Kroner: Want to ref a big game? Get in line
To take part in Fred's next prep chat, click here.
A puzzling paradox exists in the football officiating world.
There is enough of a shortage – especially around central Illinois – that some schools schedule Saturday games just to get an established crew at their site. It wasn't the first choice of Milford/Cissna Park and East Central to have a free Friday night the second week of the high school season in September, but it was a necessary evil.
"I made phone calls as far away as Springfield and even offered to pay mileage, to no avail," said Heritage athletic director Lori Archer, who had the task of finding officials for the East Central home game at Shiloh.
Though the lack of officials in the sport can't be doubted – the IHSA has 2,494 registered this year for the state's 549 football-playing schools – there's also concern about how a newcomer can get started.
The competition for the veteran crews is so great they are in demand years in advance. Ridge Farm's Don Hackler, in his 31st year of officiating high school football, has begun accepting games for the 2016 season – yes, seven years from now – and Villa Grove's Grant Nohren, who worked the Class 7A state title game in 2006, has virtually all of his 2015 dates committed.
Where's the incentive for young officials to enter the world of football officiating if it might be the better part of a decade before they get a varsity game in an upper-division conference?
When Brian Easter became athletic director at Centennial, he was amazed at what he found.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted that we were hiring football officials five to six years in advance," Easter said.
"Some of these guys, will they still be officiating in five to six years?"
Bloomington athletic director John Szabo said the system is not ideal, but he believes it's important to be a part of it.
"I agree that it is not good for the newer officials," Szabo said, "but when all of the schools are hiring their crews this early, we have to do the same or we will not have the top crews. With where our program is at (annually ranked among the state's Top 10 in Class 6A), my coaching staff likes to get the top crews we can."
Szabo has all of his football games scheduled through 2013 and more than half of his dates are filled for 2014 and 2015.
"I have my varsity and junior varsity crews hired through 2013," Archer said. "I probably would have gone further out, but currently our conference schedule only goes through 2013."
Not what it seems
Oakwood athletic director Tim Lee said first impressions, however, can create a false view. The Vermilion Valley Conference, he said, has "crew chiefs booked through 2013."
The advantage of booking only a crew chief and not the entire five-man crew is to allow flexibility.
"I don't know for sure who will be on those crews," Lee said. "As crews break apart or retirements happen, new officials are constantly being brought onto the crews."
True enough, Hackler said, but there's an important point not to overlook.
"To be eligible for the playoffs (as an official)," Hackler said, "crews have to do at least seven games together."
With a nine-game regular season, that leaves little room for movement.
"By in large," Nohren said, "guys don't miss."
He should know.
"I'm in my 26th year, and I've missed two games," he said. "One was for the (2002) birth of my son. You try to plan your fall around it.
"We have one guy who goes on a fishing trip, but he leaves on a Saturday and returns on Thursday."
Changes in crews
The advance scheduling offers the potential for another headache for school administrators. They may successfully fill their dates, but a school that is struggling this season may emerge as a powerhouse within five years. Translation: The most experienced crews may not wind up with the biggest games.
It doesn't take long for a program to turn around, either. Consider Westville's recent ascension. The Tigers won a total of one game during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, but they played in state championship games in 2006 and 2007.
On the flip side, there's no guarantee a crew that is hired today for a 2015 game will show up with the same officials who are working this season. What may appear to be a veteran crew when the contract was finalized could be one with two or three new members.
The crew Nohren is on has undergone almost a complete transformation since he was added. Only Jim Voyles of Tuscola remains from the group that took the field with him in 1984.
Avoiding deja vu
Compounding the problem is another nightmare in the works. Athletic directors who independently hire their officials won't have trouble getting different crews for each home game, but they may go on the road and see the same people at one or two other sites.
"I see a lot of overlap," Easter said. "Guys we hire also work Danville, Bloomington, Central and Urbana (games). It's not a good situation if crews see a team more than once or twice in a season."
Some area leagues, such as the Okaw Valley, Sangamon Valley and Vermilion Valley conferences, have taken steps to avoid duplication. They've hired a person to coordinate the scheduling of all football officials for the league games.
Hackler said, for example, "I know my dates for the Sangamon in 2013, but I don't know where I will be going."
A year or so in advance, the scheduling coordinator will make those choices and notify the crew chiefs.
How to start
Nohren said newcomers into football officiating have several avenues to take on their path to earning varsity assignments.
"Join an (officials') association. Show up to games and introduce yourself to the officials," he said. "Catch a crew as they are coming onto the field and ask if you can talk with them after the game. When people are proactive, you take note of that.
"We are anxious to see younger officials get involved. You never know when you'll have an injury or a sickness. We're always on the lookout for young officials who don't have games and keep them on a list. We always have a working list of subs we want to contact."
Tuscola athletic director Ron O'Hearn said he is pleased to see active officials take the lead.
"Many crews are no longer five-man crews," O'Hearn said. "They're working in groups of seven or more. They share assignments.
"Young crew members work with more experienced members during freshman and JV games. As they grow more comfortable, they are worked into varsity games."
Lee said that practice is becoming more prevalent.
"Experienced officials seem to do a very nice job of training the young officials and putting them in spots where they are comfortable," he said.
'A sore spot'
Easter is optimistic the Big 12 will eventually join the list of leagues with a scheduling coordinator. Until then, however, he sees little choice.
"I could put my foot down and say I refuse to hire officials for 2015," he said, "but when 2012 rolls around, there won't be crews left. You have to keep up with the Joneses.
"That has been a sore spot for us as athletic directors."
Making use of a scheduling coordinator, Easter said, still will not solve one major hurdle.
"That doesn't address the question of new officials," he said.
The best solution, Easter added, is to be patient.
"Newer officials hook on with veteran guys and that's how you end up getting games," he said. "Eventually, guys will retire and you work your way in there."
Hope for the rookies
The IHSA has addressed the shortage of officials in football by removing the restriction on the number of times (three) a person can be assigned to a state championship game. The hope is that officials will not be as likely to retire if they still have the incentive of a possible state final game in their future.
Meanwhile, Eureka athletic director Jason Greene is trying to help younger crews move up.
"I usually watch a crew work lower- level games for two years and then give them a varsity game, if they deserve it," Greene said. "I try to form a relationship with them and then go on faith that they will improve enough to handle the varsity level in a few years.
"It's more important to me that they interact well with the coaches and the players than it is if they call a great holding call or whatever. As long as they work hard, act professional and show up on time, I'll give them a shot."
Westville athletic director Jeff Millis is confident that newcomers to high school football officiating will receive varsity games sooner than later.
"I think all good, young officials can work their way onto a crew," Millis said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at email@example.com.