Gene Steratore bounds from the officials' locker room at Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, following a roped-off path to the court.
"Can you put a couple of pretzels aside for halftime?" he asks a concessionaire. "We'll tip you well."
Steratore is America's Ref, known to millions as the dashing man who flags a false start on an NFL Sunday and two days later uses the same motion to whistle a Big Ten basketball player for traveling.
From the Jan. 6 "Waddle and Silvy" show on WMVP-AM 1000:
Marc Silverman: "Everyone loves (Ed) Hochuli, but I believe Steratore is better all the way around."
Tom Waddle: "Not so much because of his physique but because he really explains everything."
Silverman: "He's not only officiating the football game, at Tuesday he's got Wisconsin at Indiana. You watch and go: Is that Gene Steratore?"
Steratore is humble but embraces being called the Deion Sanders of his profession, aka "Prime Time."
"Prime is here!" he tells an old friend working security.
Steps from the court, a boy offers him a slice of pizza. Steratore just smiles. And then he whispers a line that reflects the joy he brings to his job: "They pay us to do this."
In truth, this is not easy money. Basketball officials can be required to make a half-dozen decisions on each of 120 to 140 plays over 40 minutes, and TV viewers and overheated observers expect them to get every call right.
Did the player travel? Who initiated contact? Was there displacement? Was the defender's foot in the restricted zone? Was there continuation? When did the shot clock sound?
And perhaps most difficult of all: How do you keep your cool when a powerful and sometimes physically intimidating coach is blasting you?
"When chaos is erupting in our arena and fans are going crazy," Steratore says, "we have to be the calming force."
Last month the Big Ten gave the Tribune rare access, allowing a reporter to embed with officiating crews at the Rutgers-Purdue and Maryland-Northwestern games, shadowing them before, during and after games — plus while their boss scrutinized their calls at the Big Ten command center.
A summary of what we learned: By the time officials take the floor, they are hours into their workday, having iced, stretched and studied each team. They walk, jog or run as many as 2.5 miles per game. Some work nearly 100 nights from November to March — and they razz each other about their heavy schedules. They can make upward of $3,000 per game but have to pay for their flights, hotels and rental cars. They hunger for an invitation to work the NCAA tournament. They miss about 4.2 calls over 40 minutes.Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune
Gene Steratore (left) and Mike Eades in their locker room before officiating the Northwestern-Maryland game at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 15, 2017.
Gene Steratore (left) and Mike Eades in their locker room before officiating the Northwestern-Maryland game at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 15, 2017.(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)
And, contrary to some perceptions, the best officials try to avoid issuing technical fouls.
Rick Boyages, who oversees basketball officiating for the Big Ten, says of Steratore: "Gene can take a coach in a most heated state and disarm him in five seconds. It's a real skill."
The best example came Jan. 20, 2015, when more than 17,000 fans packed the Kohl Center to watch two ranked teams — Iowa and Wisconsin — duke it out in an ESPN prime-time game.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who rode the officials harder than anyone in the conference, confronted Steratore over a call and began cussing him out. Steratore approached Ryan and told him: "Look at me. Here's how you do this."
Steratore put his left hand over his mouth: "Now you can mother-(bleep) me!"
Ryan chuckled, cursed some more. A university photographer captured the moment.
"Look how fun this is!" Steratore told Ryan. "They don't know what we're doing."Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind., Feb. 14, one hour before tipoff
The three-man crew is in the officials' locker room preparing for Rutgers-Purdue. Steratore is stretching on a towel. Larry Scirotto is icing his right ankle. Bo Boroski is applying Flexall, a pain-relieving gel, to his legs. It smells like Bengay, which, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich jokes, "they buy in tubs."
Boroski, 41, is 6-foot-4, a former pitcher at UAB who began reffing soccer, baseball and basketball as an 11-year-old in Tifton, Ga. His payment was five bucks and "all you can eat at the concession stand," where the hot dogs were "like crayons."
