This is the last of four March Madness stories involving those with Chattanooga ties.
Since his days as a basketball star at McCallie School in the late ‘70s, Curtis Shaw always imagined his career path would lead him into coaching. He just never envisioned the 30-year detour that would carry him to the forefront of college basketball’s center stage along the way.
Over the course of 21 years officiating men’s basketball at the Division I level, Shaw worked seven Final Fours among the 19 seasons being a part of the NCAA’s March Madness. It was a journey that began as a way to earn his way through college and evolved into a passion that connected him with the royalty of college basketball.
“I started out calling games around Chattanooga doing little league basketball, then moved up to high school just trying to survive while I went to UTC,” Shaw said. “All of a sudden I found out I loved it and evidently had some talent because I was elevated pretty rapidly. It just turned into such a passion and it was all I wanted to do. Being in basketball is what I’ve done all of my life.”
Shaw retired from officiating in 2010 after calling the Final Four semifinal contest between Duke and West Virginia, assuming the role of supervisor of officials for the Big 12 Conference. He has since added Conference USA, the Ohio Valley Conference, the Southland Conference and the Missouri Valley Conference to his oversight duties.
“Now I kind of get to be a coach, which is something I always thought about after playing for Coach (Bill) Eskridge and Coach (Bill) Eiselstein at McCallie,” Shaw said. “Being a supervisor for nine years, I get to do the coaching part working with young referees and helping develop them. It’s been a career that became a dream unexpectedly.”
Shaw, who resides in Jasper, Indiana, never imagined his passion for officiating would lead to such memorable moments.
“One of my tournament games was when (North Carolina coach) Dean Smith got his 800th win. Being the crew chief, I had a cool picture with him with the scoreboard in the background that he signed for me later in life,” Shaw said. “Your first time at the Final Four is always memorable. You’re semi-nervous but excited as can be. In ’97 I was the alternate in Indianapolis, then ’99 was the first year I was on the floor in the semifinals when Duke played Michigan State in Tampa.”
The magnitude of March Madness led to heightened emotions, and Shaw enjoyed the opportunity to officiate teams he normally didn’t see during the regular season while still dealing with some touchy moments.
“Coaches in the tournament tend to be on better behavior than they are during the regular season, but there were always a couple that were hard to deal with,” Shaw said. “(Iowa State coach) Larry Eustachy could be challenging, and we threw him out in the regionals after he blew the lead against Michigan State that became a big media spectacle. Trent Johnson when he was at Stanford wound up getting thrown out, too.
“Both of those guys became good friends when my role changed. You get a different respect for one another away from the court. But sometimes your personalities tend to clash just like any other business. You’re not going to be best friends with everybody.”
Getting to know some of the stars of the college game was also a benefit that Shaw came to cherish.
“I got to referee and know so many great players that it carried over. When Dwyane Wade was at Marquette he was relatively unknown, and he’s now a superstar. I had a lot of their games over the years and I’d see him from time to time while he’s in the NBA and we still talk about games from his college days.
“Kevin Durant was as good as an offensive player that I’ve ever seen in college and a good guy. (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski and I traded barbs with each other because he’s highly intelligent and we’d clash at times. It was fun to kind of play games with him. There’s so many players and coaches I got to know that I’ve known forever now. You’re running in a circle that’s pretty special.”
Shaw had the opportunity to get to know Tennessee coach Rick Barnes when he was in charge of Texas’ program. He’s not surprised by the success Barnes has enjoyed in resurrecting the Vols.
“I’ve always had tons of respect for him – the way he coached, the way he acted and the type family person he is,” Shaw said. “He had a great run at Texas where I don’t think he was appreciated as much as he should’ve been because it’s such a football-oriented school. He got a fresh start at Tennessee, and sometimes you just need to start over for everybody’s sake. He got to come to a place that’s dying for a winner, and he’s done it. He’s taken overlooked kids and blended them into a veteran team that’s turned things around. I’m very happy for him, and I’m happy for the program because they needed something positive to happen to them.”
Having agreed to move to a supervisor role the following year prior to the 2009-10 season, Shaw was able to end his lengthy tenure as one of the game’s most respected officials in a memorable fashion.
“The fact that my last game was the semifinal game in the Final Four was pretty special,” Shaw said. “Not many referees know when their last game will be because they hang around too long and they wind up getting let go or hurt. I knew that was my last game. Plus, it was in Indianapolis where I was living at the time, so my kids and a lot of friends got to be there. Going out on top, so to speak, was a nice achievement.”
Shaw, who is a member of the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame, believes that officiating has become more challenging since his days on the court.
“It’s definitely gotten harder to officiate because the size and speed of the players is so drastically different from when I started,” Shaw said. “Also, the fundamental skill-set of the players is tremendously down from what it used to be. What you’ve got is just a smaller version of the NBA. I don’t think our rules have helped it, but it’s hard to change things when you’re dealing with the NCAA.”
The criticism of officials disrupting the flow of games by constantly verifying their calls through instant replay creates a dilemma for today’s referees that Shaw doesn’t envy.
“When you’re refereeing, you’re calling the game in real time,” Shaw said. “Every call these days is then scrutinized on social media and that’s what takes so long at the monitor. The last thing you want is to be on SportsCenter later that night. I wish we’d done things differently, but it’s where we are these days.
“When I was refereeing I thought I could control the game. Before we had the timing pack, I never had clock issues. I knew how to manage that game. Nowadays, we’ve created an endless run to the monitor.”
Despite the challenges referees face in today’s environment, Shaw still loves coaching the next generation of officials. In fact, his son, Chase, has decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“My son is an aspiring referee who just got selected to the Division II national tournament this year,” Shaw said. “We bump heads, so I stay out of his career and he’s done this all on his own without an influence from me. It’s kind of neat to see him take this course and I can tell he shares the same passion as I did.”
To contact Paul Payne email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @Paul_A_Payne