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Coaches Corner: Ruminations With The Refs - Veterans Reflect on The Job, The Joys, and Ways to Retain Young Officials

Coaches Corner: Jeff Ryan

They have seen and experienced a lot over the last 30 plus years. A rifle-toting school employee at a football game in Northern Wisconsin armed to protect fans from lurking, popcorn smelling bears. Rhubarbs involving legendary St. John’s Football Coach John Gagliardi. And confrontations with fans in gyms, restaurants, and parking lots across Wisconsin.  But for WIAA Officials Dan Hoffman, Jim Celt, and Jeff Linehan the rewards of the vocation far outnumber the pratfalls and pitfalls of a part time job they have enjoyed for over a combined 100 years.

Familiar to many Wisconsin coaches, players, and fans, Hoffman, Celt, and Linehan seemingly have officiated every sport. You name the sport, chances are they have donned the whistle. They have seen changes in officiating and athletics over the last three decades and agreed the vast majority have been positive. As each enters the salad days of their officiating careers, the trio reflects fondly on the years spent refereeing prep sports and opine about ways to entice the younger generation to take up the whistle. 

“It’s a great job,” says Durand native Dan Hoffman. “You get to meet so many people and develop relationships with individuals from a lot of schools and communities that will last a lifetime.”

UW-River Falls graduate Jeff Linehan concurs.  "Some of the best friendships I have revolve around the time I have spent as an official. You really develop a strong sense of camaraderie that is very unique.”

“I have met a great deal of unique characters over the years,” says Ellsworth native Jim Celt. “Ron Schultz from Fall Creek and Pat Hammond of Eau Claire North come to mind as people I came to know through officiating. Great characters, great people. There are great people everywhere around Wisconsin and as refs we get a chance to meet a lot of them.”

In the process of meeting hundreds of coaches, players, and fans across Wisconsin the three have developed impressive officiating resumes that include multiple WIAA State Tournament assignments, a NCAA Division II college football championship assignment, and countless regional and sectional contest nods throughout Western and Northern Wisconsin. 

“I think we have a pretty good reputation,” says Linehan. “Many people know that we have been at this for quite a while and I think that adds to our credibility as officials.”

Hoffman agrees. “We understand coaches and players get caught up in the emotions of the game and I think we have developed a reputation of being very fair and patient officials. I think that has helped us continue to officiate for as long as we have and I think the coaches, fans, and the players know that we are going to do the best job we can each time we work a game.”

But sometimes that patience is tested. All concurred they have had some “doozies” over the years.

One was hit in the back with a chair thrown by a coach at youth basketball game in LaCrosse. Another was almost run off the road by a player after a baseball tournament game. One received a Saturday morning phone from a football Head Coach requesting an address so he could send him the game film and watch “the worst officiated game in history”. And another was screamed at in a restaurant after a basketball game while eating a bowl of soup. 

However, when it comes to sportsmanship of coaches, players, and fans each believes at the high school level things have improved. But when it comes to the lowers levels of competition, nothing could be further from the truth. 

“The behavior of these coaches, fans, and players during these weekend tournaments is something else,'' says Celt. “It unbelievable to see how the coaches and other adults act during these games. It is really embarrassing and it’s a big problem.”

Dubbed “weekend warrior tournaments” by Linehan, youth football and especially youth basketball tournaments have the most toxic officiating environment.  “Who are the people that are officiating many of these games? In many cases it’s young kids. No wonder they don’t want to continue reffing after the abuse they take.” And for many young officials expecting a teenager to police the behavior of scores of ranting adults for 12 hours on a Saturday is simply a bridge too far. “If you want to retain officials you need to meet this issue head on,” says Celt. “Community members, coaches at all levels, and the fans need to recognize the problem and find ways to remedy it.” 

On the other hand, at the high school level the trio has seen the opposite trend. “I think it has gotten better at the high school level. You still have coaches and players who throw temper tantrums, but in the stands you don’t have a huge group of fans yelling at the refs anymore,” says Hoffman. “It’s usually one loud mouth that everybody hears because the games are not as well attended as they used to be years ago. Fan problems are more individual specific today.”  

“I’ve kicked fans out the gym because of their behavior,” says Celt. “As an official you don’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it’s necessary and from my experience once you do that it’s the end of the negative behavior.” All three acknowledged raucous, enthusiastic fan behavior is part of the high school athletic experience. “There are few things better than big crowds at sporting events. It adds so much to the whole experience,” says Hoffman. “We certainly don’t expect fans to clap politely like they are at the opera. They should be loud and boisterous, but it needs to be done in the proper way without verbally abusing refs and players.” 

