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The Playcaller On Karl Hess: Part II

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Before last Saturday there were legions of basketball fans who didn't think much of Karl Hess. Then came L'affaire Corchliotta, which only served to confirm what that group already knew: in addition to having bad judgment and a penchant for needlessly inserting himself into games, Hess has life-threateningly thin skin that compounds those problems.

This may be the only point on which fans in the Triangle and College Park can all agree. Should there come a need to unify the fanbases of Duke, Maryland, NC State, and UNC, the social engineers need only mention the name of Karl Hess. The ensuing consonance of clenched fists and gnashed teeth would lead to a sincere group hug in no time flat.

Now consider for a moment how remarkable this is. How strange indeed that groups that call each other Yankee Elitists, Profane Bottle-Throwers, Cow College, and Cheating Holier-Than-Thous, would come to agree on anything, least of all something related to basketball. The conventional wisdom is that even the most ocularly challenged can tell that Hess is just really bad at his job. While there's no shortage of fans willing to explain that view in detail, the broader claim really is as simple as "Hess stinks."

But should we continue to accept such a simple explanation for something so extraordinary?


If you root for Maryland or one of the Triangle schools (or any other ACC school for that matter), you have some painful sports memories that involve, however prominently, Karl Hess. That's going to happen when someone referees as many important games as Hess has over the years. Everybody who's followed any of those schools for a decade or more has seen their favorite team lose a conference final with Hess on the floor. That's a virtual given for someone who's only missed two ACC finals since 2001. Those March losses aren't the only ones. Over that same twelve-year period those four schools have lost a total of 76 after-New-Year's games that Hess has worked. And if that weren't enough to sour anyone on the guy, 44 of those losses came against one of the other three schools those fans probably cared most about beating. In other words, there are a lot of people out there who connect Hess with disappointment.

Too often fans allow that particular connection to unfairly color their judgments of Hess. Psychologists say that this pattern is caused by availability bias. Specifically, all of us tend to overestimate the frequency of events that are most easily and vividly recalled. If a fan can quickly recall plays or situations that he or she believes Hess mishandled, then that fan is prone to believing that Hess makes mistakes more often than he actually does. The problem with availability bias, as with most other biases, is that most of us think we're not susceptible to it, making it completely effortless to believe I'm the objective one.


When pressed on the Hess-hate, a handful of responses predominate.

So he referees a lot of high-level games. That doesn't mean he's any good. He's probably good buddies with Clougherty.

To the casual observer his schedule might not indicate much about his skills as an official, but Hess would have to have been buddies with a long list of people over quite a long period of time to A) earn such a full, high-quality schedule for close to twenty years, and B) stink. He's worked for both Clougherty and Clougherty's predecessor Fred Barakat in the ACC. He's worked for well over a decade for Big East supervisor Art Hyland. He was retained by SEC supervisor Gerald Boudreaux after John Guthrie was replaced several years ago. And that's to say nothing of the two different bosses at the NCAA-Dr. Hank Nichols and now John Adams-who have given Hess assignments at Final Four. That's a lot of close relationships with highly placed people for someone who's so widely believed to be both incompetent and kind of a jerk.

Eh, that's not such a stretch. All of those guys are part of the same tight circle. If you're in good with one supervisor, you're in with the rest of his cronies.

This one is simply false. A couple hours of search will reveal numerous officials (including one extremely prominent one) who work nice schedules in one or more major conferences but are not on the staffs of one or more attractive leagues that are geographic fits. This is assuredly not the choice of those referees. If there's a good league anywhere near an official's home, he wants to be on that staff. He's giving away money otherwise. These supervisors simply are not always of one mind on the people they hire.

Another item that's been given scant national attention is that John Adams 's NCAA Tournament assignments make clear his belief that many long-time "heavy hitters" are no longer making the grade. That Hess still works deep into the tournament (regional final last year, national semi-final in 2009, to go along with the Nichols-assigned title game in 2007) speaks to the esteem in which Adams holds him.

Fine, the people with the real power think he's good, but that only means that they share his bad judgment. The guy just oozes arrogance on the court, and lots of his calls speak to his look-at-me attitude out there.

If a fan or pundit wants to argue that the supervisors at the national and conference levels just don't know what they're doing, there's really no serious discussion to be had. But maybe some bridge-building is possible regarding the perceptions of Hess's attitude on the court.

When comparing the average high school official to the average D1 official, the most prominent separator isn't the ability to judge plays-it's confidence. When competent high school officials watch tape with higher-level guys, they don't disagree all that often on whether a play was a block or a charge, goaltending or not-goaltending, traveling or not-traveling. But put a high school official on a D1 court and he's going to miss those plays far more often because he doesn't have the confidence, the conviction that he belongs on that floor and is ready to handle plays in crunch-time. In addition to years and years of experience and seeing thousands of plays, it takes a unique personality type to be capable of that belief in the first place. A rare few seem to be born with it, while some are able to develop it. But most never find enough of it to survive in the pressure cooker that is big-time college basketball.

Let there be no confusion: it takes an absolutely supreme amount of confidence to do the jobs that high-D1 basketball officials do. Imagine what it would be like to talk to Coach K or Roy Williams one-on-one about basketball. Now imagine the mental and emotional toughness it would take for you to stand your ground with either of those two men when he says you're wrong about something. Now imagine he's not just saying you're wrong, but that he's yelling it. At you. Along with nine- or twenty-one thousand of his best friends. Now turn around (he's still yelling at you) and go make split-second decisions about the movements of elite athletes trying to pummel each other. And make those decisions accurately.

You have to be arrogant as hell to even try.

A fan often looks at a technical or intentional (now flagrant) foul that Hess calls and thinks it was unnecessary, or that it was a call born of arrogance, or that Hess thinks the game's about him. Sometimes an experienced referee might see the same play and disagree with the call; and once in a blue moon that same referee might even share a tinge of the fan's brand of frustration. But far more often the fellow-official looks at the play and recognizes that while certainly bold, Hess's tough decision was also the right one for the game. He often sees that if more referees had that same confidence and conviction, that call would be made in his games, too. And if he's really honest with himself he might even realize that if he and his partners made that call often enough, the game itself-not to mention coaches', players', commentators' and fans' perceptions of the "right call"-would change for the better.

That is the type of reasoning that good officials strive for when they look at plays: would the game of basketball be better if everybody made that call? Such reasoning prioritizes a fairly played and administered contest above all else. At its worst, such reasoning leads to the blind closing of ranks within the striped fraternity. But at its best, it is completely free of the emotion of the passionate fan, whose analysis tends so strongly towards self-affirming conclusions. Conclusions like, "Karl Hess didn't just miss the play. He also hates my team and my university, and he's a horrible basketball official."


Karl Hess has a reputation most have been loath to reconsider lately. Following the ejections, many relevant questions went unasked in large part because of how the public already felt about him. Fairness required, however, that those feelings be ignored while analyzing the event. They weren't. The public's verdict of absolutely-and-completely-guilty may ultimately have been a just one, but it was reached far too swiftly. As this discussion attempts to demonstrate, the fan community is responsible for at least some of that. But fans can't be held completely accountable for the contorted framework that funneled the discussion from the outset. That responsibility lies elsewhere.

We'll get to that next.

The Playcaller can be reached at

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