By Al Featherston
ACCSports.com March 1, 2005
One ACC assistant coach likely spoke for many college basketball fans recently, when he told the ACC Sports Journal: "... Every coach in this league would tell you that Duke has an advantage (with the officials) because of their crowd and definitely because of their head coach, especially when they're at home. It's not something anybody wants to talk about publicly, for obvious reasons. It's just the way it is."
As with many conspiracy theories, indisputable evidence of a pro-Duke bias among the conference's officials can be hard to find and even more difficult to quantify. That hasn't stopped fans from talking about it, of course, but it may be a factor in the mainstream media's complete unwillingness to even approach the topic, which strikes a nerve with many coaches and administrators.
Skip Prosser chose his words very, very carefully.
Wake Forest had just lost to Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the Demon Deacons coach was steaming about the officiating. But he knows that ACC coaches are not allowed to criticize officials publicly. So when he spoke to the media, Prosser, unwilling to risk a heavy fine and/or suspension, very artfully praised Duke's defense.
"They do a great job of guarding hard without fouling," he said. "We have to learn to do a little better job of that, because it seems like we foul more than they do, and we're trying to guard as hard as they are."
On the surface, none of Prosser's words was critical of the officials. But his sarcasm was clear, both to the writers and broadcasters who were listening in person and to the thousands of fans who long have been convinced that there's a strong pro-Duke bias in ACC officiating. They all knew that Prosser was saying that the Blue Devils get away with a physical defensive style that their opponents are not allowed to match.
They knew it because they've heard it before - from Prosser, from Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and, most of all, from Maryland's Gary Williams, the Oliver Stone of the Duke conspiracy theorists.
"Gary believes Duke gets all the calls, and he talks to every new coach and warns them that Duke gets all the calls," one veteran ACC insider said. "Whenever you hear a coach saying Duke gets all the calls, you know he's been talking to Gary."
Williams, of course, usually is very circumspect when he talks to the media. Like Prosser, he's very aware of the ACC rules forbidding public criticism of the officials. Occasionally, his paranoia slips out, as it did in the 2001 NCAA semifinals against the Blue Devils, when reporters courtside heard him screaming at the officials after a controversial call, "Just how badly do you want Duke in the finals?"
That's the same kind of question thousands of fans have been asking on internet message boards and on sports-talk radio shows for years. It's whispered by writers and even coaches.
"As far as I know, this is not something that's talked about when coaches run into each other in the offseason," one ACC assistant coach said. "But my guess is that every coach in this league would tell you that Duke has an advantage (with the officials) because of their crowd and definitely because of their head coach, especially when they're at home. It's not something anybody wants to talk about publicly, for obvious reasons. It's just the way it is."
At least since that 2001 Final Four in Minneapolis, a large portion of the college basketball world believes that Duke gets the calls - that when you go to Cameron, you're playing five on eight; that Krzyzewski intimidates the officials with his intense, profane sideline behavior; that Coach K has ACC director of officials Fred Barakat in his hip pocket.
Even the officials themselves know what other coaches and fans are saying.
"There is a perception out there that the floor is uneven at Cameron," one former ACC official said. "There is probably a group who feel that (Barakat) is so powerful because he makes the schedules and because they know that Fred Barakat and Mike Krzyzewski are very close. The strong ones stand up to it, but the younger refs ... it's got to affect them."
But when asked if there was a pro-Duke officiating bias, another former ACC official said: "It's always bias in the eyes of the beholder. It depends on who you root for."
So what is the truth? Is there really bias in ACC officiating? Or does Duke receive nothing more than the normal breaks that successful teams always receive?
Critics Scrutinize ACC's Barakat
All good conspiracy theories demand a criminal mastermind. When it comes to the alleged ACC officiating conspiracy, there's no question who plays that role.
Frederick E. Barakat is the associate commissioner of the ACC and has been (with one small interruption) the league's supervisor of officials since before the 1981-82 season. He is a former coach who won 160 of 288 games at Fairfield from 1971-81. He coached in the ECAC against such figures as Krzyzewski at Army, Jim Valvano at Iona and Jim Calhoun at Northeastern.
But Barakat's coaching career came to an end just when the ACC began to search for a new supervisor of basketball officials. Norvell Neve, who had overseen both football and basketball officials for the league, retired in 1981. The league's coaches pushed for a separate supervisor for basketball officials only.
"Mike (Krzyzewski) helped get him the job," a former ACC official said. "Mike and Jimmy (Valvano) recommended Fred. Dean (Smith) gave his blessing. Dean said 'Great, get a coach.' And that's that."
Barakat has a slightly different version of events.
"Jimmy V is the one who went to bat for me," he said. "But so did Dean Smith and so did Mike Krzyzewski after my name got in there. They supported the fact, 'Yeah, he would be good ... because he's an ex-coach and he sees our perspective.'"
