Referees explain a call to University of Dayton men’s basketball head coach Archie Miller (left) and Syracuse University head coach Jim Boeheim during the third round of the NCAA tournament March 22 in Buffalo, N.Y. The Flyers defeated the Orange, and advanced as far as the Elite Eight for the first time in 30 seasons. ETHAN KLOSTERMAN/PHOTO EDITOR
By: Keith Raad – Sports Writer
It’s a job that rewards you with silence, and explodes in your face when it goes the other way.
The thankless job of refereeing, especially in the NCAA tournament, is done by men who find gratification by being in the background of the game they love.
“If the game is over and they can’t remember who refereed, that’s how I want it. I don’t want to be recognized out there and be a part of it.”
Meet Mike Kitts.
For 40 years, Kitts has sported a whistle and trotted back and forth down the court from all the lowest levels of middle school basketball to the NCAA tournament. He began his officiating days on the other side of the whistle.
“After you get through college, you play all of these adult rec leagues and when I played I was a pain in the rear end for referees,” Kitts said. “One guy, who I respected a lot, got so mad at me after one game said to me, ‘If you think you know so much, why don’t you take the test?’ That’s how I got started. 40 years ago.”
Now 64-years-old and a NCAA Division I referee and Coordinator of Men’s Basketball Officials for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Syracuse, N.Y., native knows that a hard-nosed attitude comes with the territory.
“You’ve got to have a little edge when you’re presented with a situation and you’re dealing with all of these different coaches and different personalities,” Kitts said. “It seems that all of these guys have the edge and whether it’s a referee or a coach, it seems that they’re pretty successful at what they do.”
Kitts’ experience over four decades has also allowed him to know players who have become coaches, like the Miller brothers.
“I had Dayton when they played over in Maui and they lost to Baylor, and I refereed [Dayton head coach Archie Miller] when he played over at NC State,” Kitts said. “I know Archie had a little edge when he played. I refereed Sean Miller at Pittsburgh when he played, and I had the Arizona-Michigan game this year, which was at Michigan, that Arizona won.”
To be able to move up in the ranks of officiating, Kitts has kept up with his level of refereeing night in and night out thanks to his one uniform mindset.
“I’ve always been kind of accepted in any league where I was doing games and it’s something I’ve always been consistent with over the years,” Kitts said. “It’s to create a level playing field where both of the teams can win whether they’re the home team or visiting team. What it’s called is called ‘it,’ and I really don’t know what it’s called but it’s something that you get over the years.”
Being in the background, and staying in there, allows Kitts to officiate the way he believes he should do his job.
His one concern shows its face more often than not.
“When the ball is going in the basket, we just kind of go up and down the court,” he said. “But when the game is not being played very well, and the teams are not shooting well, and the point guard’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing, now we get more involved because we’ve got to make more decisions and they recognize us more.”
His most recent self-assessment came after an NCAA second round matchup March 21 between Villanova University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“When I get into the locker room at the end of the game I say to myself, ‘Did the best team win tonight? Was it the team that made the most plays, the team that was better?’ Kitts said. “The other night when I got in to locker room, Villanova won by 20. They made the best plays, they were the best team, they just won the game and I had nothing to do with wins and losses. I had nothing to do with who won and who lost. That’s the way I look at it.”
But when March Madness grabs the eyes of America during the last 30 seconds of a tie game, Kitts knows that it’s his job to be the one they don’t remember.
“When I’m refereeing, I always get the three of us together and I’ll say, ‘We can’t miss anything right now, let the kids win and lose it, but if there’s a foul, and it’s going to show up on the film, we’ve got to make the call,’” Kitts said.
It’s a gratifying job when done right, but not gratifying in the normal sense of the word, he said.
Recognition goes beyond the spotlight and it becomes merely an appreciation for the game. Kitts re-affirmed that when he had a try-out for the NBA and found that it did not fit his passion.
“I felt that it wasn’t true basketball the way college basketball is,” Kitts said. “It’s a lot of one-on-one stuff geared toward entertainment and that’s not what I’m in it for.”
A member of the entertainment business, Kitts is not. He’s merely one of three men during the game that wears the same striped uniform.
“You walk into the hotel after the game and nobody even says anything to you and that’s the best part of it. There are certain referees that want to be recognized, why that is I don’t know, but the least I can be recognized out there the better. That’s my approach forever.”