There can be certain beliefs about referees having bias. People believe they are favoring the home team. People believe they are favoring a ranked team. people believe they are favoring a team that has had success.
The truth is none of that is true.
The trouble with referees is that they just don’t care which side wins or loses.
Wendell Miller, who graduated from Iowa Mennonite School in 1970, Hesston College in 1972 and the University of Iowa in 1978 with a Business Degree, did not care about the final score or who had the most points when he officiated high school basketball games. He only cared about enforcing the rules.
Officiating intramural games in college initially sparked Miller’s goal to be a referee.
Miller grew up in the Kalona area and at one point in his time as a ref was set to officiate a Mid-Prairie boys/girls doubleheader at Clear Creek High School with another official.
“Before the game, the athletic director came into our dressing room and asked me if our commissioner had spoken to me about taking me off the game,” Miller said. “I said, ‘no’ and asked him why. He said some people found out that I grew up in Kalona and didn’t think I should be working the game. My partner spoke up and said he grew up in Oxford, so that should even things. The AD walked out the door without saying another word.”
Fans at basketball games seem to always have another word, especially for an official. Often the loudest a crowd will get at a game is wanting a technical called. However, if a referee has control of a game, it never gets to that point.
Miller, who now resides in Iowa City, was a high school official in the 1980s and 19990s and never called a disqualification on anybody.
“I never threw anybody out,” Miller said. “I always warned a coach before I called a technical, unless it was for swearing.”
Miller had a policy of always giving a warning first, maybe even multiple ones.
Even a technical for swearing had to be specific.
“If it was directed at another player or at a call,” it would be a technical, Miller said.
He would also allow that it may have been a more personal oath that was swore.
“If I thought it was because they were mad at themselves, I would warn them when I could get close to them without making a big deal out of it and just give them a caution,” Miller said.
A referee doesn’t get noticed unless he makes a bad call, but whatever the call, someone somewhere thinks it is bad and that is usually a coach.
“Several coaches were always my favorites,” Miller said. “Don Showalter at Mid-Prairie and Butch Pederson at West Branch, these were two coaches that I could admit I either made a wrong call or missed a call and they would say ‘okay’ and would let it go.”
In a recent article in the Des Moines Register, Dave Suther relates an experience officiating in central Iowa in 2000. He quit in 2006 when he got fed up with “awful” treatment, but he returned to officiating when asked to come back in 2014. He remembers one 2006 night, in particular, that prompted his eight-year hiatus.
Fans at a varsity game hated one of his calls, he said, and they were letting him hear it. Suther turned to the home school’s athletic director to see if he was trying to control the crowd.
Turns out he was screaming just as loud as the angry fans next to him, Suther said.
“I distinctly remember being at the free-throw line during a timeout going, ‘Shoot. We can’t go to the AD. Now what are we going to do? Are we going to have to go to the sheriff?’” he said.
“Then we look over at the sheriff, and the sheriff was talking trash. We’re like: ‘We’re screwed.’”
Miller’s “worst” game had a different take.
“I do not remember the schools involved, but it was early in my varsity career,” he said. “It was a small school and it was the boys game. Neither team was very good and we called 55 total fouls and the game lasted almost two hours. Add that to the number of whistles for turnovers and nobody was happy that night. The home coach followed us out of the gym and wanted us to return our checks. He said he was going to call the state association and complain.”
Threats are often just that, and rarely are they promises.
“We never heard from the state association,” Miller said.
Miller’s “best” game was also his final time with the whistle.
“Maybe because it was my last game, but I would have to say the substate game between Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Dubuque Wahlert was the best,” Miller said. “It was between two good girls teams and was well played. There were not many fouls or whistles.”
Fans complaining about whistles blown or not blown have prompted some officials to plead for school administrators to enforce zero-tolerance policies and eject problem-causing fans.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association can’t control that. That’s up to the schools’ administrators.
In the Des Moines Register article, Keota athletic director Rod Hill said he wants that zero-tolerance policy directed toward coaches, too. He doesn’t like that coaches are allowed to stand up and berate officials to their face, he said. He wants coaches kept on the bench.
“I’d like to see the basketball coaches get their behinds on the bench and worry about their players and quit trying to be an official,” he said. “If you want to quote me on that, I would take that quote a hundred times over.”
Also in the Register article, West Des Moines Valley Activities Director Brad Rose said he thinks it’s a good idea for coaches to try officiating. Just one season, he said.
While coaching baseball at Ottumwa from 1995-2003, Rose would officiate youth basketball on the side. He quickly understood how difficult the job is.
“After one season, I had a whole different perspective,” he said. “There are two sides to every story, and if you only understand one side, that’s a weakness.”
Anybody involved in sports has to know that there are not any two referees that can call the same kind of basketball game or umpire the same strike zone or see a holding call the same in football.
”One year I was set to do football, but I was given more responsibilities at my job,” Miller said. “I worked at Yoder, Inc., during that time so with the extra responsibilities, I decided to wait a year to get my football license. However, that was a rainy fall and I decided that I didn’t want to stand outside in the weather during a rainstorm.
“Officiating did not interfere otherwise with my job as my boss was flexible with my schedule. I usually went to work early if I needed to leave early for a game.”
When an athlete plays a perfect game or when a coach calls a perfect game, maybe then an official will ref a perfect game. There is no maybe about it. It is not going to happen for a coach or athlete or official. The perfect game doesn’t exist. Yet a referee is expected to always call the perfect game and it is never expected of a player or a coach.
“Officials have a goal to officiate at the state tournament, just like teams want to play there,” Miller said. “Substate was one game away from state, and I have thought about it since that if I had remained an official for several more years, I would have been chosen to officiate at the state tournament.”
Although that was one milestone missed, there are great memories.
“There are several players that I remember as basketball players like Marv Cook (1981-1985) at West Branch,” Miller said. “I remember his personality as having fun. Standing beside him on the free throw lane or an out of bounds throw in, he always had something nice to say. Marv went on to play football at the U of I and then in the NFL.
“Another player was Brenda Frese (1984-1988). She played at Cedar Rapids Washington and is currently the head women’s coach at Maryland University.”
Miller has long since stopped putting the stripes on.
“One year I substituted for an official that wanted a year off to watch his son that was a senior play basketball,” Miller said. “I enjoyed working with the other official because that was my first experience working Mississippi Valley Conference and Mississippi Athletic Conference games. However, it made an impression on me that as my children got older, I didn’t want to miss their extracurricular activities, so I decided to retire as my kids got older.”
Miller has grandsons that played at Iowa Mennonite School (now Hillcrest Academy) and keeps track of their stats as he watched games.
“As I watch games, I do critique officials,” Miller said. “I don’t like to talk negatively about officials or calls missed or called wrong (in my opinion) but people around me will ask me about some calls or what the rules are.”
The level of the basketball game makes a difference for Miller.
“I don’t focus on the officials as much when I watch Iowa games, but am able to watch the games,” he said. “However, when I go to Iowa games, I do not comment on calls like a lot of fans do.”
Basketball is a hard game to officiate because it is fast and the crowd is so close.
“I heard Don Denkinger (major league baseball umpire) once say, ‘People expect officials to be perfect and improve from there. So true,” Miller said.