Barakat said that while he knew Krzyzewski before coming to the ACC, he was closer to Valvano.
"Jimmy replaced me at UConn (as an assistant to Dee Rowe)," Barakat said. "And Dick Stewart, our other coach, he was Jimmy's assistant at State."
He claims that the majority of ACC coaches supported his hiring because they wanted more accountability than they were getting from Neve. And they wanted him to make several changes in the way ACC games were officiated.
"When I came in, the ACC had the reputation that this league was a touch-foul call league," Barakat said. "There were so many whistles and so much free throw shooting that when they got out into intersectional play, that physical play ... that was a huge adjustment.
"I came in with the advantage-disadvantage concept. It had always been out there, but it became a major emphasis for us. I wanted to change the idea of rule-istic or legalistic - a strict interpretation of the rules - to a more realistic approach, spirit and intent, advantage-disadvantage. So contact, of what there is so much of, is not necessarily a foul unless the contact leads to an advantage.
"That's a whole new concept for our fans to buy. That first year or two, we were going booed off the court on no-calls. My job was to teach the referees how to suck on the whistle instead of blow on the whistle. That was a hard adjustment."
But Barakat believes his changes paid immediate dividends for the league.
"Carolina won a national championship the first year of that system (1982) and State the second year (1983)," he said. "So it wasn't a bad change if you're looking back at history."
Barakat certainly has his share of critics, and not just those who see officiating conspiracies. He has clashed with some prominent officials over scheduling issues, and not long ago he was forced to give up a lucrative summer camp for refs to avoid conflict of interest charges.
But give him this: In the 28 seasons before Barakat arrived, the ACC won two national titles, produced 14 Final Four teams and had a .622 winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament. In the 23 seasons that he's directed the league's officiating, the ACC has won seven national titles, produced 23 Final Four teams and had a .691 NCAA Tournament winning percentage. If officiating was holding the ACC back, Barakat certainly changed that.
Bias: Perception Becomes Reality
Not surprisingly, Barakat bristles at the suggestion that he or his officials are somehow biased toward Duke.
"I know what's going on," he said. "I hear it. I've got to live with that stuff. It's a hard thing for me to live with because it's attacking the integrity of people I'm overseeing ... and me."
This isn't the first time Barakat has had to deal with such suspicions.
"My first 10 years (in the ACC), I had to live with the perception that Carolina got all the calls," he said. "I think an important thing, when you look at this, is see how good these teams have been. Carolina, when I first came ... dominated this league. They got the calls. The better you are, the more it looks like you get the calls.
"Perception becomes reality for some people because they are fans and see it through rose-colored glasses."
In 1984, during his fourth season at Duke, Krzyzewski himself had protested angrily to league officials about what he saw as a "double standard" that worked in favor of Smith and UNC. At the time, Krzyzewski was about a .500 coach for his career with the Blue Devils, while Smith was a recent NCAA champion (1982) and a national icon in a similar sense to what Coach K is today.
"When I said that, I said it because I believed it," Krzyzewski told the Washington Post last year. "But there's no question I was looking at it through Duke-colored and Krzyzewski-colored glasses. Carolina did what it did because Dean was a great coach, and he had great players. My guess is they didn't get as many calls back then as I thought they did. And I'm pretty convinced we don't get nearly as many calls now as people think we do. My vision is a little bit different."
Barakat's quote - "perception becomes reality" - is interesting because two of the four former ACC officials contacted for this story used exactly the same words when asked about the existence of bias in the league.
For instance, one very well-known referee responded when asked point-blank if there was bias in the ACC: "I can't answer that," he said. "I would question why one ref has so many Duke games. Whether there is any validity to it or not, perception is reality. Other coaches are going to have their suspicions."
This official pointed out that one official worked 11 Duke games in the 2003-04 season.
"I won't tell you his name," the official said. "But check it out. That will open your eyes."
Well, it does check out. Karl Hess worked 11 Duke games last season.
The only trouble is, it's hard to see where Hess' heavy Blue Devil workload fits into the Duke conspiracy theory. Three of his Duke games were non-conference games that weren't competitive. In the eight ACC games he worked - six in the regular season, two in the ACC Tournament - Duke was 5-3. In the 11 ACC games he didn't work, Duke was 10-1.
Hess called technical fouls on Krzyzewski in both Duke's loss to Georgia Tech in Durham and 10 days later, when the Devils beat Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Hess also worked the ACC title game, when four Duke players fouled out and the Terps out-shot the Devils 44-31 from the free throw line.
That's evidence of a pro-Duke conspiracy? That's the trouble with a lot of conspiracy claims; they don't stand up to scrutiny.
Reggie Cofer worked the second-most Duke games last season (eight), but the same referee who suggested that Hess' heavy workload indicated something also said, "Reggie is one of the refs who isn't influenced by Krzyzewski's act." Others have suggested that Larry Rose or Mike Wood are refs who always favor the Blue Devils. By selecting the right games (and ignoring others), it's possible to make it look that way.
