22-year-old kids to work, to play 90 games a season. We ask them to play, if they go to the national championship, 36 or 37 games."

Said Shaw, lecturing at his camp: "You've got to be able to physically run up and down the floor. These kids stay the same age, and we get older every year. And some of the complaints I get from coaches aren't anything other than, 'Curtis, he couldn't get in position to see it.'"

Branch is 35 years old, and he has spent the past three years in the Division I ranks. He called 15 Ohio Valley Conference games last season, and he is hoping to build on that this season. Branch is in Duncanville, listening intently to Shaw and his counselors, because he has designs on working his way up the ladder, maybe reaching the Big 12 or another power conference that will pay him better and get him one step closer to the NCAA tournament.

A Kentucky graduate who loves college hoops, Branch endured that 10½-hour drive from eastern Kentucky and is missing his son's first all-star baseball games to be here. His boy is just 7, one of only three kids his age to make the all-star team.

"It hurts a little bit," Branch said. "I've been keeping in touch all weekend long."

Branch and his refereeing colleagues, all Memphians whom he picked up along the way to carpool, essentially share the same ultimate dream. Along with Branch, there's 29-year-old Kelly Davis, 28-year-old Rusty Phillips and 40-year-old Charles Jones. They have worked -- and continue to work -- basketball games in any or all of the following: high school, junior college, NAIA, Division II, and so on.

They're on the path, hoping to be seen and evaluated by someone like Shaw who can recommend or hire them to call games at higher levels. There are no prerequisites to becoming a college official, such as refereeing a minimum number of games or even earning a high school diploma; it's a word-of-mouth, evaluation-driven industry. And where does Branch hope it will lead? Center court, of course. Tossing the ball up. Lights flashing. Inside that big dome.

"The Final Four, the final game, the championship, I think that's everybody's dream," Branch said.

And so, after calling seven games in three days, Branch settled back behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry on Sunday afternoon for the long drive back to Princeton. His colleagues, similarly spent, took their places in the Camry and readied for their seven hours back to Memphis.

They cleaned out the Whataburger wrappers and whatever other detritus lingered. Kelly Davis, riding shotgun, insisted, "The car's doing well." He held up a little bottle, smiling: "We've got Febreze."

And then they were off. They had to be back for work on Monday.

Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter with ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com