Our night with John Adams, the NCAA’s head of officials

These days, he spends summers at home in Indianapolis and winters traveling the country under a relentless schedule. The following night, he will be in New Rochelle, N.Y., to see Iona College. One night later, he will make the short hop across the Whitestone Bridge to St. John’s.

Then it’s off to his alma mater of Indiana State on Saturday, across the country to San Diego State on Monday and up the West Coast to the University of San Francisco next Wednesday. And that’s just this week.

Come mid-March, Adams will plant his stakes at CBS headquarters in New York, where he will be on call during the NCAA Tournament, watching games and clarifying rules for the likes of Greg Gumbel, Seth Davis, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.

Sometimes – like when Butler defeated Pittsburgh in a controversial third-round game in 2011 – Adams will go on the air to explain calls to the masses. The role is similar to that of Fox’s Mike Pereira, who clarifies calls for viewers during NFL broadcasts. Except, as Adams says, “We were doing that well before they were.”

Although he watches the games to observe the officials, Adams knows more about college basketball than just about anyone you will meet. He raved about the way John Calipari handled his Kentucky team last season, calling it one of the more impressive coaching performances he’s ever seen. And when McCollum drilled a wide-open 3-pointer late
in the game, Adams couldn’t help but shake his head.

“I’m not a coach or anything, but how do you leave him open?” he asked.

The best game he’s ever seen in person? Villanova vs. Pittsburgh in the 2009 Elite Eight, which the Wildcats won, 78-76, on a last-second shot by Scottie Reynolds. The best player? Well, Michael Jordan, of course.

Adams said that officials make themselves aware of what each team tries to do offensively and defensively, so they can anticipate where the action is going to be. In this particular game, he said he would keep an eye on McCollum, because he knows that the guard is going to get a lot of touches.

“You look for the matchups,” Adams said. “You always want to be able to anticipate what is going to happen next, so you can be ready for it.”

He also noted that NCAA Tournament games are among the best-refereed because officials do not have a preconceived notion about which team is better.

“In the NCAA Tournament, you might have an official from California who knows who Duke is; maybe he’s seen them on TV but not in person,” he said. “And Lehigh, he’s never seen them, may not even know where they are from. So, you come into the game with a clean slate.”

This season, Adams is placing much of his focus on the block-charge call, which he believes is among the toughest for referees to get right. He is also concerned with the way palming violations are being called.

“It’s like a checklist for (officials),” he said. “Did we get a palming call tonight? Check. A traveling call? Check.”

All in all, Adams wants the same thing that players, coaches and fans want from referees – consistency. He looks at how well referees do three things over the course of a game:

  • Get the plays right. You would be surprised how many people at the NCAA would say that this isn’t the main priority, according to Adams.
  • Be an adequate communicator. You would think that being a great communicator would be better, but Adams doesn’t. “We don’t want them palling around with the coach, or taking too much time to explain things,” he says. “We don’t ever want to give a coach the feeling that we owe them something.”
  • Manage major moments. When time gets short and the game is close, how does a referee respond? Adams puts extra stock in these moments, admitting they can overshadow his opinion of the referees’ performances throughout the rest of the game.

As this game approaches its major moment time, Adams falls silent. He focuses in on each call a bit more, and laughs when Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore voices his displeasure with the lack of foul calls when one of his players drives to the basket.

“Moore wasn’t complaining about that call in the first half,” he says. “Now all of a sudden, he wants it.”

Lehigh ends up making a few more plays down the stretch and pulls away behind McCollum, who finishes with 30 points in a 77-66 victory. As time winds down, Adams praises the officials, saying that they did a fine job.

“And I would tell you if I didn’t think so,” he adds.

After all, that is his job.

Kels Dayton is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Slam Magazine. He also writes for roundballdaily.com.  You can follow him on Twitter.


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