Struckhoff hopes to take officiating to next level

Bet you can relate to this. Mary Struckhoff was sitting in the stands, watching a girl's high school basketball game many years ago. The officiating was driving her nuts. She turned to the father of one of the players on the court and said of the striped-shirt offenders, "These guys are pathetic."

Turned out, though, that this player's dad was … also a basketball referee.

"He said, 'Do you think you could do a better job?' " Struckhoff recalled, chuckling. "And I said, 'You know what? I think I could.' "

With that, Struckhoff began on a path that has led her to a recent appointment as the NCAA's national coordinator of women's basketball officiating. She'll take over for Marcy Weston, who is retiring from that position. Weston is also the senior associate director of athletics at Central Michigan, and she'll stay on in that role.

Struckhoff has another job, too, which she will keep: assistant director of the National Federation of High Schools. In that role, she's a rules interpreter for prep basketball (boys and girls) and softball nationwide, plus liaison to the NFHS Officials Association and coordinator of officials' education programs and workshops.

As for what her new job really is … here's the NCAA's description: "Struckhoff will coordinate the NCAA's women's basketball officiating program. The program helps promote better communication between officials, conference coordinators of officials, coaches and the NCAA, and helps provide consistency in the interpretations of NCAA women's basketball rules and officiating mechanics. Additionally, Struckhoff will assist the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee in the identification, training, selection and evaluation of officials for the Division I championship."

OK … are you surprised that one person is doing all this stuff? Did you know that the NCAA's national coordinator of women's basketball officiating is only a part-time position? (It's the same for men's basketball, by the
way.) And that from 1984-1996, Weston essentially did it in an "unofficial" capacity?

In regard to officiating, the NCAA sets rules, conducts clinics and sort of plays "traffic cop." However, each conference assigns and evaluates its own officials, all of whom are independent contractors.

Even so, the job Weston has done and Struckhoff is taking over is realistically more than part-time. However, both women have excelled in juggling a lot of things in their careers: refereeing, athletic administration and coaching.

In Struckhoff's case, she has been a Division I referee since 1991. She has been with NFHS since 1999, and before that with the Illinois High School Association.

"I've been very fortunate it's worked out that I've been able to officiate and have another job," Struckhoff said. "It is very demanding. I've [officiated] 70-plus games the last few years."

As of the end of December, though, Struckhoff will no longer officiate games. At 45 and with this NCAA position available, she decided it was a good time to stop. Asked how much longer, otherwise, she would have been a referee, Struckhoff was very straightforward.

"I thought probably four or five more years," she said. "Some people can go on longer. Most of us [basketball officials] will tell you we know there's a curve. At some point in everybody's career, you make the turn and hope you recognize you're not improving anymore, your judgment or focus might start to be impaired. We hope to recognize that. If not, somebody needs to tell us."

Of course, that begs for a punch line, doesn't it? When don't people tell officials that they are "impaired?" That they "are missing a good game?" That they need to have their vision tested? That they should "call it both ways?"

There are a lot of requirements for being a good basketball official. Not all referees have the same personality type, of course, but they all have to find a way to effectively deal with the criticism they must face (and hear) while trying not to let it affect their judgment.

They have to be in good-enough shape to move well on the court and be in the right position to make calls. They must gauge their physical and mental abilities much like an athlete does and be honest with themselves about how travel or too many games or other responsibilities might affect their on-court performance

There's an idea -- and I've certainly espoused it -- that former players should make up a good candidate pool for officiating. Most are, of course, athletic and a lot -- although certainly not all -- do understand not just the rules but the nuances and flow of the sport.

However …

"I've talked to people who have played the game. And a lot of times, they say, 'Why would I want to officiate?' " Struckhoff said. "They learned to think of us as 'the bad guys.' And we're trying to change that image.

"When their playing days are over, a lot think about coaching. But officiating is one of the last things they think about. We do get them once in awhile. We do recruit. We go places and say, 'When you're done playing, think about this.' "

Ironically, Struckhoff is not a former basketball player herself. She grew up in St. Louis and went to Benedictine College in Kansas, where she played softball and tennis. She did not play hoops in high school or college, which might seem strange considering that so much of her career has and continues to revolve around hoops officiating. But it just worked out that way.