His father, whom he calls "the original Bo," was a baseball umpire who taught him professionalism.
"I have Italian blood in me," he says, "so I have to shave right before every game. If I were to shave at lunch and we had overtime, I would be scruffy."
He has seen Pearl Jam perform 37 times, and before calling a game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, he quickly scans the arena in hopes of spotting Evanston native and Cubs fan Eddie Vedder.
Scirotto, 43, is a self-described "LA Fitness addict" with a beach body that would attract gawkers in Santa Monica. He works out every morning not only to hone his 32-inch waist and Mike Tyson biceps, but also to set an example at his day job.
Scirotto became a police officer in Pittsburgh at 19. He was too young to legally own a gun, so his mother kept it locked in the house overnight. He has since risen to a supervisory role as assistant chief but says, "I've been ducking bullets for 20 years that have real consequences."
Last month in Iowa City, Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffrey got so enraged over the lack of a delay-of-game technical on Maryland, he charged toward Scirotto after the clock hit zeroes.
Scirotto was nonplussed as he exited the floor.
"Move," he told the Iowa coach. "Move."
Tribune reporter Shannon Ryan ranks the Big Ten men's basketball teams through the action of Feb. 26, 2017.(Shannon Ryan)
One Big Ten coach who preferred to remain anonymous praised Scirotto as "having a good personality; he likes to crack jokes and keep it light."
Boyages wants his refs to chitchat with players and coaches before games.
"They need to see them as human," Boyages says. "If (Caleb) Swanigan finds out Larry is a cop, maybe that's something they'd talk about."
About 50 minutes before tip, six members of Purdue's game-day staff enter the room. They include a "TOC" (timeout coordinator) who communicates with a producer in the TV truck and a "tech" who serves as a replay technician.
"How 'bout the clocks, boys, any problems in the last two weeks?" Steratore asks.
Told no, Steratore delivers a pep talk: "The ego we will show on the court will only be for self-preservation. There is nothing stupid about any question you could possibly ask. We want to get it right."
Boroski examines the game ball, which varies by school depending on the apparel contract. Wisconsin uses a little-known brand from Puyallup, Wash., named Sterling, perhaps giving the Badgers a small advantage.
Before leaving for the court, one of the game-day staff members jokes to the officials: "I've never seen you guys mess up."
Steratore responds: "When I work a perfect game, I'll quit. I will never duplicate it."Tipoff, Feb. 14
Sixteen seconds in, Scirotto blows his whistle for an unusual call. Purdue guard Carsen Edwards receives a pass after getting freed by a double screen. But Edwards stepped out of bounds while moving without the ball.
"An offensive foul down low," play-by-play man Jeff Levering says on the Big Ten Network broadcast. "Rutgers forcing an early turnover."Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune
Gene Steratore during the Northwester-Maryland game at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 15, 2017.
Gene Steratore during the Northwester-Maryland game at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Feb. 15, 2017.(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)
Actually it's a violation, but a borderline one. Officials call this the "Gary Harris Rule" in honor of the former Michigan State guard who liked to come off screens from behind the basket, creating sharp angles to lose defenders.
But it's called only when the player is the first to receive a pass after leaving the court of his own volition. And in this case, a Rutgers defender might have nudged Edwards out.
"That's the dumbest thing," Purdue coach Matt Painter tells Boroski as he walks past.
In an interview with the Tribune the next day, Painter says: "It's not a good rule. Our guy barely went out of bounds, and one of their guys impeded his progress."
Purdue has beasts in Swanigan and Isaac Haas, and they sometimes play overlapping minutes. There's so much grappling inside, Painter says, "we can be tough to officiate."
Indeed, late in the first half, Painter hollers at Steratore: "Hold! He can't grab him, Gene."
Steratore warns Painter that Haas has to "get out" of the lane to avoid a three-second violation.
