Hometown Boy Refs Big Dance

Story by Dennis Boyd

The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is considered by many sports fans (including yours truly) to be the best sporting event of the year. This year’s tournament featured one of Russellville’s own. Don Daily Jr. officiated three tournament games, including a Sweet 16 game. I watched with pride as I saw Don on national television mixing it up with the likes of Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl and Butler’s young Brad Stevens, knowing the 42-year-old River Valley resident was in a position to influence the outcome of the tournament. While Don was focused on assessing every player’s move during the games, my biggest concern was whether I was going to have corn chips or Doritos with my cheese dip and whether Butler was going to mess up my bracket. They did.

Don was selected to officiate the tournament by the NCAA Officiating Committee based on his performance during the regular season. There are approximately 2,000 Division I officials. He was one of 96 selected to officiate the first round games. Based on his performance in the first round, he was one of 48 awarded a second round game. He was one of 24 selected for a Sweet 16 game. That’s a big deal (to steal a partial quote from Vice President Biden!)

“I’ve been very blessed. I get to do something I love and be fortunate enough to get paid for doing it,” Don said.

So how does a guy from Russellville become one of the top-tier officials in college basketball and make it to the Big Dance? And why would he want to? Basketball officials endure cursing, verbal abuse and glaring stare-downs from unhappy coaches. And that’s on a good day. On a bad day, they can end up as a SportsCenter highlight.

Don has a passion for officiating and has been doing it for 11 years. He hadn’t always dreamed of becoming a referee, however. That stage in his life started unexpectedly. He attended a Russellville High School basketball game when his dad, Don Daily Sr., was coaching the Cyclones. One of the officials failed to show up for the junior varsity game and Don Sr. asked his son to fill in. The lead official liked what he saw and asked Don Jr. if he would be interested in becoming a referee.

Not long afterward, Don passed his rules test and obtained his credentials to officiate high school basketball. He spent one season officiating high school ball, one season officiating Division II ball and was fast-tracked to Division I the following year based on his performance at a couple of officiating camps.

Don attributes his officiating success to his family’s involvement in sports while growing up. It also didn’t hurt that Don was a gym rat. He was practically raised in a gym. His dad, a 36-year coaching veteran, helped Corliss Williamson hone his skills. His brothers, Robert and Scott, were good athletes. Don himself was an All- Conference and All-State basketball player for the Cyclones and played on the 1985 state championship team. He earned a basketball scholarship to Wesleyan College, a Division II school in Oklahoma, where he played two years. He returned home to Arkansas Tech University to redshirt his junior year and played his senior year until a leg injury hampered his playing time the rest of the year. Don graduated from Tech with a degree in business administration and a minor in marketing. Never did he dream he’d be a Division I ref, nearly 10 years after college graduation.

Don’s 8 to 5 job is operating an independent Shelter Insurance agency in Atkins. Owning his own business gives him the flexibility to meet the travel demands of a Division I referee. Last season Don officiated 36 games in the Missouri Valley, Southland, Sun Belt, Big 12, Conference USA and Southeastern Conferences. He typically officiates three games per week during the season. With so much time away from the office, Don relies on his BlackBerry and laptop computer to keep up with his insurance business. He books the first flight out of Little Rock, requiring him to wake up at 3:30 a.m., which gets him to his destination in time to conduct some insurance business prior to that night’s game.

Another necessity to balancing his home life with his two jobs is an understanding and supportive family. His wife, Staci, and their children, Alley, 18; Jay, 17; Rachel, 13; Stefan, 12; and Jordan, 11 sacrifice some family time during the basketball season, but make up for it in the off-season.

“Without their support, I couldn’t do this,” Don said.

Although Don was unable to discuss compensation due to the NCAA’s nondisclosure policy, Internet searches indicate that Division I referees are paid an average of $2,000 per game depending on the conference. Referees are independent contractors; therefore, they receive no benefits such as health insurance or retirement funds and must pay for those expenses out of their own pocket. Except for the Big Dance, they make their own travel arrangements.

Division I refs certainly have some interesting experiences. The first Division I game Don officiated was a memorable one. The game was played in Miami between Florida International and Western Kentucky.

