August 31, 2009

ECAC Official Jim Burr Featured in Watertown Daily Times

Legendary ECAC basketball official Jim Burr was recently profiled by his hometown paper, Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times.

Fans may call him terrible, but Burr one of best in basketball

'TOP SHELF' REFEREE: Former Henderson student remains among NCAA's most respected officials after decades in the game



Go ahead and give Jim Burr your best verbal shot.

Tell him he needs glasses. Pick on his age. Better yet, create a scene by pretending to pick up a cell phone off the floor and proclaim that he's missed three calls.

Burr has tuned out tongue lashings and profanity-laced tirades for close to four decades as an NCAA men's basketball official. What fans and casual television viewers don't realize is that the Smithville native is one of the sport's most prominent referees.

"Jim Burr is the best referee who ever lived," said Tim Higgins, who's officiated Big East Conference games with Burr for 30 years. "I also believe he did it his way, which is not easy."

Higgins used one fact to support his opinion. Burr has participated in 16 Division I Final Fours and officiated seven national championship games - more than any referee in history.

Becoming an official didn't cross Burr's mind until he was a freshman at Henderson Central School. That's when he was given his first whistle.

As a 14-year-old kid, Burr was an authority figure. And it scared him to death.

But Cliff Wheeler was there to calm the youngster. Burr started officiating seventh and eighth grade games with Wheeler - a physical education and science teacher at Henderson. In his first game, there was rarely a tweet coming from Burr's whistle.

"I didn't make a single call in the first half," Burr said. "After the opposing coach got on me a little bit, Cliff said 'Coach, we won't be addressing him this evening.'"

Burr accepted referee assignments on the same nights as his varsity basketball games. Back then, the seventh and eighth grade teams played first, followed by the junior varsity and varsity. After the first two games, Burr would sit out the JV matchup before suiting up as a point guard for the varsity. He did this for four years.

Wheeler was the inspiration. He coached every sport Burr played. He also injected the officiating gene into Burr's DNA.

"He thought the world of Cliff," said Clayt Hyde, who taught elementary school at Henderson for nine years. "Cliff was a big father figure for him also. Jimmy worked on the farm with him once and a while. He had to have a gunner on his team, and Jimmy was a gunner."

Hyde and Burr were also close. Hyde owned a small one-stop shop that carried items such as minnows, gas and ice. Burr worked a couple summers in the store and found time to devour chocolate cakes baked by Hyde's wife, Mary Ann. But he earned every slice.

Coming from a one-car family, Burr's father was a custodian at the school, while his mother served as a housekeeper. Burr earned money on Wheeler's farm and in Hyde's store, but his most rewarding job was officiating games. He joined local referee organizations to work basketball games while studying at SUNY Oneonta. He even umpired baseball games and regulated soccer matches to put some cash in his pocket.

"He knew what he was going to do before he would get old," Hyde said. "Jimmy liked the top shelf life. He never really had it growing up. Because of his determination, he could get it."

Burr was a soccer goalie for three years at Oneonta. He recorded a remarkable 27 saves in a single game as a freshman - the second-most in school history. It wasn't enough to satisfy his competitive nature.

"I was probably more interested in going out Friday night," Burr said.

The structure and aesthetics in basketball suited Burr. There was constant motion in a sport promoting natural ability. The clock kept games moving at a disciplined pace. The rules were complex, but critical for fair outcomes of games. Burr decided to tailor his skills to become a better official.

Burr got his collegiate start working Division III games in 1972, which included heated battles between St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam. He remembered trying to keep coaches like SLU's Paul Evans and Potsdam's Jerry Welsh in check before capacity crowds. He thrived off the enthusiasm and magnitude of the rivalries in upstate New York.

Four years later, Burr secured Division I assignments. Then, he and Higgins were each selected as top officials for Big East games when the conference was formed in 1979. When premier matchups are scheduled, assignors may contact Burr. If not, he doesn't take the snub seriously.

"If the phone rang to go to the next game, fine," Burr said. "If it didn't, I'm not going to jump off any bridges. You're disappointed for about seven minutes and move on somewhere else."

Respect is important to Burr. His mother, Gladys, preached about the characteristic like a pastor. Burr makes a point to bring that quality to each game.

Ask Higgins or any college coach about Burr's approach to officiating and the answer is always the same.

"He's always very tough, but respected," Higgins said. "Coaches always know he's in charge."

"A respected official is one you want on the road," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "In the Big Ten on the road, in a hostile environment, you want a guy you feel good about and won't miss any calls. He takes a lot of pride and passion in his job."

