College Soccer and other Autumn Traditions: 5 Questions for Brian Hall.

I love autumn.  The leaves are turning color.  The air has become crisp (last night’s temp dropped to 52F).   My Clippers and Kings are off to a solid (if not entirely promising) start.  And so many Facebook friends are posting photos of their NCAA, NJCAA and NAIA playoff matches… some in short sleeves, others in long sleeves… and then there’s the occasional parka!

On December 14, all eyes will turn to Cary, North Carolina and WakeMed Soccer Park in anticipation of the 2014 NCAA Men’s College Cup.  A crowd expected to exceed 7,000 will witness the pinnacle of collegiate soccer, contested on a pristine grass pitch inside an impressive complex specifically built to showcase soccer.  WakeMed stands as proof (and one of nearly 20 modern examples) of just how far the World’s Game has progressed here in the United States.

It wasn’t that long ago that the NCAA Final was held indoors, on a rock-hard Astroturf field before a throng of 5,000 spectators… and 50,000 silent, empty seats.

And that’s where we’ll start today’s discussion.

Thanks to our friends at FIFA, the MLS Cup playoffs went dark on November 15-16, allowing me just enough time to catch up with an old friend.  At about the same time, the USL Pro League announced that several more MLS teams have followed the LA Galaxy by placing a reserve team in our nation’s third division.  With MLS teams making such a commitment to bridge the gap between their academy programs and first teams, I wonder if the future of Division I collegiate soccer just might be in jeopardy.

This was one of many topics I presented to Professional Referee Organization (PRO) Match Official Development Manager Brian Hall.  Many of us recall Mr. Hall’s groundbreaking performance in the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup, and historians will recall that he was subsequently named MLS Referee of the Year four times (in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007).

But how many of you remember where Brian Hall was on December 14, 1985?  I’m sure that Sigi Schmid does.  And the NCAA record books do as well… in fact, Brian Hall and I both made collegiate soccer history in 1985.  By scoring the first goal in the history of the program at Benedictine University (try to imagine the celebration throughout Lisle, Illinois), this scrawny midfielder did his part to elevate BU from being a Division III laughingstock (we went 1-18-1 that first season… and I only scored the one goal), to eventually becoming a regional contender, to being nationally ranked (long after I graduated), to being virtually unknown again.

Mr. Hall, meanwhile, took his own rightful place in the annals of collegiate soccer by whistling the longest game in NCAA history… on a rock-hard Astroturf field before a throng of 5,000 spectators – and 50,000 silent, empty seats.

Q: You whistled the 1985 NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Championship game in Seattle, when UCLA (coached by Sigi Schmid and Steve Sampson) won its first title over American University in eight overtimes.  That game – dubbed by many as the greatest collegiate soccer game ever played — remains the longest in NCAA history.  What can you share with us about the challenges of such a grueling assignment?

A: “I get tired just thinking of that game.  Let me start by drawing a picture for you.  First, the turf was artificial, hard and old.  It was laid directly on the cement base of the Kingdome.  As a consequence, it was a devil to run on. The ball bounced to incredible heights.  The teams and officials were forced to apply our trade for approximately four hours through eight overtime periods.

I was 24 years old.  Many questioned my appointment to the game . . . until the eighth overtime (almost a second game later). I remember standing on the sideline with my team around the sixth OT.  I locked my knees as I tried to stand tall. Mistake. I got a cramp in my hamstring. The pain and tightness radiated throughout my leg and I immediately thought, ‘I’m finished.  I won’t be able to continue.’  About this time, the NCAA representative says to me, ‘Brian, thank goodness we assigned you this game. I don’t think another official could have stayed on their feet for this long.’  Remember, the players were being substituted in and out.  They had recovery time and (we had) only had five minutes between overtime periods.  At one point, I recall hearing the air horn indicating a player was to be subbed.  And, I looked over praying it was my number they were calling!

In the third overtime, an American University player was sent-off for head-butting an opponent. I observed the incident but wanted to be certain due to the importance of the game. I conferred with linesman John Kennedy.  In his accent, John confidently explained, ‘Brian, he’s gotta go.  He head-butted him man, he head-butted him.’  With that confirmation, I issued the red card.”

Head-butting aside, so much has changed since 1985.  Title IX had an immediate and lasting effect, and today, more than 300 of the 351 NCAA member institutions field Division I women’s teams.  NCAA women’s soccer is the primary feeder to the U.S. Women’s National Team (and the national teams of several other countries).

But we haven’t enjoyed nearly as much growth with the men’s game.  Yes, we have the excitement of our sport’s “final four,” when the games are televised and played in first-class facilities.  But, neither the Southeastern Conference nor Big XII — strong voices in any football conversation — offer men’s soccer.  The Big Ten does, but with only 9 of its 14 members competing, while the Atlantic Coast has 12 of 15.  And then there’s the Pac-12, which after adding Colorado and Utah, still had only 5 soccer-playing members… were it not for San Diego State, the Pac-12 would not exist.

With all the PR rewards of player development (remember Harry Shipp?), more D1 universities should take the plunge and field men’s teams…

Q: Today we find MLS in its prime, with Generation adidas offering top collegiate players a fast track to the professional game, stable feeder leagues in the new NASL and USL Pro, and a well-established academy system.  Where does collegiate soccer “fit” into the development of soccer athletes?