With four minutes left in the game, Western Kentucky Coach Dennis Felton disagreed with a possession call made by one of the other officials. Instead of complaining to the correct official, Coach Felton complained to Don. Unfortunately for him, Coach Felton made the mistake of leaving the bench and heading all the way across the court to complain directly to Don, screaming and cursing the entire time. Don had little choice but to give him a technical foul for leaving the coaching box.

“It was like pouring gasoline on a fire,” Don said. “Coach Felton came unhinged. He was so angry that when he returned to his bench, he kicked the advertising screen on front of the scorer’s table and broke the plexiglas. In fact, he kicked it so hard that his foot became lodged inside,” Don recalled.

Hopping on one foot and screaming at his assistant coach to help free him, Coach Felton was still out of control so Don gave him another technical and trotted to the opposite end of the court hoping to avoid any more confrontation. He thought it best to let the head official handle things from this point.

A second technical foul results in an automatic ejection for a coach or a player so Coach Felton was finished for the night. Keep in mind he was the visiting coach so the fans were riding him hard for damaging their scorer’s table. They were able to free his foot; however, his shoe didn’t make it out. As he left the arena wearing only one shoe, he headed right for Don.

“I didn’t realize he would have to walk right past me to get to his locker room. I’m trying to compose myself and thinking, ‘This is bad. I’ll probably get fired and never officiate Division I basketball again,’” Don said. “Coach Felton was glaring at me as he approached. He bumped me as he walked past. I blew my whistle and gave him a third technical. I couldn’t let him get away with bumping me.”

Western Kentucky lost the game by six or eight points. “All of that drama over a call that I was not even involved in,” Don lamented. Having called three technical fouls and tossing a coach in his first assignment, Don figured that he was “one and done” in Division I officiating.

The next morning (Sunday) while waiting to board a plane he received the dreaded phone call from the supervisor of officials about the previous night’s game. To his relief, his supervisor said that after reviewing the game, Don’s actions had been correct. His supervisor advised him to put it all behind him and advised him “to have a short memory.”

That advice made more sense a bit later after Don checked his schedule and discovered that on Thursday he was slated to officiate at, you guessed it, Western Kentucky of all places!

About two hours before game time on Thursday, Coach Felton locates Don in the referee’s locker room, approaches him, and to his surprise, shakes Don’s hand. Don recalled Coach Felton’s words: “Don, I want to apologize. I was wrong. I don’t know why I lost it, but I did. I’m surprised you didn’t punch me. I apologize. I will never act that way again.”

Don replied, “Coach, short memory. That was last week. We’re at this week.”

Western Kentucky lost by one point in overtime. Don said Coach Felton behaved like a gentleman during the game and the two have gotten along great ever since.

That is some initiation into Division I basketball.

Don is an engaging young man. He is passionate but humble about officiating. He is confident but unassuming and a great storyteller. The River Valley is fortunate to have such a young man representing us on a national stage.

Here are a few more interesting tidbits:
• Because of the gambling industry, referees cannot disclose where they will be officiating until one hour before game time.

• The technical foul Don called against Butler’s Coach Brad Stevens in the second round tournament game was the first technical he had called all year.

• When he officiated the Sweet 16 game, he was suffering from a cracked rib sustained in an automobile accident earlier in the week. He credits God with getting him through the game.

• He places a wad of gum between the front of his tongue and his whistle to help prevent a quick or inadvertent whistle. He consciously moves the gum aside with his tongue before blowing his whistle to stop play.

• His biggest surprise is the extent of trash talking and foul language that goes on during games.

• He typically doesn’t hear fans yelling at him. However, once during a timeout when the noise lessened, he heard a woman yell, “Hey ref, you need to bend over and open your other eye!” It was a silver haired elderly lady. He said he made eye contact and winked at her. Her husband grabbed her and pulled her back into her seat.

• He gave Texas Tech Coach Bobby Knight a technical foul in a game at Oklahoma State. Coach Knight was reprimanded and suspended for one game for complaining to the media about the call. The official post-game review and evaluation determined Don’s call to be correct.

• He has no aspirations to officiate in the NBA.

• Officiating helps keep his 6’5” frame in shape. He still looks like he could hold his own in a pick-up game.

 

 

Share

Category: Features

Comments are closed.