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‘I Still Get Excited for Every Game’

By John Yevuta - | Feb 9, 2021

An Interview By John Yevuta

Mark Twain once wrote,“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Division 1 Women’s Basketball referee Kevin Pethtel embodies that spirit.

What is your earliest sports memory? My earliest memory of sports is playing baseball in the backyard with my friends. Seems like we always had a game going and that is one of the things I remember most about growing up.

Do you have a favorite sport? Baseball

Describe your first refereeing experience? When I was growing up, my Dad was the AD at the middle school. I would always go with him to games hoping that the referees would not show up so I could jump in. Even though that never happened, I always knew I wanted to try it. When I took the refereeing class after my first year of college, I remember the excitement I had to just get out there and work a game. My first experience ever was a scrimmage at Long Drain.

Was there a moment you realized you had a knack for doing it? I’d say in year two I worked a high school scrimmage with some veterans. They had a lot of good feedback for me. We actually worked three persons in that scrimmage which I had never done before. I picked it up pretty easily. The game seemed to just come to me naturally.

You’ve worked your way up through the refereeing ranks. How long of a journey has it been? This is my 19th season in Division 1. All together 23 years. I can’t tell you how many camps and clinics I have been to in those 23 years. It’s definitely been a journey.

As a young person, how tough was it to take fan abuse? Early on I think it was tougher because you hear everything. You have to learn to have thick skin and block out comments especially from fans. You can’t engage with every comment or statement, whether it is from a fan or coach. As far as fans, truthfully, most of the time I don’t even hear them. I am focused on what I’m trying to do and comments from fans do not really influence or bother me. This year is a little different because the gyms are pretty much empty so you tend to hear a little bit more.

Tell us a few things about about refereeing that most of us don’t know. There is more to refereeing than just calling fouls or violations. Being able to communicate with players and coaches is an asset that good officials possess. This helps develop comfort and credibility from coaches. Also, when the game is over, we just don’t move onto the next game like some people think. We study film just like coaches, self-evaluating our performance. Before a game, we study the team tendencies and styles of play.

During a typical college game how many miles do you end up running? 4-6 miles.

In the off season, what do you do to prepare physically for the upcoming season? I exercise to stay in shape 12 months out of the year. Staying in shape is important for my job, so that’s my motivation to stay healthy. I am not a runner though, so my preparation for the season involves riding my bike, doing weight training, body weight squats, lunges, etc. It is very difficult to mimic the stopping and starting that we do during a game, so my focus is primarily on strengthening those muscles to prevent injury once the season starts.

As your experience has increased, how much more efficient is the mature Kevin than the kid who broke into the game? I’m much more mature than I was when I started. I understand the game much better. I understand how plays need to fit together in a game which plays into being consistent as an official. I feel like my best work is during the tougher games or when the “lights are bright.” I also understand that it’s ok to have a night off. As a kid, I never wanted a night off. Now, it’s good to have a night or two to rest my body.

Your job entails a lot of traveling. How many miles do you travel during a regular season? It’s tough to say how many miles I actually travel. I spend more time now flying to games than I do driving. In a normal year, it is not uncommon for me to be in 5 or 6 six different states in the course of a week.

What is your game day preparation like? My typical day involves travel to the game city if I was not there the night before. Once there, I get in some kind of workout and then grab some lunch. I will also watch some of my game tape from the night before to review plays that need to be reviewed. If I traveled that morning, then most likely I’m gonna take a nap in the afternoon because my day started with a 4 am wake up call. After that, I do my research on the game I have coming up. Once at the arena I pre-game with my crew and get ready for the game. After the game it’s back to the hotel where I review my tape while grabbing something to eat. I am not one who can go right to sleep after my game. It typically takes me a couple hours to unwind. Most likely I have another early morning wake up call so that I can fly to the next game site.

Before the season, do you scout coaches and teams? If so, what are some of the tendencies you look for? Not before the season but during I always know what kind of matchup I’m gonna have and what team tendencies that they may or may not have.

