Without them there would be no Friday Night Lights.
And as fall draws near, the Indiana High School Athletic Association continues to fight the crisis of a low number of football officials.
Assistant Commissioner to the IHSAA, Robert Faulkens, said Saturday morning at the Western Indiana Officials Association clinic at Crawfordsville High School that there are about 152 officiating crews for the upcoming season, but a number around 175-180 would be ideal. And up to 30 games this fall are still unassigned, which could force some areas of the state to push games to Thursday and Saturday.
“We are always worried, because the pool is still shrinking just because of age,” Faulkens said. “But our efforts are starting to pan out. We recruit at all of our state championships, and we are seeing the numbers come up.”
Faulkens said they won’t know for sure for three years if guys are sticking with it.
“Right now we are in year three of this process and numbers are holding steady,” he added. “We’ve actually grown some crews in football which is encouraging.”
The biggest concern continues to be the median age of officials throughout the state, which has climbed to 57.1 years old.
“The median age of the officials is climbing rapidly,” Matt Buche, who is the vice-president of the WIOA and longtime recruiter said. “Ideally it would be in the mid-40s.”
Buche says they have learned over the years the answer isn’t any one thing, but multiple solutions, including social media, doing things in person, and being proactive at the legislative level to get laws into place to protect the advocation.
Mark Maxwell, the president of the WIOA, along with many others have been proactive in bringing aboard new, younger officials.
“Every sport needs officials, and every sport is hurting for officials,” Maxwell said.
At every state finals event members of the association work to recruit new officials, and have started the process of working with high schools and colleges across the state to get younger individuals involved.
Becoming an official has never been easier, with just a three-step process. To register, visit www.ihsaa,org and find the 2018-19 official registration link under the officials tab. The IHSAA is currently offering a free license for up to three sports for anyone who can pass the licensing test. The only requirements are to be a high school graduate, be at least 18 years of age, and have a love of the game and an interest in giving back.
Buche sees that most officials start because of a common connection, leaving it up to active officials to bring in the next crop.
“Not too many people come into the officiating world because one day they naturally say I’m going to be an official today, they usually were invited by someone, and it was a personal relationship that got them into this advocation,” he said. “So training our own members to have their eyes open and their ears open and looking for those opportunities to encourage others to do this. We’ve all come from different paths, but anybody that’s came onto this path would say that ‘I can’t imagine ever not doing this in my life.’ It just brings such a joy and accomplishment.”
A recently new official to football is Scott Siple, who took up the trade at the age of 37 when Maxwell took him along to a football game.
“I was always interested, but never had the job that gave me the flexibility,” he said. “And then I met Mark and I asked him about it and he took me with him on a Friday, and that’s all it took.”
Siple has used that connection with Maxwell to his advantage and after being a fill-in on varsity crews the past two seasons will be a full-time member of a crew this fall.
“I was fortunate enough that Mark kind of took me and I started following his crew on Friday nights,” Siple said. “I was able to see what his crew does, and how they work together, and the stuff they do.”
With Faulkens’ hope that the recruiting efforts are starting to pay off, Maxwell knows the hardest part is the retention of new officials.
“From a recruiting standpoint we are in charge of recruiting, training and retention,” Maxwell said. “The recruiting and training is easy, and where we really lose track of people is in the retention, because some of the stuff they have to put up with at the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels in football, basketball, and baseball. The biggest thing that I would ask for people who go to these games, especially the lower-level games is to understand that any one of these guys that are officiating are doing it for the love of the game. They’re somebody’s father or brother or uncle, and they’re not there for anyone but the kids. And the more you stay off of them, and the more you don’t criticize them — the longer they are going to stay in this advocation, and this advocation of officiating is going to get better.”
Faulkens feels like the growing number of clinics that are being put on around the state each year has helped alleviate stress between coaches and officials, which in result helps keep the numbers up.
“These are great learning opportunities for officials,” he said. “It is also a great time in a non-competitive setting for our officials and coaches to interact. So when they see them during the regular season there’s not that angst and that fight between them. It helps with those relationships, and it also helps with the reasons as to why we are losing guys. Because our coaches and officials have a better idea of what each other are doing and they’re not yelling and screaming and causing guys to leave. That’s the biggest thing that makes people leave is the way they are treated by the coaches and the way they are treated by the fans. Since we’ve been doing these clinics and allowing coaches to come out, the number of issues between coaches and officials have gone way down and that’s going to help us keep our numbers. We are not dwindling in numbers, we are really steady, but I would like to grow the number of crews we have.”
Buche also sees a lack of commitment putting a hindrance on retention.
“It’s not an easy commitment, and I see people showing interest,” he said. “Some may only stay for a couple years and life takes them into a different direction. I don’t know if I see any specific trends, but you have to be really committed to doing this, and if you’re doing it, you’re giving up something else.”
Maxwell has a simple message to the very people who many think are driving officials away.
“What I would charge someone to do is if you don’t agree with a call or you don’t agree with how things are done, then get involved,” he said. “It’s easy and it’s free. Come be one of us, because it’s the best brotherhood I’ve ever been a part of.”