Loren Tate: I'm sweet on officials
I never met a man that I didn’t like. But I never met a referee!
— Will Rogers
Yes, if Abraham Lincoln had donned a striped shirt instead of a top hat, the voters would have rejected him. Officiating is a can’t-win business.
But it’s Valentine’s Day, where we take a brief respite to deliver flowers, kisses and chocolates ... and to call a moratorium on zebras, beginning with the flamboyant Ted Valentine himself. It’s Teddy’s day.
With guns so controversial, my gift to the busy South Carolinian is a bow-and-arrow set to protect him from the hordes of attacking detractors.
“I even get criticized for calls when I wasn’t even there,” Valentine once said.
It was Teddy who, on Feb. 24, 1998, in Bloomington, Ind., whistled three technicals on Indiana coach Bob Knight and stood his ground in the most combustible crowd situation I’ve personally witnessed.
It reached its zenith when Illini Sergio McClain blocked a drive by Luke Recker that Knight thought should be goaltending. With Recker hurt, Knight legitimately came onto the court and harangued Valentine while Illini coach Lon Kruger huddled his athletes at the bench.
Forced to exit, an irate Knight stalked directly toward Valentine in a threatening manner, and the fans seemed ready to follow him. But Knight kept going to the locker room.
Fellow ref Ed Hightower didn’t agree with Valentine’s handling of the matter, and so stated in his report to the Big Ten.
In the fallout, and partly because of his cocky, strutting personality, Valentine has been in and out of the Big Ten and Big East at times. But he stands out in 2014 as one of the best decision-makers in the country with multiple Final Fours on his resume.
Hats off to Teddy on Friday. At 54 and still pugnacious, he has toned down his exuberance and, when he works, you’re getting the best.
You wouldn’t want their schedule. They travel so much that they have to think twice to remember what city they’re in.
Gene Steratore has a blank mailbox (for obvious reasons) as he operates a janitorial supply business south of Pittsburgh. He is perhaps the best combo football-basketball official going, having worked two college basketball games the week before heading the crew for the Seahawks-49ers NFC showdown.
That was the 23-17 thriller in which 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman stripped and recovered a fumble near the goal line. It was obvious on TV but unseen by Steratore & Co. A ref’s nightmare: a clearly blown call.
Oh, well, it worked out OK for Seattle. And Steratore continues to exude a certain integrity, and the confidence that, while he’s human and can’t get everything right, he comes closer than most.
Steratore worked the Illini-Wisconsin game Feb. 4, and deserves today’s gift of linguine with tuna puttanesca.
Additional holiday treats
Here are more Valentine’s Day gifts to my favorites throughout time ...
— Potted gardenias: The three blind mice are forgiven but shall remain nameless because they got caught up in Lute Olson’s whining in 2001. They whistled 36 personal fouls on the Illini, disqualifying six players in facilitating Arizona’s 87-81 verdict in the NCAA regional in San Antonio.
— Armitron watch: To Ted Hillary, to get you wherever you’re going on time. You’re still my favorite. When your knees couldn’t keep up — mummies used fewer wraps — you made the right calls from a distance. Great judgment at the end of the UI-Ohio State game in 2004.
— Bouquet of red roses: To solid ref Bo Boroski, who worked both games in which John Groce drew technicals this season but let Mark Whitehead and Eric Curry do the dirty work.
— Smelly plant: Can’t help myself. That late blocking call on Meyers Leonard in 2012 at Minnesota was ridiculous. Apologies accepted from Bill Elk, Terry Wyman and Lamont Simpson.
— Silver dollar: My vindictiveness is surfacing again for Ed Corbett, John Cahill and Verne Harris. Flipping a coin would have provided a better chance of getting block-charge decisions correct. They fouled out UI center James Augustine in nine minutes of the 75-70 title-game loss to North Carolina in 2005 ... with 47,262 St. Louis fans as witnesses to this debacle.
— Exotic orchid: To Ed Hightower for a magical career, and for stepping aside this season while still at the top of your game ... and just when the rules committee is insisting refs make these chippy perimeter foul calls.
— Potted plant: To Gary Maxwell, Doug Shows and Antinio Petty, some advice. If you’re uncertain who tipped the ball out of bounds, ask somebody in the first row. Or today, check the monitor, which wasn’t yet a rule in the waning seconds of Illinois’ loss to Miami last year.
More Valentine gifts
— Heart-shaped chocolates: To Steve Welmer. Now that conditioning isn’t important, enjoy. You weren’t very good in your first UI-IU game, but time-producing forgiveness is a wonderful thing. Nobody had better relations with the players. Too bad your knees gave out.
— Pink lilies: To Jim Burr and Tim Higgins, please share. The Big East overreacted in suspending you for that sideline mistake. You guys made tough calls and sold them. One question: Jim, who’s your hairstylist?
— Flowering garden box: To Tom Rucker, always certain to make a traveling call that no one saw or imagined, including your two buddies. You were memorable, Tom.
— Bouquet of red roses: To veteran Mike Kitts for the calm way you handle heated situations.
— Stay-thin diet: To Mike Sanzere, so you can be easier for Steratore and others to carry as your judgment becomes even more shaky.
— Fancy money clip: To Tom O’Neill, you’re not too old. You’re still a kid with a baseball bat. But a clip is needed to carry all your earnings. The Big Ten shouldn’t have dropped you because few handle a whistle better.
— Graveside roses: To roly-poly Chicagoan Jim Enright, a shout-out. You perfected flamboyancy before Ted Valentine was born. You made the call on Bob Starnes’ incredible heave in 1963 at Northwestern. A third ref would have been unnecessary if you and Valentine had worked together.
— A Wreath of Thanks: To the late, great Dwight Wilkey, a Big Ten ref and teacher who pounded the King’s English into an unreceptive brain, and who helped build the excellent Monticello school system. I always sought your approval as a young writer and, when I criticized refs, you at least made me think twice.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.