By Russ Pankonin
The Imperial Republican
In a few years, Chase County Activities Director Troy Hauxwell said it’s conceivable some Longhorn football games may have to be played on a Thursday night, Friday afternoon or on Saturday.
The reason—lack of officiating crews.
During the October school board meeting, a discussion about the lack of sports officials began after Hauxwell was asked about game times and getting kids home at 2-3 a.m. after a four-hour road trip.
One of Hauxwell’s key duties as activities director is making sure he has officials for football, volleyball, softball and basketball games, and wrestling meets.
That’s getting to be a tougher job all the time because fewer young people are joining the officiating ranks.
Longtime football and basketball official Bob “Howdy” Jochum of Sutherland agrees. It’s hard to find new people who want to get involved with officiating, he noted.
As older officials retire, there’s not a new crop coming in to take over.
Jochum is no stranger to officiating. He’s been reffing football games for 43 years and basketball games for 40.
He said he plans on working football as long as he’s able. However, he’s cutting way back on his basketball schedule.
The physical demands of working basketball are harder on officials than football, making it easier to continue working football games.
Officiating numbers dropping
Hauxwell said the number of officials in Nebraska are declining in all sports except wrestling.
He said most wrestling meets fall on Saturdays, making it easier for an official to schedule around their work schedules.
Outside of playoffs, most football games in outstate Nebraska are played on Fridays. But in softball, volleyball and basketball, many games are played on weeknights in addition to Fridays and Saturdays.
Hauxwell said it’s tough for people with day jobs to get off work early so they can drive an hour to two to officiate ball games.
Plus, he believes there’s getting to be fewer self-employed people who have the ability to adjust their work schedules around officiating schedules.
Scramble for football officials
With statewide football scheduling being done by the Nebraska Schools Activities Association (NSAA), hiring football crews has turned into a one-day scramble.
The minute the NSAA releases the two-year schedule, Hauxwell said they make calls to officials immediately to book them for games. And so is every other school in the state.
In addition to Hauxwell, two or three of the football coaches and his secretary are on phones trying to get through to football crews.
On the other side of the coin, Jochum said he has several members of his crew on phones trying to answer calls from schools and get games booked.
Hauxwell said he used officials from Colorado to fill his football officiating schedule for this year and next.
He said more schools reach across state lines for football officials, especially if they are close to the border. That’s an advantage that Chase County has, he said.
However, Hauxwell learned that one of his crews doesn’t plan on taking games in the next scheduling cycle.
That’s not one or two guys retiring, it’s a whole crew, he said. Plus, there are no new crews starting up to fill that void, he added.
Hauxwell is fearful schools will be faced with a shortage of referees in the next several years.
Dan Yancy of Gothenburg is another example of a longtime official who is cutting back his schedule.
Yancy has officiated high school basketball for more than 40 years. He used to contract a full schedule of games. Now, he’s not taking any of his own contracts. Instead, he’s just helping out other crews that need a fill-in or substitute.
In Nebraska, officials are independent contractors and contract directly with the schools for games.
Hauxwell predicts the western part of the state will feel the shortage harder, simply because it’s less populated than eastern Nebraska.
He believes the pressure to win and the amount of criticism officials are subjected to discourages a younger generation from taking up officiating.
Officials from across the state acknowledge the need to build their ranks and started the Nebraska High School Officials Association three years ago.
Their goal is to help build an officiating pool through mentoring and educational opportunities, such as officiating camps.
Hauxwell said its best when a crew can work new officials into their crew to help them learn and gain experience. But when whole crews retire, there’s no one left to provide that mentoring.
The NSAA is also trying to bolster the officiating ranks by running some public service ads encouraging sports-minded individuals to take up officiating.