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THE COLLEGES / MIKE HISERMAN : Foul Play Begins on the Road

There’s only one thing worse than a grown man whining, and that, of course, is a chorus of them.

But at some point you have to wonder if their complaints might be legitimate.

After several games this season, Pete Cassidy, Cal State Northridge’s men’s basketball coach, has taken a deep breath, summoned what restraint he could muster, and dutifully answered questions pertaining to the deluge of free-throw attempts by an opposing team.

Normally, Cassidy opts for diplomacy, a strategy that routinely erodes in a matter of minutes--usually with his face flushing a bright hue of Matador red.

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He will admit that he views such matters “through biased eyes.”

Blah, blah, blah.

Then comes the kicker.

“You saw the game,” he might say, cagily turning the tables on unsuspecting reporters, “What did you think?”

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We hate it when he does that.

Perhaps it should be noted that Cassidy’s team is 3-10 and winless in seven games on the road.

Northridge is, without question, a team in dire need of a good excuse. But Matador coaches and players aren’t the only ones fussing.

Indeed, from coast to coast, coaches from lower-echelon teams are crying foul when it comes to hometown officiating.

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“If there is anything that might chase me out of this game, biased officiating would be it,” the coach of one successful small-time Division I college program said.

“I lose a game on a couple of calls and I can’t sleep at night. Some guy makes six or seven bad calls and he gets up the next morning and goes to work with a check in his pocket and a smile on his face.”

See, Pete, you’re not alone. Sometimes it just feels that way.

Item: In a game at Cincinnati Gardens, Xavier defeated Northridge by 36 points, an edge that included a 40-16 margin in free throws. Xavier attempted 49 foul shots to Northridge’s 23.

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Item: In the first round of the Lobo Invitational at The Pit in New Mexico, the host Lobos downed Northridge, 86-73. Northridge outscored New Mexico, 67-50, in field goals, but is outscored by 30 points at the free-throw line. Northridge was six of 11; New Mexico 36 of 47.

Item: Northridge led Loyola Marymount, 60-56, with 9 minutes 16 seconds to play in a nonconference game at Gersten Pavilion. From that point on, 12 fouls were called--all on Northridge. Loyola shot 22 free throws in the last eight minutes, making 17.

Perfectly innocent explanations do exist:

Usually shorter and often a step slower than their opponents, Northridge players are perhaps tempted to reach and grab in order to stop more physically gifted foes from easy baskets.

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However, that wouldn’t explain why, against Loyola, all those fouls took place in the final eight minutes.

Strange, but not all that unusual, coaches say. Several other not-so-innocent explanations also exist.

When teams such as Northridge travel to play nonconference games, they have no say regarding which officials are assigned. Officials from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and the Cincinnati area worked the Xavier game. New Mexico hired officials from its league, the Western Athletic Conference.

The only time a home team doesn’t get a local official is when its opponent has enough clout to demand a change in the normal routine.

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California, for instance, brought two Pacific 10 Conference officials to the University of Cincinnati for a Dec. 21 nonconference game. It was written in as part of the game contract.

The result: Cal upset the Bearcats and Cincinnati fans littered the court with trash in protest of the officiating.

Northridge, and programs like it, are held hostage because they lack Cal’s influence.

Cassidy scheduled road games at Cincinnati and Xavier because both schools agreed to pay guarantees that help Northridge defray the cost of running its shoestring program. Had Northridge demanded a split officiating crew, those schools simply would have found another patsy to beat up.

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That local officials tend to lean toward the home team is only natural. Indirectly, coaches wield power over how many opportunities an official has to work. Who would an official most strive to please--a team such as Northridge coming in for a one-night stand, or the home school which, over the course of a season, might be writing several of his checks?

“You would like to think those things don’t creep into your mind, but it’s human nature,” one Los Angeles-based official said.

Playing closer to home still doesn’t always change the situation.

In Southern California, there are about 20 Division I officials and the Pac-10, Big West and West Coast conferences have their choice of them.

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The WAC pays each official $500 per game. In the Pac-10 and Big West conferences the tab for each referee is $485. In the West Coast Conference, $340.

Northridge and other American West Conference schools pay officials $275. They get the leftovers.

So, if you’re a referee, who does it pay to please, Coach Dave Bliss of New Mexico and the WAC or John Olive of Loyola Marymount and the WCC?

“These guys have to protect their schedule,” a local assigner of officials said.

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These are the very same guys who are charged with protecting the integrity of the game.

The NCAA, it seems, allows bias by choosing not to regulate the salaries of game officials and by letting schools negotiate the assignment of officials in game contracts.

And so the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Back in the 1920s, the nation’s most powerful college football coaches routinely hired local sportswriters to officiate their games.

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The more influential the journalist, the more money he could extract from a coach--both as a publicity agent and a referee.

By writing a couple of favorable game previews and giving their chosen team a few breaks on the field, reporters could double their monthly salaries.

In his book, Shake Down the Thunder, which details the career of late Notre Dame football Coach Knute Rockne, author Murray Sperber recounts several instances when the coaching legend offered prime officiating opportunities, free tickets and other perks to local scribes.

For the record, Pete, don’t even ask.

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My editor won’t go for it.


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