"Any time we can preventively officiate and stay out of this game," Steratore says, "we will do it."Halftime, Feb. 14
In their locker room, Scirotto downs some chocolate-covered espresso beans. Steratore drinks a Coke and talks about his interaction with Painter.
"Getting your plays right, that's not really hard at this level if you're good enough to be here," he says. "Most of what we do is managing the game."
It's an even greater part of his football work.
"A play lasts six seconds with 20 seconds of downtime," he says. "Imagine an individual having to play so violently for six seconds and then having to be normal for 20. And then violent for six more. How do you take that emotion and keep him mentally stable in between the violence?"Second half, Feb. 14
Before play resumes, Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell chats with Boroski, telling him he's at a loss as to how to defend Purdue's "bigs."
Boroski is cordial but does not chime in, explaining later: "When (a coach) goes down that road, we can't let our guard down. Can't give a quotable line that can be used against us later. I listen and acknowledge, but I don't agree, disagree or add my own input."
Purdue leads 35-31 with 18:35 to play. Rutgers 7-footer C.J. Gettys is defending the massive Swanigan and grinding his right forearm into Swanigan's back. The low-post defender is permitted to keep it there, but Gettys twice uses the forearm to jab. No call.
"C'mon, Bo!" Painter yells.Scirotto blows his whistle for an unusual call
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)See more videos
Rutgers does not attempt a free throw until 37 minutes have passed, but Pikiell has no outward complaint. Purdue is the better team, and the officials have worked a smooth game.
About the only thing that goes wrong comes when Steratore tries to toss his gum into a trash can and misses. He jokingly signals for a hacking foul.
With 30 seconds to play and the clock running, Boroski notices Rutgers walk-on Jake Dadika trying to check into the game. But Rutgers has no timeouts.
Boroski asks Painter: "Hey, can I get him in?"
Painter has no vested interest but complies. A nice gesture by Painter and good awareness by Boroski.
"That's why he's Bo," Steratore says.Postgame, Feb. 14
Boyages huddles with the officials, praising them for a clean game. Over the next 12 to 18 hours, he will grade every foul, every violation and plays when perhaps a foul or violation should have been called. Correct calls get a "1," wrong calls get a "2" and he tags 50-50 calls with a question mark.
The Big Ten logs and charts everything. Through the first 146 games, Boyages determined officials missed 620 calls, 4.24 per game. That number is down slightly over the past few seasons. The average game has 2.6 "50-50" calls.
The only clearly missed call at Purdue came when Gettys was defending Swanigan in the low post. Boyages and Boroski analyze the replay on an iPad.
Boyages: "Looks like pop … pop."
Boroski: "Is it displacement?"
Boyages: "Well, (Swanigan) is 300 pounds. So it's probably going to take more."
Boroski: "That's what I was thinking."
Boyages: "But what level of a crack is it?"
Boyages: "You can talk him through that: '32, you can use the arm bar, but don't be popping him in the back. I'm not going to call a foul because you're not moving.' But that's aggravating to a guy."
Boroski: "100 percent. Nah, you're right. I should have taken a foul on it. It's a foul."
In ref lingo, "take" a foul means "call" a foul.
Steratore and Scirotto are off to Chicago. They'll work with veteran official Mike Eades for the next night's Maryland-Northwestern game.
Boroski is off to New Jersey to work the Creighton-Seton Hall game. En route to his hotel, he says he'll lock in Channel 22 on SiriusXM — Pearl Jam Radio.Big Ten command center, Rosemont, Feb. 15
The No. 1 complaint from Big Ten coaches about refs? They work too many games.
"They have to be tired," one said. "They work six days a week in six different cities, travel every day, run the floor with elite athletes."
"When do they recover?" another asked.
It's a valid concern.
As Steratore puts it: "We are young cars with lot of miles."
And many of them have day jobs and families. Steratore has a family business (brother Tony, also an NFL official, co-owns it) that sells janitorial supplies in Pittsburgh. As an NFL referee, he explained to America that Calvin Johnson did not "complete" that 2010 end-zone catch at Soldier Field. He also put three kids through college, debt-free.
