- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

Craig Esherick's postgame news conferences usually don't provide much material for cable sports programs. But this one did, and Mike Tranghese was more than a little surprised at what he saw from the Georgetown basketball coach.

"It was totally out of character," said Tranghese, commissioner of the Big East Conference.

Mainly for that reason, Tranghese said, no disciplinary was taken against Esherick, who loudly and extensively criticized the officiating after Sunday's game against West Virginia, and took the added measure of confronting the officials as they were entering an elevator at MCI Center.

"Craig has no history of this," said Tranghese, who nevertheless warned Esherick about doing it again. "It's one reason I cut him some slack."

Though Georgetown won the game, Esherick erupted over what he perceived as officials ignoring the rough treatment afforded star forward Mike Sweetney all season. Esherick might just have been sticking up for his player, but his actions at least merited the consideration of suspension. (A Georgetown spokesman said yesterday the Big East told Esherick to refrain from talking about officials in any forum and that he would not agree to be interviewed.)

No Big East basketball coach has ever been suspended. Tranghese said in one sense, Esherick's outburst reminded him of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno who, after a loss to Iowa in September sprinted after an official leaving the field, grabbed him by the shoulder and scolded him for purported malfeasance.

"These are two good people," Tranghese said. "If you see coaches with the kind of reputations they have acting this way, it's almost a warning. We're seeing more and more of it."

Several coaches have behaved badly of late, and it's always over the officiating, suddenly a hot topic. Ohio State's victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship was highlighted by a controversial pass interference call, and as much attention has been focused on the officials during the NFL playoffs as on the teams.

The day before Esherick went off, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher pulled a Paterno, sprinting after an official and yelling at him after a loss to Tennessee in the AFC playoffs. Cowher had several beefs, notably a roughing the kicker penalty that allowed the Titans a second chance to kick the game-winning field goal. Cowher ripped the officials after the game. Later, he apologized.

Earlier this month, Virginia basketball coach Pete Gillen blasted officials after a loss to N.C. State. Gillen was not reprimanded by the ACC, but he felt badly enough to say he was sorry.

"I was frustrated, and I was trying to point out some things," he said. "I didn't do it in the right manner."

John Guthrie, supervisor of ACC and Southeastern Conference officials, sounded like Tranghese when he said, "That was very unlike Pete."

More extreme were the actions of Indiana coach Mike Davis, who stormed onto the court to scream at the officials during a December game against Kentucky in Indianapolis. Davis was ejected and drew a one-game suspension.

And how about Pat Riley? During a postgame soliloquy in December, the beleaguered coach of the Miami Heat said, "The officials hate me, absolutely," and claimed referee Steve Javie told him during a game last year, "It's giving us absolute delight to watch you and your team die." That cost Riley $50,000.

After criticizing officials in October, Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill was reprimanded by the Southeastern Conference for violating the league's "code of ethics." As for Paterno, who showed he can move pretty well for a then-75-year-old, the Big Ten took no action after his sideline sprint.

In fact, Paterno's theatrics, which included more criticism after a loss to Michigan, prompted Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to take a closer look, and a couple of officials were suspended.

"Joe Paterno has been a leader, both inside and outside the game, and over the course of decades he's come to represent our best values," Delany said at the time. "So if he loses confidence in the system, even temporarily, we've lost a lot. And he's not the only one to suggest we have a problem.''

Still, Paterno eventually apologized.

Delany said the actions of Paterno and the other coaches were unusual and do not represent the norm.

"All those guys wish they hadn't gone there," Delany said. "I think they went there under great duress, but they did not want to be there."

Such behavior isn't exactly new. Coaches would critique the officials and get fined here, Bob Knight would toss a chair there. U.S. soccer coach Bruce Arena was suspended during the 2000 World Cup qualifiers for referee-bashing. The gold standard of postgame outbursts was set during the 1988 Stanley Cup playoffs, when New Jersey Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld followed referee Don Koharski off the ice and uttered the immortal line, "Have another doughnut, you fat pig."

Yet such incidents were relatively rare. Usually a coach, despite his obvious anger, would make comments after the game along the lines of "you saw what happened, you write it" or "I could say something about the officiating, but I don't want to get in trouble." But now a lot of coaches are going where Delany says they wish they hadn't.

"We've certainly had a flurry of it," Big East supervisor of officials Art Hyland said, and this was before Maryland coach Gary Williams uncharacteristically criticized the officiating in public after the Terrapins lost to Wake Forest on Wednesday night in a game marked by frayed tempers on both sides.

"I'm a little tired that supposedly there's rules in the ACC about coaches commenting after games about officials," Williams told reporters. "It seems like it's OK if you do it. This is the first time I've ever commented on officials after a game."

There are indeed rules in every conference about criticizing officials, and purportedly it is not OK. Still, said Guthrie, "there's more of that now. I don't know the exact answer."

But he has some ideas on the subject. Guthrie said he is surprised even more coaches don't go bonkers, given what seems to be increasing pressure to win.

"There's just a lot of heat on these guys, more than ever," said Guthrie, himself a former coach. "Talk shows, the Internet. Also, there's more money involved. One game can determine whether you go [to the NCAA tournament] or don't go."

Even Paterno and Riley, who have won national championships and NBA titles, respectively, and are considered among the giants of their professions, are not immune. Both have endured difficult times in recent years, strange territory for both. And it's well-accepted that, fair or not, a coach is only as good as his last game.

"They're human beings," Delany said. "The pressure is immense, the coverage non-stop, the oversight, the second-guessing. They're in tough positions, difficult positions. It's got to be a pressure-packed job. I'm sure Coach Paterno wouldn't have done that if the fire still wasn't burning brightly."

Although it is getting more difficult, most coaches, such as Miami football boss Larry Coker, toe the line. Coker publicly handled a crushing Fiesta Bowl defeat with apparent decorum, though many disputed the pass interference call on the Hurricanes' Glenn Sharpe in the end zone that enabled Ohio State to send the game into a second overtime.

"You hate for an official to have to make that call. You would like for it to be a legitimate call," Coker said, which, given the circumstances and the emotions, does not seem excessive.

This week Oklahoma State beat rival Oklahoma in a Big 12 basketball game on a 3-point shot that replays indicated was released after the shot clock had expired. Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson was visibly upset afterward but refrained from any untoward comments.

"That was a good [officiating] crew," Sampson said yesterday. "It was clear to me they missed the call, but after the game the first thing that came to my mind was that we've always been a terrific free throw shooting team, and we were seven of 15 from the line. And our two best players were 4-for-24 from the field."

But Sampson said he can understand why his colleagues sometimes show less restraint.

"It used to be our profession had curtains, or at least the shade pulled down," he said. "Now everyone can see everything you do. People on the Internet know more about our recruiting than my own people do.

"Anytime you have a visible sport like basketball and the stakes are as high as they are, a coach who feels like he's being slighted is liable to speak up a lot more than he did 10 years ago. They don't call it March Madness for nothing. Nobody remembers what you did in your conference, come March. They remember what you did in the [NCAA] tournament."

The officiating is improving, said Guthrie, "but you're still going to have eruptions because of the pressure on the coaches. Look at Mike Davis. He's a wonderful young man, but he cracked, he snapped."

Guthrie said officials are doing their jobs better, "but it's far from as good as it needs to be."

Coaches hate it when officials get personal, as Riley and Williams claimed they were doing, or demonstrate an obvious tilt toward the home team or a regional bias.

"They have to be committed to fairness," said Guthrie, who added that the job itself has become more difficult.

"Players are getting better," he said. "What we now accept as normal plays would have been phenomenal before. The players are bigger, stronger, quicker. And in basketball, it's not only what you call, it's what you don't call."

That's the point Esherick was trying to make.

"There's more demand on referees to get better," Guthrie said. "But while they're getting better, sometimes the gap [between officials and players] gets wider."

A big part of the NFL controversy is that officials are part-timers with outside professions who work one day a week and are not immersed in the job. College officials hold outside jobs, as well, but the problem is the opposite; they run a risk of becoming over-extended. Most work for several conferences, and some do as many as five or six games a week. The travel itself can be exhausting, affecting an official's performance. Which, in turn, can affect a coach's emotional state.

"You can see fatigue," Guthrie said. "You can recognize it when referees start making mental errors, when they start not running as hard they need to."

But restricting the workload of officials is difficult. "Our position from a litigation and legal standpoint is that referees are independent contractors," Guthrie said. "We have no real control over how often they can work."

Jim Haney, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said conduct by his membership is a concern "that we can and will address." Haney said coaches "have a lot invested in the game. Officials have other jobs. They're not spending every day thinking about basketball. The coach is constantly thinking about the game.

"But there's a responsibility to make sure we're at the eye of the storm, the calm, the peace. It's so easy to get caught up with the officials, and once that happens, we can question every call they make. How we approach officials today is rooted in the '70s and '80s, where the notion started to arise that you were going to work the official so when the time comes, you get a key call in your favor."

But "the decorum has changed," Haney admits. "Joe Paterno ran 50 yards. Here's a guy everyone looks at as a saint, and here he is running 50 yards after an official at the age of 75. I think each person has to assess what brought him to that point. Mike Davis made a mistake. We say things and do things. The big thing about these events is that we recognize what we did, and learn from them."

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