He Threw Out Book, but Saved the Coach : College basketball: Four months later, official in UCLA-Michigan game explains how he made the call.
The afternoon of March 21, 1993, will burn in the memories of UCLA basketball fans. And in their stomachs.
On that day, in a second-round NCAA game at Tucson, the Bruins blew a 19-point lead and lost, 86-84, to the top-seeded team in the West Regional, Michigan, in a controversial overtime finish.
The central figure in that controversy was Don Rutledge, the officiating crew chief, who made the final call in the last two seconds of overtime in which Jimmy King sank the winning rebound basket. Rutledge became both traffic cop and diplomat during the nearly 10-minute delay taken to sort out things.
Thursday, during the National Assn. of Sports Officials convention here, Rutledge sorted out a few more things about that wild UCLA-Michigan finish, and in so doing, indicated that one of his primary concerns was the professional welfare of Bruin Coach Jim Harrick, who had been under fire much of the season.
“The two things I was most concerned with was getting it right as to how much time was left and trying to keep Jim Harrick in the gym,” Rutledge said.
Rutledge said that he knew, had he simply stood at center court, signaled that King’s basketwas good and granted the timeout that UCLA called--without making any sort of move or gesture toward the coaches to explain or elaborate--that “Harrick would have been right on me, right out on the floor.”
And Rutledge said that was the last thing he wanted, or could afford to have happen in his dual role as game official and human being.
“I remember how I felt when I coached for nine years,” Rutledge said. “I didn’t want to toss him. I told him later that I was doing everything I could to keep him in the gym. I had read a lot of the publicity on him during the season, and I knew he didn’t need any more of that.”
Rutledge, the athletic director of Valencia Community College here, has officiated major college basketball games since 1976 and worked the NCAA title games in 1985 between Villanova and Georgetown, and in ’86 between Louisville and Duke.
He used the UCLA-Michigan game as an example of how officials need to use common sense in areas where the rules don’t dictate. His session, entitled “Referees Are Their Own Worst Enemies,” was an attempt to dissuade his peers from going strictly by the book.
At the heart of the UCLA-Michigan controversy was a misunderstanding of the rules. The Wolverines’ Jalen Rose got a shot off a split second before the shot clock horn sounded. The ball glanced off the backboard, then off the rim and directly to King, who put it back in for the 86-84 lead.
Rutledge, the trail official, whose duty it is to watch for such things, immediately ruled that the ball had left Rose’s hands before time had expired on the shot clock and also signaled immediately for two points when King’s rebound shot went through.
Harrick’s argument, an incorrect one, was that the ball had to hit the rim before the horn sounded, not simply leave the shooter’s hands.
A stunned UCLA team immediately signaled for a timeout, and that was picked up by both of Rutledge’s fellow officials, Andre Pattillo and John Moreau. But the amount of time remaining was so crucial for UCLA that Rutledge wanted to double-check it with his crew and the timer. Quickly, he realized he had more to deal with than the clock.
“Harrick was pleading,” Rutledge said. “He kept asking me to look at the replay. He said the ball didn’t get off in time. I said yes it did. Then he said that it didn’t hit the rim in time. I said yes it did. He said, ‘This is my life. This is my team’s life.’ And I said, ‘What do you think it is for me?’ ”
Rutledge said he understood that some of the questions in the aftermath were raised because the proceedings had taken so long. That might have implied indecision to some, but Rutledge said that he took as much time and used as much patience as he could to defuse the situation, even suggesting to one of the UCLA assistant coaches that he stay right with Harrick to keep him away from center court.
“Finally, when I got it calmer, I called both Harrick and (Michigan Coach) Steve Fisher over, gave them the final rulings and told them there were 1.5 seconds left on the clock,” Rutledge said.
“Then, I told them they both had a full one-minute timeout. I didn’t need to do that. The timeout time had been used up by all the arguing, but I decided that the fairest thing to do would be to give them that full time with their teams.”
After the timeout huddle, UCLA got the ball to Ed O’Bannon, who missed a long shot, and the complicated and controversial game had finally come to an end.
“The game went so long that they had to hold up ’60 Minutes’ for 15 minutes,” Rutledge said. “I bet I’m the only referee who ever did that.”
In an ironic postscript, Rutledge had to fly back from Tucson to Orlando via Los Angeles. So, when he boarded the plane, there was the entire UCLA team.
“Tyus Edney, the little point guard who made the steal and should have taken the shot at the end of regulation, came up to me and shook my hand,” Rutledge said. “Ed O’Bannon did the same thing. They were all class acts, all this at a time when they were all hurting so bad. I’ll never forget that, and I’ll carry that positive impression about UCLA for some time.”
Rutledge also said that he had a long discussion with Harrick on the flight home, and that Harrick admitted he hadn’t known the rule.
Was it surprising to Rutledge that a Division I coach wouldn’t know such a key rule?
Rutledge laughed. So did two or three other officials standing around who had overheard the question.
“Nope,” Rutledge said. “Didn’t surprise me at all.”
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