UK Men's Basketball

Who’s biased about officiating: Kentucky’s coaches or the referees?

Former Auburn coach Sonny Smith likes to tell the story. He and former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson were being roasted. One of the speakers was Joe B. Hall.

As the former Kentucky coach spoke, a telephone buzzed. More than a few people began to check their cell phones.

“Don’t anybody answer that,” Smith recalled telling the audience. “That call is for Joe. Because Joe gets all the calls.”

Smith laughed as he retold the story last week. Hall said the moment was pre-planned comedy.

The calls a Kentucky coach “gets” got a public airing recently when — in response to a question about biased referees — John Calipari told The Rotary Club of Lexington that UK does not always get a fair whistle.

Calipari also told the Rotarians that this contention clashed with a widespread perception outside the Big Blue Nation that Kentucky’s opponents are the teams not getting a fair whistle.

“It’s just because the number of wins they’ve got,” Smith said of UK’s dynastic history of success. “That’s what it’s all about. Everybody thought Joe was getting all the calls. He wasn’t getting all the calls, but they were winning. (Rick) Pitino was winning. Tubby (Smith) was winning. Everybody wants to find the answer (for such success).”

Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson suggested that winning also breeds suspicion of referees. That might explain the complaints about officiating made by Calipari, who later said his comments at the Rotary were made in jest.

“Almost every team that is really good will feel they are not getting their share of calls,” Richardson said. “I think that comes with the territory. That comes with that bull’s-eye on your chest.”

Former Georgia coach Hugh Durham memorably captured UK’s perceived home-court advantage by saying a metaphorical “blue mist” descended from the top of Rupp Arena and influenced all below. That included the referees.

Durham liked to talk about how a referee would signal in a perfunctory way possession for Georgia when a ball went out of bounds. But the referee would seemingly look for applause from the Rupp Arena crowd on a call rewarding possession to Kentucky.

“Both calls were right,” Durham said last week. “Except he was selling the one for Kentucky by winding up and doing his three skips and a big wave down to white end.”

To explain how the blue mist affected referees, Durham borrowed from Calipari’s comment at the Rotary about UK sometimes playing against eight opponents (five players, three referees).

“They thought they were playing against eight,” Durham said. “I thought they were playing with eight.”

When contacted last week, Hall said that he could identify with Calipari questioning the fairness of calls. But the former UK coach conceded that Durham had a point about Rupp Arena. At the mention of blue mist, he said, “I don’t doubt it. I’ll admit it.”

Referees are human, said Hall, adding that a referee might be sympathetic to a decided underdog or swayed in other ways.

Forty-four years later, Hall remains convinced that the 1975 national championship game against UCLA can serve as an example of referees under an influence. UCLA Coach John Wooden had announced it would be the last game in his iconic career. Hall also suggested that it was not coincidental that pregame talk of UK’s rough-house playing style preceded foul trouble reducing UK big men Rick Robey and Mike Phillips to 14 and 16 minutes of game action, respectively. Referees Hank Nichols and Bob Wortman called 28 fouls on Kentucky and 19 on UCLA. It should be noted that Nichols was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. Wortman became supervisor of Big Ten officials after he retired as a referee.

“They were helping Wooden win his last game and his 10th NCAA championship,” Hall said of Nichols and Workman. “And knocked me out of one. You think that doesn’t gall me?”

Not amused

During the Kentucky Sports Radio show Wednesday, John Calipari said he had been kidding the week before when he told The Rotary Club of Lexington that UK gets no calls because referees were biased against Kentucky.

An edgy question from a Rotarian prompted Calipari to say UK does not get any calls, that referees think UK has enough advantages already and that sometimes it has felt like UK’s five were competing against eight.

“We’re joking and laughing,” said Calipari, who added that he was taken aback when his extended comments on officiating were taken seriously.

Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, was not amused.

“There are things we kid around about and things we shouldn’t be kidding around about,” he said. “To me, that’s one (that should not be the target for humor). … It’d be like we were making jokes about the impartiality of a sitting judge. That’s not someplace we want to go as a society unless we can demonstrate it, and we can get the person removed because that’s what we want: impartiality from our judges and we want impartiality from our sports officials.

“But John Calipari said we’re not impartial. Then back it up with the data. Otherwise, stop talking.”

Few would benefit?

When asked about the California law enabling college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses beginning in 2023, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said that not many players could do so.

“Maybe there’s 1 percent or 2 percent that may have commercial value,” he said.

But David Ridpath, a professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University and the president of The (reform-minded) Drake Group, suggested more players could benefit than it might seem.

“Even the backup punter on the football team is probably a superstar at his local high school or at least a big name,” Ridpath said. “That person could go back and conduct a clinic or a camp. And, now, even that is impermissible.”

NBA to college

Michigan’s first-year coach, Juwan Howard, spent the last 25 years in the NBA. This led sportswriter James Hawkins of The Detroit News to ask Big Ten coaches: Is it harder to go from college to the NBA or vice versa?

“I’m convinced it’s harder to go from pro to college because we have so many different things,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “In pro ball, everything is not (the coach’s) fault. (In college), a guy leaves his garbage in the hallway, it’s my fault. So those things are going to be different, and there are a lot more people tugging at you.”

Game for charity

Alabama will play Georgia Tech in a charity exhibition game on Oct. 27. Proceeds will benefit the American Red Cross Hurricane Dorian Relief Fund.

The NCAA allows a school to play a Division I team in one of its two preseason games if the event serves as a fund-raiser for a catastrophic event, Alabama said in a news release.

Alabama’s first-year coach, Nate Oats, is familiar with such for-charity exhibitions. His Buffalo team played at Rhode Island as a tune-up before the 2017-18 season. Proceeds went to the American Red Cross.


To former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. Arkansas plans to officially christen Nolan Richardson Court next Sunday when the Razorbacks play Little Rock in an exhibition game.

Proceeds will benefit Arkansans impacted by flooding last spring.

Happy birthday

To Mark Krebs. He turned 33 on Thursday. … To Keldon Johnson. He turned 20 on Friday. … To Mike Ballenger. He turned 57 on Friday. … To first-year Alabama coach Nate Oats. He turns 45 on Sunday (today). … To Matt Scherbenske. He turns 32 on Monday. … To Todd Ziegler. He turns 54 on Wednesday.

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Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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