Want to know how hard an officiating crew can work during the season? Look no further than where that crew sleeps.
Saratoga football coach Logan Wright watched with both surprise and admiration last fall when the Saratoga gym turned into a makeshift hotel for an officiating crew.
The group had officiated a game Friday afternoon in Farson and then a Friday night game in Saratoga. That crew slept in the Saratoga gym that night before officiating a Saturday game in Baggs.
Wright said he appreciates Wyoming’s football officials, especially those willing to sacrifice and do that. But the scenario puts in clear view one of the biggest problems with Wyoming officials — their small number. With a small number of new, young officials joining the ranks, officials are often put in tough situations like the one in Saratoga last year.
In interviews with Wyoming high school football coaches this summer, they all echoed respect and appreciation for what officials do. But the coaches also said the shortage of football officials in Wyoming has affected game times, budgets, the make-up of the crews themselves, and more.
By far, the biggest challenge schools faced was the variety of start times based on officials’ availability.
“Ideally we’d have every game Friday at 6,” Wright said. ” … It’s not our AD’s fault. You can only play once the refs can get there.”
Six-man programs usually take the brunt of the trickle-down problems, as officiating crews cover Class 4A and Class 3A games first.
“The official shortage has had a bigger impact on the smaller schools,” Burlington coach Travis Aagard said. “It requires tough start times, which makes it hard for the fans to make it to games. Officials are double booked for the day, and the second game is usually a bigger school so they do not want to be late to that game. If the game is lopsided it works out, but if it is a close game with hard calls down the stretch when they are already pressed for time it can be uncomfortable.”
Even with the shortage, Guernsey coach Curtis Cook said some officiating crews will turn down working the Vikings’ six-man games because of the amount of running. Cook said officials have said they can do half as much running in an 11-man game and get paid the same amount. Cook said when officiating crews have a choice between six-man and 11-man, crews choose 11-man — a choice afforded by those low numbers.
“It’s a real thing, and it’s affecting our schedule,” Cook said. “Those Friday night games have almost become a treat. Other (bigger) schools, they get it every week.”
Added Meeteetse coach Zeb Hagen, “We’re one of the few smaller schools that has lights, and we can never turn them on because everyone’s doing the big games on Friday night. … I hate it. I’d rather play on Friday night every week.”
It’s not just six-man; Big Piney coach Ryan Visser said the Big Piney-Lovell game, a Class 2A game, will be played at 2 p.m. in Lovell this season. Because of that, though, Big Piney will have to be on a bus heading north by 5:30 a.m.
With crews often doing back-to-back games, quality can suffer, coaches said.
“You can’t do those back-to-back games and be on the top of your game, so I do think there are some lasting effects in it,” Shoshoni coach Tony Truempler said.
When crews aren’t running from a six-man or nine-man game to a 3A or 4A game, they’re often working two games on the same field in the same day — and that, too, can take a toll.
“We often play a freshman game on Friday before the varsity and the same crew usually has to work each game,” Cody coach Matt McFadden said. “That is a long day for the crew, especially when you throw in travel.”
ADs and coaches all know about the scheduling chase.
Moorcroft coach Travis Santistevan said when schools received schedules, they couldn’t begin scheduling officials until 4 p.m. At exactly 4, the Moorcroft AD, Dusty Petz, starting making calls.
“We literally went through almost everybody and we still had a tough time filling our (officiating) schedules… and that was at like 4:15,” Santistevan said.
Many coaches said they look out-of-state to fill gaps in their officiating schedule, pulling in crews from every neighboring state.
However, those crews typically cost more than a Wyoming crew.
For at least one recent game, Wind River had to bring in officials all the way from Fort Collins, Colorado, at a cost of “an arm and a leg,” Cougars’ coach Mykah Trujillo said. Trujillo said he was frustrated that the extra cost had to go to officials from another state more than 300 miles from Pavillion and couldn’t stay with the program somehow.
“It definitely affects our program, especially monetarily,” he said. “Instead of using that money for something else, we’re using it to pay officials to come in from Fort Collins.”
