UK Men's Basketball

Referee who received threats from Kentucky fans also multiple award-winner

Kentucky Coach John Calipari argued a call with referee John Higgins in the first half of the South Regional finals game against North Carolina in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Memphis.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari argued a call with referee John Higgins in the first half of the South Regional finals game against North Carolina in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Memphis. AP

On Tuesday, referee John Higgins filed a lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio, its founder Matthew H. Jones and its managing editor Drew Franklin.

Before, during and after Tuesday, the FBI continued an investigation into college basketball corruption.

While still catching our breath, here are a few leftovers from a newsy week.

Great Call Award

The National Association of Sports Officials plans to award its Great Call Award to John Higgins, the referee who became the target of death threats and defamatory social messaging from UK fans. Clearly, those fans did not think Higgins’ calls in UK’s loss to North Carolina last March were great.

Barry Mano, the founder and president of NASO, explained.

“When people hear Great Call Award, they think we’re talking about some call he made during a game,” Mano said. “We don’t do that.”

The award recognizes exemplary behavior, humanitarian efforts and, in general, the setting of a good example, Mano said.

NASO named Higgins the winner of its Great Call Award because of how the referee maintained his composure in the face of abuse from UK fans.

“He poured no gasoline,” Mano said. “He acted completely professionally. A lot of emotions were involved. He controlled all that, and I think he was a shining light for how we have to handle some of these things when they come our way.”

When Mano told him of the award, Higgins expressed his gratitude. “It’s something I need and my family needs,” Mano recalled Higgins saying.

Some UK fans threatened Higgins’ life and flooded his business website with defamatory social media messages after Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Higgins’ suit alleges that Kentucky Sports Radio published Higgins’ contact information and enticed fans to use it. Matt Jones tweeted that the suit was “frivolous.”

Change of venue

Incidentally, the NASO planned to present John Higgins with the Great Call Award at its annual Celebrate Officiating Gala, which was Aug. 1-2 in Louisville.

Because of concerns about security, it was decided to present Higgins with the award later this year at a location outside of Kentucky.

The change of venue came after Higgins called NASO president Barry Mano to ask about security in Louisville.

“I’m sort of nonplussed when I hear this,” Mano said of the conversation. “And right away, I say, ‘Hey, man, what’s up?’ And he said, ‘Well, the word has gotten out that I’m coming to Louisville, and the death threats and the social media stuff has started again.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. It’s, like, three months later (after the UK-UNC game).’”


Death threats were not treated as a joking matter.

Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said that John Higgins was given added security at this year’s Final Four from the time his plane landed in Phoenix until he departed.

“I mean, c’mon,” Mano said. “Seriously. That’s where we’ve gone. Wow.”

Then again, Mano said that NASO monitors safety issues regarding officials. Two soccer officials in the U.S. were killed in the last four years, Mano said.

Official of Year

The day before John Higgins filed a lawsuit, The Atlanta Tipoff Club named him this year’s winner of its Naismith College Official of the Year Award for men’s basketball. Al Link was named Official of the Year in women’s basketball.

“Both John and Al have demonstrated a tremendous passion for basketball officiating, and their positive contributions to the sport are well documented,” Eric Oberman said in a news release. Oberman is executive director of the Atlanta Tipoff Club.

“Off the court, they have been amazing mentors for the younger officials, which in turn makes the industry even that much better,” Oberman said of Higgins and Link.

Familiar names among past winners of the Official of the Year Award include Tony Greene (2010), Ted Valentine (2005), Gerald Boudreaux (2000), Andre Pattillo (1999), Lenny Wirtz (1995), Ed Hightower (1992), Don Rutledge (1991), and John Clougherty (1989).

Business as usual

As for the ongoing FBI investigation, intent is a key element in the legal definition of fraud. The government has to prove — beyond a reasonable doubt — an intent to defraud.

The investigation involves prospects, college coaches, money managers, agents and sports apparel companies. Assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and Auburn have been arrested.

Cari Grieb, a professor of sports law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and a practicing attorney, recently speculated on a possible defense mounted by those charged as a result of the FBI investigation of college basketball corruption.

“Defendants will probably argue their conduct here is just business as usual in 21st Century American college sports …,” Grieb said. “So maybe there was no intent to defraud. They were intending to do business as usual.”

Business as usual was a recurring theme when seeking reaction to the initial report of the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.

“Money always turns people and makes people make bad decisions. …,” former UK All-American Tony Delk said. “It’s been going on for years. I don’t think it’s something new. … With money involved, you’re going to get the worst out of people.”

Marsha Poe, an annual camper for Big Blue Madness tickets, painted with a broad brush. She said the allegations of prospects being paid marked “the industry all together. … It’s always happened.”

A notable change from yesteryear’s business as usual was the growing influence of corporations (i.e. shoe companies) in recruiting, she said.

David Ridpath, the president of the reform-minded Drake Group, said that he believed people seeking money were common in recruiting.

Of elite prospects, Ridpath said, there were “very few of them that don’t have these scumbags peddling them.

“My opinion has been that this has been an open secret. Doesn’t mean everyone was doing it. But, clearly, if you wanted to compete and you wanted to be in the elite, I think there was a strong possibility that many schools were doing it.”

Then and now

Deron Feldhaus, who holds a special place in UK athletic lore as one of The Unforgettables, bemoaned the importance of AAU basketball in modern-day recruiting.

“I just think the game of basketball has changed, the recruiting part,” he said.

“AAU basketball has really ruined college basketball, the way it used to be. When I played, I went to two blue-chip camps. … The recruiting process was just easy. …

“The big prospects coming out of high school right now, it’s all about money. I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to get my education. I wanted to play for the University of Kentucky.”

And now? “The ones that know they’re going pro, they’re thinking of their future, not the university they’re playing for,” Feldhaus said.

Real change?

Looking to the future, there is talk of sweeping changes in college athletics as a result of the FBI investigation into corruption.

Drake Group president David Ridpath is skeptical.

“I would love to think (leaders in college athletics and academics) will leverage this into real change,” he said. “Is this revolting enough that the government got involved?”

Ridpath, whose group seeks to enhance the educational component in college athletics, said his cynical side doubts that much will change.

“With time, we’ll kind of go back to normal,” he said.

Ridpath described how the rationalization will go: “OK, we looked at this. The bad apples are going. Everything is fine because we just love the sport so much.”

Ridpath’s conclusion? “I hypothesize that nobody cares,” he said. “Maybe I’m wrong. But I highly doubt it. Let’s use this as real change. But I have to be honest. I’m not holding my breath.”

‘Pro Day’

In a return to what passes for normalcy, here’s a reminder: UK will stage its fourth annual “Pro Day” on Sunday night. This is the practice staged for NBA scouts. In the past, scouts have said they use this practice as a way to form a baseline from which to judge player improvement or regression.

The SEC Network will televise the show from 7 to 9 p.m. Sean Farnham and Seth Greenberg will serve as hosts.

Happy birthday

To Rex Chapman. He turned 50 on Thursday. … To Adrian “Odie” Smith. He turned 81 on Thursday. … To former Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo. He turned 51 on Thursday. … To Reggie Hanson. He turns 49 on Sunday (today). … To Bill Busey. He turns 69 on Sunday (today). … To former Tennessee Coach Wade Houston. He turns 73 on Monday. … To former South Carolina Coach Dave Odom. He turns 75 on Monday. … To Mark Krebs. He turns 31 on Tuesday. … To Mike Ballenger. He turns 55 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton