Called to officiate: Schools looking for more (and younger) officials

REED CITY — The key number is 56.

That number is the average age of men and women who officiate high school boys and girls basketball games statewide. But considering the speed of the game, athletic directors, coaches and others affiliated with the sport consider that number to be way too high.

      To lower it, they’re looking for new blood to put on the referee’s uniform and call the game.

But it’s not that easy.

Reed City athletic director Kris Griffin agrees.

      “We see a lot of the same officials, which can be frustrating for our coaches,” Griffin said, adding that in trying to get more officials, “I am sure paying them more would help but unfortunately, that is not an easy solution for the schools.”

Jim Novar is a retired teacher and coach from Chippewa Hills who spends his winters at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the rest of the year at his Lake Isabella home.

Novar keeps busy year-round as an assignor for the Mecosta-Isabella-Clare County Officials Association.

      “We have 429 officials in our association,” he said. “In the fall, we do football, at all levels, from junior high to varsity, volleyball all levels. In the winter, it’s basketball, girls and boys, all levels and in the spring, I do softball and baseball. We cover approximately 24 to 25 schools. We cover the CSAA (Central State Activities Association).”

      The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a computer program used to hire officials.

      “I’m busy all the time,” Novar said. “Every day I’m trying to find new officials. The more officials you’ve got, the better it is.

      “I mention 56 as the average age of the officials, and to me, that’s pretty old,” Novar said, “You’re running up and down the floor. Our oldest official is 77 and our youngest is 20. Every meeting I go to, I tell officials if they know anyone who wants to officiate to contact me. At meetings, we tell our officials to find younger people to officiate.”

The MHSAA has a mentor program to deal with this.

“You’re working with a veteran official all the time,” Novar said. “The biggest problem is they don’t want to listen to people hollering at them all the time. There’s people that shy away from it for that reason.”

The sports are all different, but Novar said basketball is the hardest. “You have the crowd closest to you and it’s fast paced and you have to make decisions really quick,” he said. 

      Officials in basketball have gone from two to three per game. High school football games has been at five and is expected to go to seven in the future.

Media and content coordinator Geoff Kimmerly from MHSAA’s office in Lansing concurs having officials for various sports continues to be a challenge statewide.

“It’s not a big school thing, a small school thing or a U.P. or a Lower Peninsula thing,” he said. “We just have fewer officials now than we’ve ever had. We track this pretty regularly. When the economy is doing better the numbers go down, but when people are going through tough times financially, the numbers tend to go back up.”

      But Kimmerly did acknowledge areas with higher populations would likely have a larger pool of officials than Reed City and the surrounding area.

      “But I do know of some small town guys, men and women, that are officials in small towns and do games in every town around them,” Kimmerly said.

      The MHSAA widely publicizes the need for officials and encourages ADs to identify students to consider a career in officiating and work games at junior high and elementary levels to get a taste of it.

      “We’ve stepped up recruiting efforts the last couple of years,” Kimmerly said. “We have people from our office and all over the state that are going to different events where there might be a lot of people. They’ll put up booths at a local county fair and things like that and talk about why being an official is a great way to stay in touch with the game and make extra money and things like that.”

      Kyle Hondorp, a former athlete and coach at Lakeview, is among the area’s most active officials in softball, basketball and volleyball and works a lot of games in Osceola County. He’s been doing it for 18 years ever since he was in college. When he left as a coach several years ago, he would be doing it more often.

“Basketball is probably our biggest need with boys and girls season at the same time,” he said. “There’s lots of games we have to fill.”

Hondorp recalls when girls basketball was in the fall up until about 10 years ago when the sport went to the winter.

“We also had just two officials, and the sport has gotten so much faster, so we need three,” he said. “We try to pair up (new officials) with a veteran official to make it a positive experience. We want those new officials to stay with it too.”