Double Identity: High School Coaches Also Don Referee Stripes

  • Woodsville girls basketball coach Russ Wilcox officiates a game at Spaulding (Vt.) High on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (Sarah Milligan photograph)

  • Woodsville girls basketball coach Russ Wilcox officiates a game at Spaulding (Vt.) High on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (Sarah Milligan photograph)

  • Woodsville Head Coach Russ Wilcox goes over strategy with players at halftime during the game against Colebrook Thursday night, January 12, 2017. Woodsville lost to Colebrook by a wide margin with a final score of 54-25. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2017

Russ Wilcox wanted to know more about basketball. He knew the basics, plus what he’d gathered from watching the Boston Celtics: dribbling, different positions on the court, an understanding of scoring and strategy. But there still were things that he, as a young high school junior varsity coach at Chelsea Public School in 2000, didn’t fully grasp.

He needed to look at the game from a different angle.

So he took up basketball officiating, making trips to St. Johnsbury, Vt., to complete an eight-class course that culminated in a “brutal” — Wilcox’s term — examination all referees must take each year to remain certified within the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials.

He officiated several junior varsity games during the 2000-01 season — which left Wilcox with a much deeper understanding of just how little he knew. Several coaches from around the Upper Valley have echoed that same sentiment, saying that officiating enhances their skills as a coach in ways they didn’t think possible by opening up a deeper understanding of the game they teach. Coaches can find better ways of explanation by learning the rule book and players, by association, gain a deeper understanding of what they can get away with.

Wilcox stepped aside from officiating in 2001 to focus more of his attention on coaching. Twelve years later, in between coaching stints at Rivendell Academy and Woodsville High, Wilcox retook the course, this time with some of his former players. He’s been officiating basketball ever since, splitting his time during the three-month hoops season between coaching the Engineers and officiating high school varsity basketball games in Vermont, making him one of a handful of coaches in the Twin States who do both.

Wilcox acknowledges the time commitment is immense. But knowing the ins and outs of basketball has made him a better coach, just as his coaching background has made him a better official. Looking back on it now, Wilcox said it was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

“It immediately makes you a better coach,” Wilcox said last week, after officiating a boys basketball game between Thetford and Windsor in Thetford. “You understand what the officials are looking at. Instead of focusing all my negative attention on the officials, I focus my positive energy on my team.”

Coaching and officiating is a time-consuming endeavor. Wilcox officiates three Vermont basketball games a week during the season, juggling Woodsville’s practice schedules and various games throughout the week. He and other coaches make a point to never officiate a game involving an opponent his team might face during the season, as to not create a conflict of interest that could put their relationship with fellow coaches in danger. On top of it all, Wilcox runs a renovation and masonry company in the offseason, which lets him take on a lighter workload during the winter. He admits not all coaches are so lucky.

But other coaches find creative ways to make it work. Hank Tenney, Rivendell’s girls basketball coach, has experience officiating soccer, lacrosse and basketball, though softball is his focus. Tenney, who is retired, said officiating is a way for him to stay involved in sports year-round.

“It keeps me up on the rules,” Tenney said. “You also get a rapport with other officials throughout the year. ... Officials that coach, you sort of understand the frustration in both coaching and officiating.”

Minimizing the natural friction between coaches and referees requires good communication. Doing both can help, he said.

“If you’re a coach who officiates, you understand where officials are coming from,” Tenney said. “If you’re an official who coaches, you understand where officials are coming from.”

For Hartford boys hockey coach Todd Bebeau, officiating had always intrigued him but, “the timing had never been good,” he said. That is until three years ago when he decided the time was right.

“I have a love-hate relationship with it,” he said last week. “I enjoy it. It’s challenging, but it’s far more difficult than I imagined, in a good way.”

Bebeau, a veteran coach with the Hurricanes who officiates about 70 youth hockey games a year, said his passion still remains in coaching. But officiating has allowed him to view hockey in a much different way.

“The thing I think I’ve really gained from this is that it makes me a better coach,” Bebeau said. “You understand the rules better. Very early on, I learned that I had a pretty good grasp of the concepts of the rules, but there were these small details that I didn’t know. Those things, I learned through officiating. … For me, it’s a way to stay involved. I enjoy being in the thick of things.

And because he officiates Hartford’s youth association, Bebeau gains another benefit.

“You get to sort of see the kids that are coming up and developing,” he said. “Someday, they may play for me.”

When it comes to basketball, the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association has taken steps to keep everyone on the same page, requiring all coaches to attend interpretation clinics held by the IAABO and other organizations. The clinics break down changes to the rule book and provide a refresher course on interpretations of the rules that will be applied to the upcoming season.

The Vermont Principals Association does not require coaches to attend such meetings, leaving some coaches in the dark about year-to-year rule changes. Some coaches take rule interpretations a step further by inviting officials to a preseason practice to go over the rules with their athletes.

“You like to see coaches engaged in understanding the rules and the mechanics,” said Marc Lambert, who recently stepped down as president of Vermont IAABO Board 105. “When you’re officiating, you have that understanding of if you get on an official about being out of position, does the coach know what the proper position is? It’s helpful if coaches fully understand the rules.

“It’s certainly a good thing if more people get on the same page,” he added. “We try to make sure the relationship (between coaches and officials) is a collaborative, good experience, not an adversarial one.”

Wilcox, who is required to attend NHIAA interpretation meetings as a New Hampshire coach, said making Vermont clinics a requirement is unnecessary given the time constraints of many coaches, though as an official, he said, it is “difficult to listen to a coach argue a rule that they aren’t aware has changed.”

But Wilcox does believe that coaches should be required to take the officiating course, which has allowed him to study the game from a different perspective. He acknowledges that it can be tough on coaches who are pressed for time and receive minimal compensation. But it’s worth it, he said.

“You just know the game,” Wilcox said. “I promise you I spend less time yelling at the referees because I took the course.”

He also tries to use his officiating time to the advantage of his own team.

“One of my favorite things to do (as a referee) is I’ll see a play, most of the time not from the start, but I’ll see something, and when I’m running back down the court, I’ll say to the coach, ‘I’m stealing that one!’ ” Wilcox said. “When you see something work that well, why not steal it?”

Tori Clough, a former Woodsville basketball player who now attends Lyndon State, noticed a difference in the way Wilcox was able to teach the game. She said it changed the way her teams played because the players eventually know the rules almost as well as their coach.

“I think we had a better understanding of what we could do and what we could get away with,” Clough said.

Clough has followed in Wilcox’s footsteps, beginning her officiating career this season with another of Wilcox’s former players, Rivendell alumna Deva Steketee, who officiates jayvee, varsity and college.

“I definitely want to stay with it and keep progressing,” Clough said.

Wilcox is doing his part to spread the word. Last week, he hosted a clinic at Blue Mountain Union High in Wells River for athletes and students who were interested in becoming coaches or officials. Wilcox said he hosts three or four such clinics a year, covering things like how to create a practice plan and what to focus on when teaching younger athletes. When he can, he encourages anyone who will listen that he or she should both coach and officiate.

They’re very different things, he noted.

“I love coaching because of the kids,” he said. “I love officiating because you get to help the kids, you’re doing a service for them, but the minute it’s over you get to go home. You’re not going to get the phone call from the kid who just failed the science class or the one that just got injured. …

“I love it. It’s one of the coolest jobs you’re ever going to get.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.