A: “The college game plays an important role.  Until MLS teams have full-fledged, live-in academies for players that are linked to an education, collegiate soccer provides a good avenue for many players to play at a competitive level while also preparing for the future, after soccer. Look around the world.  What is the road map to the pros in soccer-rich nations?  It is through a club-managed feeder system or academy. Players are put in a professional environment at an early age where they are able to emulate the top pros and get their feet wet competing, on a daily basis, with other second-teamers who want a spot on the first team.

College soccer fills a void and will remain a viable avenue for players.  As a former youth and college coach, I know how important the college game is for student athletes.  It provides opportunities for players to follow their soccer playing passion while obtaining a life-changing education and degree.”

Ah yes, the unique carrot that collegiate soccer offers aspiring athletes.  The NCAA runs ads throughout its championship telecasts, reminding viewers of the value of a degree from any of its member institutions.

One should never underestimate the value of the athletic scholarship… yet so many athletes do. Twenty-some years ago, I remember running the line at Bill Armstrong Stadium and chasing after one extremely swift Chris Klein, who after graduation from Indiana University, became a USMNT regular and 12-year MLS veteran.

Today, Mr. Klein puts his degree to use as president of the LA Galaxy.

Q: What does college soccer uniquely offer, and where does it fit in with referee development?

A: “Collegiate soccer does play a key role in match official development.  I envision that, in the future, it will play an even more significant role in providing challenging games to American officials. College matches offer solid, challenging games and provide a mechanism to feedback and coaching match officials.  Let’s face it: MLS gets many of their players from the collegiate ranks.  One can assume there is a correlation between managing a college game and the various professional levels. 

However, we must protect ourselves from several components of the college game that can potentially negatively impact referee performance.  In particular, match officials need to be cognizant of not developing bad habits that can be associated with managing a collegiate game versus a professional game. Secondly, there are plenty of college games and many are local; hence, referees can do too many games at the college level resulting in physical and mental fatigue. Match officials need to balance their assignments so as to resist the temptations associated with doing an overabundance of games and, thereby, negatively impacting their overall performance and development.”

Mr. Hall is being kind when he references this “overabundance.”  Let’s face it: referees who live in our most populated metropolitan areas can easily work four or more collegiate matches a week for 10 weeks.  The concentrated schedules over the men’s and women’s D1, D2, D3, JuCo and NAIA seasons can keep us all very busy indeed… so perhaps the purchase of all those jerseys is justified!

Q: What are some of the key attributes of a successful collegiate referee?

A: “I don’t think that there should be any difference between being a successful collegiate referee and a top-class professional or national referee.  A match official must know which ‘hat’ they are wearing.  They must understand the nuances of that environment and be able to put the appropriate ‘hat’ on to successfully lead a game at that level.  It is no different from a PRO referee when doing an MLS game versus an international encounter.

I like to reference five P’s:

Pride and passion:  It starts here.  A referee must have passion for their work.  This is the love they have for the game and their role in the game, and how that motivates them to excel. 

Preparation: The modern game requires match officials to be prepared.  Knowledge of the teams.  Knowledge of the players.  Team formations and tactics. Additionally, preparation extends to how the referee physically and mentally prepares for each opportunity.

Professionalism: The manner in which match officials carry themselves. Confident yet humble. Authority figure yet open. Communicative but willing to listen. There are so many other components.  But the key is the how an official conveys their spirit, their character.

Persistence:  A top class referee must be able to get up when they fall. Trying and trying again until it is perfect is a key attribute. In refereeing, there is so much failure (or perceived failure by players, coaches, spectators, media) that an official must be able to brush off the dust and persevere until they get it right.

Performance: All the attributes before this lead up to the official’s ability to perform.  In the modern game, there is a lot at stake.  Economic and employment opportunities hinge on a referee’s every call.”

Successful collegiate officials work hard to master Mr. Hall’s five P’s.   It should go without saying, but I will state the obvious: if you’re going to work college games, you’d better be prepared. Know the unique rules.  Master them and be ready to recite them… because you’ll be tested on your knowledge, and your patience will be tested when you’re asked to explain your decisions.

Let’s face it: besides Paul Tamberino and Steve Siomos, the most powerful individuals in men’s college soccer are the head coaches at the 205 competing schools.  Do a solid, professional job (by their standards) and avoid decisions that embarrass their teams (especially at home), and you remain eligible to see them again.

Q: You were named to the FIFA Panel in 1992… four years before the debut of Major League Soccer, and eight years after the demise of the original NASL.  With no pro league, what were some of the most challenging assignments you received in the years preceding your FIFA appointment? 

A: “The years between the demise of the NASL and the rise of the MLS were difficult. There was no defined pro league and the ones that bid for the spectator’s time were often out of business as fast as they kicked off.  Looking back, I was fortunate to look at every assignment as a challenge, as a way to hone my skills.

The collegiate scene was really the only constant.  Although there was little travel involved and lots of local assignments, the myriad of college games kept you on your toes.  I can remember waiting for the call at NCAA playoff time. It didn’t matter if was a D2 or D1 assignment, men’s or women’s.  It was an honor to have the phone ring.”

For those working collegiate playoffs this weekend and into December, please remember that it is truly an honor to have the phone ring.  When you get that game assignment, remind yourself how your own persistence has paid off.  In extending my heartfelt congratulations, I wish you fair play, friendly bounces of the ball, short-sleeve playing conditions… and fewer than eight overtimes!

Categories: General

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