Making the right call

Mike Stuart shares stories of being an NCAA basketball referee

NCAA basketball referee and Maryville resident Mike Stuart, left, watches as players from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University tip off during a recent game.

NCAA basketball referee and Maryville resident Mike Stuart, left, watches as players from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University tip off during a recent game.

Maryville resident and NCAA basketball official Mike Stuart is seen on the cover of Referee magazine for their December 2008 edition.

Maryville resident and NCAA basketball official Mike Stuart is seen on the cover of Referee magazine for their December 2008 edition.

Mike Stuart, far right, relaxes with his family after dinner at Laurel Valley Golf Course. From left are sons Scott Stuart, Hunter Lawson and Brett Stuart; mother, Evelyn Stuart; and his wife, Melissa Stuart.

Mike Stuart, far right, relaxes with his family after dinner at Laurel Valley Golf Course. From left are sons Scott Stuart, Hunter Lawson and Brett Stuart; mother, Evelyn Stuart; and his wife, Melissa Stuart.

When word got out around the Blount Today office that Mike Stuart would be featured in a story this week, advertising account executive Susan Stout knew what she wanted to ask him.

“Ask him what it was like to throw Calipari out of a game,” she said.

Stuart ejected University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari during the Dec. 18 game against Mississippi Valley State.

Stuart is a GreenBank senior vice president by day and referee with the National Collegiate Athletic Association by night.

When Blount Today caught up with Stuart on Monday, Jan. 3, he was driving on Interstate 35 North heading to Ames, Iowa, to officiate an Iowa State game.

Stuart, 52, was born and raised in Maryville. It was as a player that he first got interested in sports. The son of John “Rex” Stuart and Evelyn Keller Stuart, Mike says his childhood days were all about sports.

“I was raised in sports by my father, my mother and my grandfather, Earl ‘Skinny’ Stuart,” he said. “Every afternoon, before and after dinner, was occupied by sports.”

He played baseball from when he was 8 until the summer of his sophomore year at the University of Tennessee. As a teen, he also played football, basketball and baseball at Maryville High School.

“Basketball was my worst sport,” he said. “But as an official, I think I grew to like basketball because it is fast-paced, there is something going on all the time, and it is more challenging.”

Stuart was quick to praise late Maryville High School coach Jim Campbell. “Coach Campbell did some officiating himself, and he was obviously a great mentor, educator and leader,” he said.

As a player, basketball was more of a “training sport” for Stuart. “I wasn’t a very good basketball player” he said. “But by being on the basketball team and by being conditioned to play basketball, I was always ready to move into baseball. I was always ready to go from the start of the baseball season.”

His basketball officiating career started with Maryville Alcoa Blount County Parks and Recreation in 1977. Kenny Coulter, supervisor of the Knox South High School Officials Association in the early 1980s, saw Stuart officiating Parks and Recreation basketball games and invited him to register with the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association. “That’s where my career began,” he said. “To the best of my recollection, my first TSSAA varsity game was at the old Rule High School, off Western Avenue.”

In about 1982, Stuart began refereeing junior college basketball games for the Tennessee Junior College Athletic Association. That same year he began officiating Division II college games for NAIA in East Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

In 1985, he started officiating in the National College Athletic Association Division II games in the South Atlantic Conference and in 1990, he began officiating Division I college basketball games in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Subsequently, he began officiating other Division I conferences such as the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Southeastern Conference, the Southern Conference, the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Colonial Athletic Conference, the Big XII, Conference USA, the Sunbelt Conference and the Missouri Valley Conference.

“Once you get into a Division I conference, if you have some success and you’re doing a good job, the various supervisors will talk,” he said.

In his case, Ralph Stout with the Ohio Valley Conference told John Guthrie, former associate commissioner of the SEC and coordinator of officials, about Stuart.

“Once you get in, then all those leagues are looking to develop and bring in young people,” Stuart said. “That gets you on their radar, and they track your progress. From there on, they will come to you and say, ‘We would like you to come to our camp, and we’ll teach you and track your progress.’”

Conferences like the Southeastern Conference will have games with Big East schools. In the contracts, the different schools request officials from both leagues, he said.

“So the SEC has to have a Big East officials on staff. There are blended crews so they need those people,” he said. “So the supervisors of the Big East, the ACC, the Big XII, they all come up with cross-over staff.”

Stuart was hired by the SEC in 1995 by Guthrie, former men’s basketball coach at the University of Georgia. “I have worked numerous SEC tournaments and two SEC Championship games,” Stuart said.