Coaches can become irate over a call that doesn’t go their way. How do you let them know when they’ve had their say and the call stands? If it’s a call that I know wasn’t very good, then I just give myself up right away to the coach. Most of the time they respect that and it de-escalates the situation right away. Now, if its a call that I feel was right, I will tell the coach what I saw or on many occasions ask them what they saw. Allowing them to talk to me often will calm them down. I really try to let coaches know that I am listening. When a coach crosses that line though, you have to be prepared to handle him/her. Whether it is a warning or technical foul, I have learned to treat it like another call. I really try to take the emotion out of it. Sometimes I am more successful at this than others.

Are there some places you look forward to working and why? I love the older arenas. I was fortunate to get to work in Freedom Hall before it closed. The atmosphere in that arena was just fantastic. Another cool arena is “The Barn” at the University of Minnesota. I always like working in front of a packed house. Mississippi State always has a great crowd and atmosphere as well as South Carolina.

From your view, what makes a good coach? I like working for the coaches who get it. When they complain, you know that its probably something that you want to pay attention to. Those coaches let you work and ask questions the correct way. When a coach complains on every trip down the floor, the validity of the complaints usually isn’t very good. You really don’t know what they are asking for. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really great coaches. I always start the game the same way with every coach; communicating and listening, regardless of situations that may have occurred in a prior game with that coach.

What are some of the ways the game has progressed since you’ve been refereeing? Players are more skilled today than when I started. I also feel the women’s game is covered better by the media than when I started. From an official’s perspective, the way we view game tape has changed dramatically. When I started, we may have gotten a vcr tape of a game in the mail. Now, my game is on my iPad immediately after the game is over.

How has the pandemic affected you, your profession and the game? My season last year ended when I was sitting in my hotel at the Big 12 tournament and I received a call that said tournament was canceled; go home. I never thought we would be dealing with this like we are today. I am testing 4 or 5 times a week for starters. Games get canceled, moved, and rescheduled daily. You don’t know if your game 2 days from now is going to go or not. So just because you get a good schedule doesn’t mean all of those games are going to happen. During pre-pandemic years I rarely had a game that got canceled. I work every game in a mask as well. I never thought I would be wearing a mask to officiate, but it’s what needs to be done so I do it. As officials, we are a tight group. We like to get together after a game or ride to games together. We can’t do any of that this year. Financially, officials have been impacted too, because when the game is not played, we do not get paid. Travel has also been very difficult. There are fewer flights than before which is very challenging for us as we rely on having back ups and those early morning flights, which at times this year are not available. There are not as many rental cars either as most agencies have reduced their fleet of cars.

Any advice you’d give a young person interested in becoming a referee? I have always said that you should get into officiating because you love the sport or love being a part of the game. It is a good way to make extra money, but when I started it was because I really wanted to be an official. I never thought it would turn out like it has for me. For younger officials starting out, my advice would be to work as many games as you can, regardless of the level. As you progress, you can always dial it back if you want to, but early on it is just like playing a sport. The more you do it the better you are going to get at it. Also, be receptive to feedback. I would not be where I am at today if it wasn’t for all the veterans that took the time to give me advice and help me out.

What did your son ask you about going to college? My oldest son (10 years old) and I were having a discussion about going to college. He asked me, “Daddy, where I am going to go to college ?” I told him that he could go anywhere that Daddy doesn’t work! Everyone laughed when I said that. The reason I told him that was because we are not allowed to work at schools while our children are attending that school.

How do you feel about having a job as a basketball official? My wife told me recently that I am so lucky to have a job that I love. She is right. I love what I do. I still get excited for every game that I get the opportunity to work. I feel fortunate to be able to go to work and love every second of it. So many people don’t have a job that they love. They go to work because they need to support their family. I go to work and my job allows me to support my family, but I am so lucky that I love what I do. I also feel like God gave me this ability to referee the game of basketball, and I am trying to make the most of the opportunities He gives me.

Three sports movies? Not in any particular order… Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Safety.