She was an athletic director for two St. Louis schools in 1986 when the aforementioned conversation with the player's dad happened and propelled her into officiating. She got her license, and then began working in high school and Catholic Youth Organization games. Then she moved to Division II and III college games. In 1991, she went to the Division I level.

So what's the hardest part of becoming a ref?

"When I first started, it was changing your perspective from spectator to adjudicator," Struckhoff said. "And then the difficulty of making a split-second decision."

There is no sport where fans/coaches/media don't complain about officiating. It's human nature. However, I think if you put aside the "rooting interest" that colors the view of officiating by different parties in every game, you would find a universal concern among fair-minded women's basketball observers.

That is games becoming too bogged down by officials who call too many fouls, seem out of position often and don't appear to have kept up with the changes and growth of the women's sport.

Now, I'll be honest … I've griped about officiating a lot in my years covering women's hoops. I hate fouls, period. I don't like watching free throws. I never want to see good players on the bench with foul trouble. In other words, I'm often not very reasonable or rational about the whole thing. And no, I could never be a ref.

That said, there are two points to make. Officiating -- like the women's game itself -- has improved in the 20 years I've covered the sport. But for the game to continue to grow, the officiating has to get better. It simply must.

"Women's basketball has evolved," Struckhoff said. "Some of our officials were riding the team bus back in the day. The top officials now get it -- they understand the athletes are better, the coaches are better and they want to change with it.

"It's a different game than when I started -- it's faster, more physical, we've got better athletes. And they're getting better coaching along the way, starting when they're younger."

Struckhoff said another important element in improving officiating is learning more about college officials themselves. It seems a comprehensive census is needed for officials. What is their average salary? How many games a week do they work? Is officiating a full- or part-time job for most of them?

"We want to get a good handle on all of that," Struckhoff said. "We don't have any hard-and-fast statistics, though. It's anecdotal. Especially for Division II and Division III."

Money is generally the bottom line in anything, and officiating is no different. Struckhoff concedes the obvious -- the bigger conferences generally pay better, and thus in theory probably get the officials who are considered the most talented. She estimates that at the Division I level, there are around 900 officials. And depending on how many games they work and what region they're in, they might make from $60,000 to $120,000 a year.

Conferences' officiating coordinators are responsible for the accountability of the refs they hire. But are leagues doing a good-enough job then holding the coordinators themselves accountable? What if they play favorites and award "big" games to officials who are their friends? What if they are -- or are at least perceived to be -- a little too chummy with a certain coach or coaches? Do those coaches tend to get the officials they want?

What if the coordinator just isn't very good, but is defended by the conference and/or "propped up" by the aforementioned "certain coaches?"

Off the record, coaches will talk to us in the media all day about those problems and many more. However, they risk fines and suspensions if they complain much on the record.

And some coaches believe officiating would improve if it were really controlled under a central "umbrella," so to speak, instead of being left to each conference (or school, in the case of independents). Hard to say if that would actually prove true or if we'll ever see it.

All of the concerns are things that Struckhoff has and will continue to deal with. She approaches her new job with a very broad and experienced perspective. She knows that there remain a lot of issues with sexism overtones in high school officiating -- from refs who still try to "overprotect" girls to female officials having a hard time getting game assignments. While she thinks those concerns are less prevalent at the college level, there are still complex problems that take time to fix.

And the NCAA really can't "fix" them itself. What it can do is provide guidance, education programs, training tools and, it hopes, consistent messages about officiating.

Struckhoff seems enthusiastic and very qualified for the job. A big nod of thanks and admiration should go to Weston, too, for her decades of contribution. Weston has given countless hours of her so-called "free time" to making collegiate sports better. In women's athletics especially, people like her have done so much more than they are ever properly given credit for.

But we'll end on this thought: Officials are far too easily caricatured, second-guessed, verbally abused and taken for granted. Even so, the rest of us will never be able to stop complaining about them. So I won't even suggest something so ludicrous.

Most of them really do understand why we can't shut up. Struckhoff certainly does. After all, she once did a little griping about officials herself. And look where that led.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.