Subsequently, he became a member of the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big XII staffs. He became a member of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2009.

“I worked my first NCAA tournament game in the late 1990s in a University of Kansas vs. DePaul game in Winston-Salem, N.C.,” he said.

Since then, Stuart has worked several NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, including Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games. He worked three Final Four tournaments calling semi-final games in 2002 in New Orleans, 2009 in Detroit and 2010 in Indianapolis.

Stuart said he schedules his games on priority system based on preference and travel. “I rank my conferences first, second, third, fourth and fifth. The SEC is my first priority, and I take those games first and move to whoever is second, which would be the Big East, then the ACC and then the Big XII,” he said. “Since I’m a subcontractor and not an employee, I can select what games I want from what they offer me. What I try to do is tie them together where they don’t complicate my work or travel schedules.”

Stuart has been recognized for his work as a basketball official. He was nominated for 2010 Naismith National Official of the Year.

“That award is given out by the Downtown Atlanta Athletic Club. It is certainly humbling and quite an honor to be mentioned or thought of in the group of prior winners, who are all mentors or idols of mine,” he said.

Through the years, Stuart has had many memorable moments as an official. Some of his favorites are:

• The triple overtime game in the Maui Classic in November, 2005, when Gonzaga beat Michigan State 109-106, with Adam Morrison scoring 30 plus points.

Stuart said overtime games are usually more mentally taxing than physically exhausting because officials don’t want to have a misplay that has an impact on the outcome of a great game. “That game was really a great game where both teams competed at their highest level, and they decided the game,” he said. “At the end of the day, that is our goal.”

• Officiating in places with history and mystique like Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., the Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University, the Dean E. Smith Center, aka: The Dean Dome, at the University of North Carolina and Phog-Allen Field House in Kansas.

“There is a lot of history there, and you feel the history. You think about all the great players and coaches and administrators who came through those institutions,” he said.

Stuart said Phog-Allen Field House in Kansas was special because Kansas is the home of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game. “His original rules of basketball were written on a piece of notebook paper and recently sold for $800,000,” Stuart said.

• Officiating during the tenure of University of Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson.

“The defensive pressure Nolan Richardson’s teams brought was unbelievable. It was really a challenge because Arkansas, in those days, would really get after it,” he said. “They were fast, and it seemed everywhere the ball went, there were two or three of their players with it. They were everywhere and very intense with their defensive pressure.”

• Officiating during the University of Florida’s back-to-back national championship seasons and being on court for their pre-game introductions.

Five or six years ago, schools started making the pre-game introductions into elaborate productions, he said. “The lights would go down, the noise would go up, and it would bring the crowd to their feet,” he said. “It is quite an exciting place. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”

• Watching the play of Jarvis Varnado, a forward with Mississippi State. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

“He was the first person to be named three consecutive years,” Stuart said. “He was the greatest shot-blocker in NCAA history.”

• Stuart recalled the play of Devin Downey of the University of South Carolina in 2009.

“It was one of the greatest individual performances in their upset of then No. 1 ranked Kentucky this past year,” he said.

Stuart said something that stands out to him more than anything is the friends and fellow officials he has met over the years. “When refereeing is over, we won’t remember many games, but we will always remember the officials each of us stood shoulder to shoulder with and whom I came to respect and trust as referees and more importantly as friends,” he said.

“There are many men and women dedicated to giving their time to supporting the many youth and secondary school programs throughout the county,” he said. “These people ask and expect little or nothing in return for their time and commitment. They may never see the bright lights of a nationally broadcast game or be recognized when the television comes on, but, in my opinion, they are the greatest officials ever, and I am blessed to have worked games with them.”

Stuart is married to Melissa Stuart, a realtor with Realty III, and has three children. John “Scott” Stuart, 23, graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in May of 2010 and is attending Emory University Law School. Brett Stuart, 20, followed his brother and is a freshman at UTC and is a manager for the UTC men’s basketball team. Hunter Lawson, 13, attends Maryville Middle School.

So what was it like to throw coach Calipari out of a gym during a nationally televised game?

“You know, it’s just another call in my day. That’s all it is,” he said. “It’s not personal, it’s just another play.”

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Comments » 1

UKbear writes:

I have had the pleasure to work with Mike Stuart for several years as the official timer for the University Of Kentucky. Mike is one of the great characters I have ever known. He is always having a good time and will always welcome you with a smile. I wish fans could understand that it is just a game. By the way, he sure looks good in Blue!