Weber believes being a parent, the president or a referee are three of the toughest jobs imaginable. Burr takes on the pressure at least six months a year. He hears a cascade of boos on a nightly basis. Sports talk radio shows are inundated with calls about his alleged ignorance. Even Burr's wife, Andrea, deals with constant berating directed toward her husband while attending games.

"All fans think you stink, but that's part of the critique in the game," Burr said. "I know when I missed a call. I don't want to sound egotistical, but I know when I got it right, too."

Burr's ability to deflect reckless comments and concentrate on improving his craft has made him one of the highest-ranking officials in the country.

"He's a good referee," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He calls them like he sees them. There may be calls I disagree with, but that's the way it goes. When you have him, you get a chance at a fair treatment."

Burr said controlling the personalities on the sidelines can be more challenging than listening to the others in the stands. One of his most famous run-ins with a coach came in 1990 at the Carrier Dome. In a typical slugfest between Syracuse and Georgetown, Burr hit Hoyas coach John Thompson with a technical foul in the first half for arguing a foul call.

"John just wouldn't get off my case," Burr said. "He kept screaming. I asked him to stop, and he didn't, and I assessed the technical. Then, he went goofy."

Thompson continued to verbally spar with Burr, and the two other referees in the crew each handed out a technical. With the three technicals, Georgetown gave up 10 points. Syracuse won the game by two in overtime.

"It was quite a sequence," Boeheim said. "It was memorable. There weren't too many like that in the history of the league."

In November 1987, Burr officiated an exhibition between Indiana University and the Soviet national team. Burr issued a technical to Hoosiers coach Bob Knight for being out of the coach's box. A shouting match ensued, which resulted in two more technicals, Knight removing his team from the floor, and Burr declaring a forfeit.

"I'm sure he feels like it shouldn't have happened," Burr said. "I disagree. I thought for that small period of time, Bob lost his cool and was relentless. He wouldn't give me a break. It led to what I had to do."

Aside from those hardwood bouts that put referees in an precarious spot, Burr is praised for his consistency. It's why he's called to work NCAA tournament games almost every year. He missed the 2008 tournament due to a mishap with paperwork, but he still did five NIT games.

Burr has dropped his officiating workload to between 65 and 70 games a year. Weber had Burr for eight games last season and appreciates his work ethic.

"I think the one word I would say is that he's very professional," Weber said. "You know you're going to get a great game from him."

Years ago, Burr was the one eagerly waiting for phone calls, wondering where his next game would be.

Now, he's the man delivering calls and duties to officials.

Burr issues assignments to referees for games at upstate colleges for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). Officials working St. Lawrence, Clarkson and SUNY Potsdam games were likely given those opportunities by Burr. From a distance, he's still linked to the area. He's also become an ultimate mentor for the profession.

"The one thing he brings is legendary status," said Steve Bamford, ECAC's administrator for officiating and special projects. "For all intents and purposes, he's arguably the best official in the country. All of the ECAC officials look up to him with a great deal of respect and admiration."

At 62 years old, Burr oversees a contingent of 35 to 40 ECAC officials. Pile that responsibility on top of his own college schedule and his mobile home business in his current residence of Latham, and it's astonishing Burr can handle the daily grind.

"Unfortunately, we spend more time together than we do with our family," said Higgins of Burr. "I still feel the first two weeks of the season are the hard ones. Once you get back in the fog, you know what you've got to do and the next thing you know, it's April."

The cross country flights Burr and Higgins shared forged a lifelong bond. Higgins is the godfather to Burr's youngest son, Jimmy. Their wives are just as close.

"He's like a second brother to me," Higgins said.

Burr hasn't forgotten where his officiating career began. He occasionally visits Hyde to squeeze in a couple rounds of golf. He returned home when Wheeler died five years ago at age 84.

"I give a lot of the credit to Cliff," Burr said. "He taught me a lot. He was a drill sergeant, but you always ran through a wall for him."

As a result of his individual achievements in collegiate athletics, Burr was named SUNY Oneonta's first honorary inductee into the college's Hall of Fame last year. He was enshrined in the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame in June.

Normally, these awards would be saved for when a career has concluded. But Burr isn't finished yet.

"I'd like to officiate maybe three more years," Burr said. "After that, I'll evaluate it. I still enjoy it. I enjoy the kids, the game, the competition. It's still fun. When it gets to a point when it isn't fun, that's the time to bow out."