"I single-parented for the last 17 years, ran a business and did both sports," he says. "My children used to get on an air mattress and lie in the back of a (Dodge) Durango and I'd go to New York City, ref a game and they'd sleep on the air mattress. And I'd carry them in at 5 in the morning (back in Pittsburgh), put them in the shower and get them to school. The sacrifices are immense."
But here's why guys like Steratore, who walks tilted to one side because of a strained back, work so many games: They're needed.
"Why are there only 70 guys working 100 games?" Steratore says. "You think it's because we're greedy? There's a difference between being a play-calling official and a referee who can manage the game."
Officials are independent contractors making between $1,200 and $3,000 per night depending on the competition level and their experience. They do often work four to five games a week, but Boyages has helped the profession immensely by leading the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which assigns more than 130 officials to the Big Ten, Mid-American, Metro Atlantic, Summit and Northern Sun (Division II) conferences.“C’mon, Bo!” Painter yells
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)See more videos
The streamlined scheduling allows Steratore — who would rather not fly — to work, say, one night in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the next in Ypsilanti. And because officials cannot expense transportation costs, they might be more prone to take a $2,000 MAC assignment than a $2,800 job on the East Coast.
"Constantly getting up at 4:30 for a 6 a.m. flight after a 9 o'clock game, maybe you can do that in your 30s and 40s," says Steratore, 54.
Boyages' top officials work no more than 35 to 38 Big Ten games each season. Rarely, if ever, will an official see the same team twice in a seven-day span.
"Familiarity is a dangerous thing," Steratore says. "Even if you are my brother, we'll have to go to a different bathroom to shave every once in a while."
The West Lafayette/Evanston back-to-back makes for easy travel for Steratore and Scirotto, who meet Boyages at the Big Ten command center to review plays and grab lunch. Upon returning to Chicago the previous night at 11, Boyages talked them into late-night burgers at Au Cheval.
"We can't hang out with Rick," Scirotto says. "I'd have to go to the gym three times a day."Lunch, Park Tavern, Rosemont, Feb. 15
Ex-coaches love telling stories. Here's one: Before shifting to administration, Boyages toiled as a coach at William & Mary, which has never made the NCAA tournament. He got so enraged at the officiating during a 2001 game at East Carolina, he pointed to different spots on the floor and shouted: "Foul! Foul! Foul!"
Mike Eades responded by giving Boyages the heave-ho.
Now Boyages determines which Big Ten games Eades will work. One is on this night in Evanston with Steratore and Scirotto.
"Glad Rick had a change of heart about me," Eades said, grinning.
Eades, primarily an ACC ref, is a fixture at North Carolina-Duke battles and has worked two of the last four Final Fours.
All that is nice, Eades said, but "if they're keeping score, it's a big game."
Eades, 51, lives in West Virginia, where he works with at-risk youth. In his younger days, according to Boyages, Eades wore tight shirts to show off his physique and moussed his hair.
"Confirmed," Eades responds.
Last month at the Iowa-Michigan State game, Eades' whistle broke off its lanyard. He searched his pockets for a backup as if hunting for car keys. After coming up dry, he had to jog back to the officials' locker room.
"Mike," Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw kidded him, "you refereed a whole lot better when you did not have the whistle."Tipoff, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Feb. 15
"It's going to be a hot one tonight," Steratore tells Scirotto and Eades before popping in a stick of Juicy Fruit and heading to the floor.
He means that literally and figuratively. Welsh-Ryan Arena is four games from being gutted. With the crowd near capacity, it can get steamy.
"The sidelines are tight," Steratore says.
So are the coaches. This is a huge game for Northwestern's Chris Collins and Maryland's Mark Turgeon. Steratore says he expects them to be "wound up."
Northwestern plays a crummy first half, in part because do-everything point guard Bryant McIntosh exits after getting whistled for two fouls in the first three minutes — bumping Anthony Cowan on a drive and colliding with a rebounder.
