The officiating in the Atlantic Coast Conference has long been considered on the same level as the competition -- the best in the country. Look to see how many ACC referees make it to the NCAA tournament every year.
But coaches, players and even some officials themselves are starting to think otherwise. "The officiating this year is the worst I've seen in a major conference," one ACC coach said last week.
It has gotten so bad that coaches aren't the only ones calling Fred Barakat, the league's director of officials, to vent their frustration. Some of the league's most established refs have been upset enough to complain, too. (None will do it publicly, since coaches can't talk about officiating and officials won't.)
pTC There are a number of reasons for the decline. The departure of seven of the ACC's best refs to the NBA six years ago, the subsequent defection of two others and the retirement of five more, left Barakat scrambling.
Some who've become lead officials are not ready for the job, and some who've been brought up from smaller leagues are not ready for the pressure-packed frenzy of the ACC.
"A lot of these guys are scared out of their minds," said another veteran ACC coach. "They're afraid to make calls. They're afraid to give guys T's. And there are a couple of guys who have trouble with simple things like putting the ball in play."
To demonstrate the lack of depth among ACC officiating, consider this: Lenny Wirtz, who is in his 29th year officiating ACC games, is probably among the top three refs in the league. That's certainly a tribute to the indefatigable Wirtz, who has the energy of a man half his age, but it's also a knock on the rest.
Before last year's ACC tournament, a Raleigh, N.C., newspaper ran a survey rating the league's officials. The refs raised such a stink that a meeting was held between the refs and a few writers before the ACC final to air the groups' feelings.
The refs were upset that their performance was being publicly judged; the writers weren't happy that the refs were not available to explain crucial or controversial calls. Everyone left the room with a little better understanding of the other's job.
Many hold Barakat, a former Division I coach, accountable for the deterioration. Barakat is big enough to shoulder some of the blame, buthe doesn't believe the level of officiating has dropped as dramatically as some believe.
Barakat says it's a necessary evolution brought about by the mass exodus in 1988. It has left a wide gap between the three or four top officials -- guys like Wirtz, Dick Paparo, Larry Rose and Frank Scagliata -- and the rest.
"I think we're doing fine," Barakat said this week. "Our young people are terrific. Tell me what other league has more than three or four lead officials. I don't think any other league could have survived what we've been through."
What can be done to improve the officiating? One coach said he would like to see the ACC go after a few top officials who ref in several leagues -- such as Tim Higgins, a Big East ref who does occasional ACC games.
"Pay them more -- or give them a condo in Florida," pleaded one coach.
But Barakat has no plans of raiding other conferences, and seems to be willing to take the heat. He compares his job to a coach trying to rebuild a former ranked team.
"In the process of recruiting, you go through tough times," he said. "But I think we have the potential to be as good as we used to be. You've just got to give some of these guys time."
In the meantime, coaches, players -- and even some other officials -- are left to cringe.
Great, but not greatest
So much for the mother of all comebacks. Less than a day after it was called the greatest comeback in Division I history, Kentucky's march back from a 31-point deficit in Monday's 99-95 victory at LSU turns out to be only No. 2 on the list.
As things turned out, Duke still holds the record for its 32-point comeback against Tulane 43 years ago. The Blue Devils fell behind 54-22 with two minutes left in the first half of a consolation game in the Dixie Classic, then came back behind the shooting of All-American and future National League MVP Dick Groat to win 74-72.
"At halftime, I remember Coach [Harold] Bradley saying, 'I don't know if you guys can win this or not, but at least make it respectable," Groat told the Associated Press. "It never dawned on me until ESPN actually mentioned that it broke our record. I had forgotten."
The confrontation Sunday between Temple's John Chaney and John Calipari of Massachusetts brings to mind what happened between Lou Carnesecca and Bill Raftery back in the late '70s.
"Dear Looie: I surrender, love Billy," the note said.
Ah, it was a gentler and kinder time.