As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament tipped off, one could say that Cookeville, Tennessee insurance agent Gary Maxwell had the best seat in the house.
No, he wasn’t sitting courtside or in a luxury box of any kind; he was up close and personal with some of the game’s best. After all, he was one of the guys in the stripes, officiating some of the matchups in the Providence, R.I. regional.
Maxwell worked last Thursday’s Villanova overtime victory against Robert Morris and could see more action as the tournament rolls along. And for the insurance agent turned referee, March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year.
“It is,” Maxwell said. “It’s been a long season in some ways. Any time the tournament rolls back around, it is kind of exciting.”
Maxwell, whose Cookeville property/casualty, health and life insurance agency that bears his name opened in 1983, has been in the basketball business since 1992, when he was hired by the Ohio Valley Conference as an official. And the process to select the officials is almost just as painstaking as selecting the 65 teams to fill out the bracket.
“What happens is the NCAA selects the officials that will work the tournament,” Maxwell said.
“There are initially 96 guys that will work the first-round games. The NCAA selects you based on your ratings from your conference. I worked the Atlantic Coast Conference this season as my primary league, and I also worked in the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12. There are about 10 conferences all together, but those were the major ones. They took the ratings in my case, the ACC, the SEC, the Big Ten and the Big 12 and they will select who they think are the top 96 officials for the first round games.
“In the second round, they pare it down to about 56 officials. I know I’m working two games, so I’m in that top 56. What the NCAA will do again this weekend is select the top 24 guys for the next round, and it just keeps working its way down. The selection committee that selects the teams also selects the officials, so that’s kind of how it works.”
Most fans never see it, but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes at the tournament, as Maxwell rushed to Rhode Island to be there for meetings before the games even tip off.
“We have a breakfast meeting in the morning,” Maxwell said.
“We had a conference call with all of the tournament officials, talking about points of emphasis that the Rules Committee and the Selection Committee wants enforced. We reviewed the season and how things went in regards to how we officiated. I have a meeting in the morning as well at each site. We also have a tape review process for each game, then there’s a report we have to do where we’re graded by the NCAA. There’s a lot more going on than people realize. We don’t just show up to referee the game. That’s not the way it works.”
Maxwell is no stranger to the Big Dance, working the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis, the same site as this year’s finale.
“I did a Sweet 16 game last year,” Maxwell said. “A couple of years before that, I went to the Elite Eight. This is my 11th year working the NCAA tournament, so I’ve been very lucky. It’s been a lot of fun.”
With as many games as there are, Maxwell has racked up on the frequent flyer miles, but it’s not as hectic as earlier in the season.
“This time of year, the travel isn’t as bad,” Maxwell said. “You’re at one central location. Last week, I was in Greensboro (N.C.) with the ACC tournament for four days. Now, I’m going to Providence for four days, so it’s going from Greensboro to Providence to Lubbock, Texas, then back to Cookeville. That’s when it gets crazy. But this time of year, it’s nowhere near as bad as it is in the regular season. ”
And, just like any other occupation, there are some advantages and disadvantages of being a referee.
“Obviously, I love basketball,” Maxwell said.
“I grew up in Livingston and played at Livingston Academy. I just always loved the game. Being a referee, I get to be a part of the game to some degree. The disadvantage is definitely the travel. It’s hard on your family. It’s hard being away from work, but there’s a lot more positives than there are negatives. It’s something I’ve been doing for 30 years now, I guess.
“It’s really a lot of fun and I’ve made a world of new friends that I officiate with. Two of the guys I’m working with this week, I’ve worked with them all season, so I’m going to be spending three or four days with my buddies. As my wife says, ‘You’re going on vacation again.”‘
There’s no doubt for someone who truly loves the game that officiating can be a fun job.
“If you’re a basketball fan,” Maxwell said, “this time of year is it. This is like the Masters or the World Series. It doesn’t get any better, so to be able to go to these places and work a game for Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) or work in front of Dick Vitale or those guys, it doesn’t get any better than this. This is the best time of the year.”
With as many teams as he sees in a year, and the neutrality that he displays with the job, it’s impossible for him to pick a favorite team.
Well, not quite.
“Livingston Academy is my favorite team,” Maxwell said. “I could care less who wins. That’s not why you do it, that’s for sure.”
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