With 4:28 to play in the half, Steratore rings him up again, ruling that McIntosh drove his right shoulder into a defender before shooting a short jumper. Collins barks a bit. Northwestern trails 32-22 at the break.With 4:28 to play in the half, Steratore rings him up again
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)See more videos Halftime, Feb. 15
While the crowd is transfixed by the bowl-tossing acrobatics of Red Panda, Boyages lingers at the scoring table to use the DVSport system to check out replays of about a dozen calls and non-calls. He wants to be prepared for his postgame session.
Boyages checks to see whether NU forward Gavin Skelly got held going after a loose ball. Not really, he decides. A valid non-call. He also scrutinizes a play that occurred three minutes into the game — Wildcats center Dererk Pardon bodying up Damonte Dodd on a missed shot in the paint.
Boyages studies McIntosh's third foul, saying: "It's a judgment call. Gene is in great position."Boyages checks to see whether NU forward Gavin Skelly got held going after a loose ball
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)
(Courtesy of the Big Ten Conference)See more videos Second half, Feb. 15
Melo Trimble looks like a lottery pick. In the midst of a 32-point game, the Maryland point guard surges past Pardon for a layup and briefly glares at Scirotto. Trimble, whom Steratore has praised for being fair and easy to converse with, wanted an "and one" call.
Next time down, Scirotto tells Trimble: "I know you don't complain. I'll watch it better."
A frustrated Vic Law commits an obvious over-the-back foul and complains a bit to Scirotto, who tells the NU forward: "Vic, that's a foul, bud."
As Scirotto puts it later: "It's never, 'Shut up, kid, and play basketball.' We interact without being defensive."
Steratore tells young officials to be unafraid to engage players and coaches. Don't do it "when the fire is too hot," he tells them. "Wait till the water is good."
Maryland leads by 12 with about five minutes to play, but Turgeon is barking at Steratore. He wanted a timeout called once the Terrapins crossed halfcourt, but coaches can't call for time during live-ball situations. Trimble twice called for time with the ball in the backcourt.
"Mark said, 'What the hell are you doing?'" Steratore says. "Whoa. He says, 'You know what I wanted.' I tell him, 'Well, I'm not playing for you.'"Postgame, Feb. 15
A shower runs near the officials' cramped locker room at Welsh-Ryan. But before getting clean, the refs will spend nearly 30 minutes reviewing plays with Boyages, who praises their work.
"You guys did a really good job — great job on offense-initiated contact all night long," he says. "Any time a guard jumped in (to a defender), you were consistent laying off (the call)."
Boyages had warned the officials before the game about a Maryland freshman who has tricked refs by locking arms with a defender and making it appear he was getting obstructed.
"A lot of us work multiple conferences," Steratore says. "Nobody else in college basketball preps us like this. Nobody."
But with about two minutes to play, Steratore whistled NU guard Isiah Brown for a foul on an inbound play. Brown couldn't believe it, motioning that Cowan, the freshman guard, had hooked him.
"Heads-up play by Cowan to draw that foul," analyst Stephen Bardo said on the BTN telecast.
Indeed it was. Chatting with his fellow officials, Steratore says he was duped.
Here's what he told Cowan on the floor: "You got me. Don't be defensive. Don't act like you're innocent. You got me. ... But you could have missed the dang front end (of the one-and-one free throw) so I wouldn't feel so bad."
Steratore smiles. He wasn't perfect.
You know what that means? He's not about to quit.
Twitter @TeddyGreensteinRick Boyages on a call in last years' Big Ten tournament
Rick Boyages, head of Big Ten basketball officiating, discussing a call in last year’s conference tournament. (Teddy Greenstein/Chicago Tribune)
Rick Boyages, head of Big Ten basketball officiating, discussing a call in last year’s conference tournament. (Teddy Greenstein/Chicago Tribune)See more videos
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