Several coaches in southwestern Wyoming noted pulling crews from Idaho or Utah to make up for the lack of Wyoming crews.
“We only have two sets of officials on this side of the state,” Cokeville coach Todd Dayton said. ” … Then we have to go into Idaho and get officials, so it’s a big problem. I really don’t see anything changing. I wish it would.”
Coaches identified a couple issues with how crews are put together due to the shortage.
The biggest of those problems is using an understaffed crew to officiate, for example, using four officials instead of five.
Greybull coach Jeremy Pouska said that as an assistant at Riverside last year, “There were a few games where we were understaff for officials. … As much as we want the kids to play fair and honest, a lot can go unseen if we’re understaffed.”
Lander coach John Scott said the problem is severe enough that there’s a possibility that five-man crews in the future could include three officials and then an assistant coach from each team.
Lyman coach Dale Anderson said one problem he sees is that the same crews officiate the same teams over and over. He said having some variety would be nice not just for teams and coaches but for officials, too.
Added Douglas coach Jay Rhoades, “When we go and play around the state, you see a lot of the same guys.”
Several coaches noted this arrangement becomes even more problematic if a coaching staff doesn’t have a good rapport with one of those oft-seen crews.
At the same time, though, the familiarity between coaches and officials does have benefits.
“I’ve been in Kansas and officials don’t even talk to you there,” Dubois coach David Trembly said. “Here, you know them by name and you can talk to them and ask them questions, and I love that about our officials.”
Cheyenne Central coach Mike Apodaca pointed out that one of the problems is that younger officials are being forced to officiate at the varsity level sooner than they would have previously. That lack of depth means newer officials are facing more high-pressure situations, and sometimes officials with less experience struggle with those situations more — and are more likely to leave officiating because of it.
Burns coach Brad Morrison echoed several coaches when he said brought up another problem — older officials stay longer than they used to out of obligation to help with the shortage. However, several coaches said some of the older officials have trouble keeping up physically, which lessens the quality of the game.
WHSAA Associate Commissioner Trevor Wilson said via email last week that the biggest problem is recruiting young officials. He echoed the coaches in their concerns, with poor sportsmanship from coaches and spectators, pay, work obligations, inability to get good games quickly and a lack of training all concerns.
While other sports are struggling to recruit officials, the problem is more acute in football.
Wilson provided data from the Wyoming Sports Officials Association with the total number of officials in each sport. The number of certified football officials in Wyoming peaked in 2012 at 124. Last year, there were 85. However, the total number was more stable — 295 in 2012 to 261 last year.
Lander’s Scott officiates during the basketball season, and he said part of the problem is that basketball officials can work multiple games throughout the week and come close to making it a part-time job. That’s not the case in football, where there are fewer games and therefore fewer opportunities to make money.
Officials’ pay was a consistent theme among coaches. Several coaches noted that increased pay would bring out more officials.
“I’ve been a basketball ref before and it is not an easy gig,” Burlington’s Aagard said. “You start thinking, ‘They don’t pay me enough to put up with this,’ when everyone is critical of your calls.”
Rock Springs coach Mark Lenhardt, the football representative for the Wyoming Coaches Association, said finding former players to become officials is complicated by a variety of things unique to the fall — namely hunting season, fans of UW football wanting to attend games, and the opportunity to do other outdoor activities before winter encouraging would-be officials to do something else besides officiating with their weekends.
Appreciation for the officials
Despite any problems, coaches over and over said they appreciate officials and the work they do.
“Officiating is a sport within a sport,” Burns’ Morrison said. “There is skill involved. Anyone who has never put on stripes should shut up, and let the officials work. It’s a hard enough job without a bunch of 40-something, ex-JV football players screaming insults for an entire game.”
Rawlins coach Clayton McSpadden said coaches in particular need to show patience with new officials. They’re still learning to be officials, and coaches have to give them the opportunity to learn as well, he said. He said those involved can’t expect officials to get entire game right.
“If that’s the expectation, maybe we should stop coaching and go be officials,” he said.
People interested in becoming an official can fill out a short application with the National Federation of High Schools, of which the WHSAA is a part.