When it comes to the behavior of coaches, Celt believes all you need to do is watch the coach. “If the head coach or the coaching staff is complaining about the officiating, jumping up and down, etc. you are going to see the players doing the same thing. If we see a players acting in an unsportsmanlike manner, chances are the coach displays those same types of behaviors.” Linehan adds “You can tell the coaches who emphasize sportsmanship and those that don’t. It is really obvious.”

But when asked about the shortage officials across Wisconsin and the country, it’s the weekend tournaments that emerge as the primary culprit. Additionally, Hoffman believes these weekend tournaments not only discourage people from going into officiating, they have also hurt athletics in general.

“The fundamental skills of athletes, especially in basketball, have really diminished,” says Hoffman. Celt and Linehan nod in agreement. “The fundamentals in boys basketball have really suffered,” says Celt. “These young kids are playing almost every weekend playing three or four games every Saturday and they are not getting better.”  

Additonally, Hoffman believes the “next level concept” has greatly hurt the game. “So many kids and parents today have this belief that an athletic scholarship will be there waiting for them once they graduate from high school. There has emerged a sense of entitlement and specialization in high school sports that is really ugly and has really hurt high school athletics.”

Linehan, Celt, and Hoffman were all three sport athletes in high school and rue the day when the three sports athletes - even at small schools - has become the exception instead of the rule. 

And perhaps the saddest thing shared by the three was said by Dan Hoffman. “It just seems like athletes don’t smile anymore. High School athletics are supposed to be fun. A lot of these kids don’t look like they are having any fun and that is really sad.” Celt adds “these kids have played competitively for so long I think many of the kids are just getting tired of it all. We know participation is down and I think that is one of the factors.  

For the three of them officiating has allowed them to stay in touch with the games they grew up watching and playing. “The vast majority of athletes don’t play competitively once they graduate from high school so getting involved as an official allows you to stay connected to the sport,” says Celt. 

And once you “get the hang of it” all believe it’s a great deal of fun. “It is the closest thing to playing the game. The sights, the sounds, the entire atmosphere of high school sports is wonderful,” says Hoffman “and we need to encourage young officials to persevere and stay with it.” 

And “staying with it” means dealing with the heart of the problem - weekend tournaments. “We have to get these youth coaches to improve their behavior. No one wants to be screamed at while they are doing their job, let alone a 17 or 18 year old kid,” says Linehan.

For Celt, Linehan, and Hoffman it really comes down to the issue of respect.  

When it comes to fans Linehan believes it is pretty simple. “Be a fan and not a critic. Your sole job as a spectator to cheer on the team and support the athletes.”  

“And we have to support these young officials,” says Hoffman. “Veteran officials should mentor and work with younger officials and provide some guidance. There are several communities that are doing this and I think it has been a very positive development.” Hoffman points to recent officiating clinics sponsored by area communities that were well attended by young, aspiring officials. “Youth sports organizations need to be proactive if they want to reverse the trend of losing officials,” says Celt. 

In the meantime, the 2020 officiating calendar for Celt, Linehan, and Hoffman is filling up fast. True, there are some hunting and fishing forays planned, but the three veteran officials will wear the striped shirt the next two months, strap on the shin guards this spring, and put on the referee hat this fall. 

“There is a reason we keep doing it,” says Linehan. “It is just a whole lot of fun. And we want other young officials to have the same experiences we have had over the years.”

As the evening came to a close, I noticed two things the three veteran officials did constantly during our long conversation. Jim Celt, Dan Hoffman, and Jeff Linehan did a lot of smiling and laughing, two emotions not usually associated with the thankless job high school officiating. There is no doubt, their part time job has brought them great joy and delight. And with a little more help and support from coaches, players, and fans younger officials will be able to experience those same emotions as they referee in football, officiate in volleyball, or serve as field judge in track and field. So let’s support our officials. We all have a role to keep them in the game.

Written by Prescott baseball coach Jeff Ryan. With a career record of 371-108 in 21 years, he was the WBCA Coach of the Year in 2013, a three-time District Coach of the Year, led the Cardinals to the 2012 Division 3 state title, and was inducted into the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2019.