CHICAGO — Veteran NCAA basketball referee Gerry Pollard talks under his breath before every national anthem. He’s praying and thinking of his late mother, Evlyn.
It’s a pregame ritual before his whistle becomes law to 10 Division I college players as well as head coaches making millions of dollars. But this month is different. For the first March in his 17 years of officiating NCAA tournaments, there will be no whistle.
Like players, coaches and fans, Pollard, 58, and his fellow officials were shocked when the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments were canceled last week, along with the postponements of pro sports leagues’ seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pollard was ready to officiate Kansas vs. Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament last week before conference tourneys were canceled. On his drive home from Kansas City to St. Louis, Pollard said he experienced déjà vu.
“The last time I was driving into the world of unknown where things were changing right before our eyes was 9/11,” an emotional Pollard told USA TODAY Sports.
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Before wearing stripes full-time, Pollard was a police officer in Missouri for 23 years. During that drive home Sept. 11, 2001, Pollard was told his patrol division was on high alert for 72 hours.
Pollard used to lead SWAT missions for the St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department in the 1990s and ultimately became captain of the St. Charles (Missouri) City Police Department before retiring in 2007.
He’s been a full-time referee since.
Before a Loyola-Chicago game this past season, Pollard and his fellow officials joked about the over-under that Loyola coach Porter Moser will take his sport coat off in frustration. At halftime, the discussions were focused on input from Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, whose team was getting blown out by 17.
“Our goal is to stay off SportsCenter,” Pollard said in the locker room, while icing his knee. The night before, in a blowout, a Kansas-Kansas State game ended in a brawl. “Even if a team is winning big we have to be on our heels.”
In the second half, a heckling fan shouted an obscenity in earshot of Pollard regarding what the fan believed was a missed charging call. Pollard turned to the fan and retorted, “He wasn’t in guarding position, learn the fricken rules.”
“Sometimes, people forget we’re human,” Pollard said. “We’re an outlet for fans’ and coaches’ anger as much as we are there to manage a game.”
To help make ends meet in the ’90s, he would referee. Now the 33-year NCAA official is regarded by coaches, fellow referees and major conference coordinators as one of the toughest full-time refs in college basketball.
“There’s an awful lot at stake on the whistle of every referee. Two or three calls can change games, seasons and livelihoods. Gerry knows the stakes and he is as tough as they come,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich told USA TODAY Sports of Pollard, who ejected him during a 2011 game. Pollard also tossed seven fans that night without hesitation when they were heckling him.
That’s a quasi-regular day for Pollard, who has officiated thousands of games. He’ll do around four to five games a week during the season, refereeing for power conference leagues like the Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and AAC as well as mid-major leagues like the Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast.
The ‘grind’ and dollar signs
Pollard was poised to officiate in his 18th consecutive NCAA tournament — an annual honor among more than 1,000 referees in NCAA college basketball.
Cancelling the tournament hurts the pocketbook, costing some refs around $20,000. That’s money the NCAA won’t cover because referees work as individual contractors paid by major college conferences. Whereas an NBA ref will have a salary and full-time benefits, NCAA officials are on their own. No physical or mental health services are provided by the NCAA or conferences. NCAA’s men’s basketball officiating coordinator J.D. Collins told USA TODAY Sports that preseason seminars cover those two areas.
“It’s a grind,” Pollard said. “Most fans think that we live down the street. They don’t get that I was in West Virginia Monday, Des Moines Tuesday, Ames (Iowa) Wednesday, Loyola Thursday, Birmingham Friday and Lawrence (Kansas) on Saturday.
“We’re not out touring the city. We’re structured like military, taking naps in a hotel. And it takes special wives to support us through this type of travel schedule.”
About 30 referees work full-time like Pollard, meaning the overwhelming majority of refs have other careers or business ventures.
According to an NCAA conference officiating coordinator who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because figures are not typically made public, referees for a mid-major league make about $2,700 a game. For a major conference, it’s close to $4,000 a game. For a referee like Pollard, $10,000 weeks aren’t unusual. Officials work for five months — from November to April — but yearly income can still be more than $200,000.
“To get to the top level and be the best, referees have to be a little cocky,” Pollard said. “Yes, we have to know the rules inside and out, but it’s more important to have an edge and natural instincts than memorizing the rule book.”
‘It’s going to take a toll on you’
It’s not an easy job.
Pollard’s close friend, fellow NCAA veteran official John Higgins, sued Kentucky Sports Radio after it put Higgins’ personal business information on its website. With UK fans fuming following the Wildcats’ 2017 NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina, Higgins became the scapegoat. He lost business, received death threats and feared for his family’s safety.
“Most of us are thick-skinned,” Pollard said. “But I don’t care who you are, you deal with enough abuse — on and off the court — it’s going to take a toll on you.”
Pollard has dealt with his share of incidents. Most of his stories, though, involve coaches.
In one game earlier in his career, he recalled a confrontation with then-Memphis coach John Calipari yelling obscenities at him. In a game this year, Kansas coach Bill Self became irate, prompting one of the hundreds of technical fouls Pollard has handed out over the years.
Pollard was tested by former coach Bob Knight in a 2007 game between Oklahoma and Texas Tech. One of Knight’s players was elbowed in the face so hard it shattered his right eye socket and cost him the rest of the season. Knight blamed the officials, and Pollard was assigned a Texas Tech game shortly after.
“I knew Bobby was pissed, so I told both my partners to come up as I addressed him,” Pollard said. “I’m a tough cop, right? I’m Billy Badass over here.
“I stick my hand out to shake his hand and tell him I learned from the last game. He grabs my hand and goes, ‘(Expletive), you screwed me last week. You better (expletive) get better.’ He was red and holding my hand so tight I had to yank it away.”
In the first half of the game, Knight broke his toe from kicking a scorer’s table while harassing Pollard.
“We get into halftime and I tell my partners, ‘All right, he’s been on my ass all game, my bucket is full, he’s trying to embarrass me. Next time he says a word, I’m lighting him up (with a technical foul),’ ” Pollard said.
“One of my partners looks at me and says, ‘Let me do it.’ We play a minute into the half and Knight gets T’d up. He screams in response, ‘You know that’s not your technical, it’s that (expletive)’s across the court!’
“That was the most uncomfortable I’ve been on a basketball court.”