But go back to Prosser's complaint about the loss at Cameron. He suggested that the Devils know how to play hard without fouling, while Wake had to learn that. Yet in that game, the Deacons shot more free throws than Duke did, and the Deacons actually were shooting a lot more free throws until committing five fouls (sending Duke to line 10 times) in the final 1:14 in their attempt to catch up.
That's evidence of bias?
Conspiracy Theories Grew In 2001
There are those who have believed in a pro-Duke bias for many years, but the view gained national currency during the 2001 Final Four.
It's true that there were some controversial calls that weekend that appeared to favor Duke. But even the two most celebrated pro-Duke calls - the fifth foul on Maryland center Lonny Baxter in the semifinal, and the no-call when guards Jason Williams and Jason Gardner collided in the Duke-Arizona championship game - remain open to debate.
Replays show Baxter reaching back with his left hand and grabbing a small handful of Duke center Carlos Boozer's shorts as the two big men jockeyed for position. Should it have been called? Probably not. But the grab was right in front of an official and certainly wasn't something made up out of thin air. The Williams-Gardner collision was covered by Rule 4, Section 38, Article 2, which essentially says that contact in pursuit of a loose ball "should be permitted, even though the contact should be severe."
Obviously, those two calls colored the perception of many fans, especially since veteran CBS commentator Billy Packer was so sure that both were absurd. Packer also never tired of reminding viewers that Duke had made more free throws that season than its opponents had attempted. He never bothered to tell his audience that Arizona had done the same thing - and by a wider margin - or that 23 ACC teams had accomplished the same feat in the previous 20 years.
Yet, even if Duke was the beneficiary of favorable officiating that weekend in Minneapolis, how does that jibe with the belief in an ACC officiating bias? Ted Hillary, Mark Reischling and David Libby handled the Duke-Maryland game. Scott Thornley, Ed Corbett and Gerald Boudreaux did the Duke-Arizona game. None of those officials worked for the ACC or under the thumb of Barakat. Is NCAA director of officials Hank Nichols also in on the conspiracy?
Theoretically, Gary Williams might have had a point that CBS and the NCAA would have preferred a Duke-Arizona championship matchup, but why in the world would the refs have given the Blue Devils the breaks against the Wildcats?
Arizona's Lute Olson also is a Hall of Fame coach, and he was a sympathetic figure with the tragic death of his wife, Bobbie, that season. Plus, 2001 NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey was the athletic director at Arizona before taking the NCAA job. Jim Livengood, the man who replaced Dempsey as the AD at Arizona, was on the Men's Basketball Committee.
So why would the officials be biased toward Duke in the 2001 title game?
What Do Raw Numbers Show?
Measuring bias is not easy. The problem is that every coach, every fan, every writer sees the game through his or her own prejudices.
Les Robinson, who struggled through six seasons as the head coach at N.C. State, found that out during his five-year stint as a member of the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee. He found himself at tournament sites, watching games that involved teams with which he had no emotional involvement, sitting alongside administrators who cared desperately about one team or the other.
"What I learned, now that I'm completely out of it, is that sitting at courtside, I do not see the same game they are seeing," Robinson said. "You can't overcome being a fan. You see things in a completely different light. Fans are cheering for their teams."
But if we can't trust our impressions, how can we measure bias? Is it possible to take a statistical measure of the game to see if Duke - or anybody else - is getting an inordinate number of calls?
There's no definitive measure possible, since games can be altered by one timely call or a couple of questionable fouls on key players. Still, if there were a widespread bias among officials, wouldn't it show up in the free throw differentials between teams?
Merely listing free throws shot can be misleading, since those numbers can be skewed by tempo or style of play. Non-conference numbers aren't reliable, since the quality of opposition varies and the officiating teams are not always ACC crews. But measuring the differential between the number of free throws attempted and the number of free throws attempted by a team's opponent in conference play should be significant. Measuring differential minimizes the impact of style of play on the numbers, while restricting the study to conference play means that schedules are perfectly balanced (or they were, before this post-expansion season) and we're dealing with nothing but ACC refs.
After studying the ACC free throw differentials for every league team over the last 10 seasons, it's easy to come to some very obvious conclusions:
The home team usually gets the calls: A sample of 20 different teams from five different seasons showed that every single one had a better free throw differential at home than on the road. The 20-team average was 80.5 more free throws a season at home than on the road, an average of almost exactly five free throws a game.
The best teams get the calls: This showed up two ways. Over the last 10 years, the relationship between ACC finish and free throw differential was nearly a perfect curve. Note: In cases where there was a tie in the standings, the differential was averaged and used for both positions.
The 10 first-place teams (see charts) averaged a plus-95.5 differential. That means that teams that won or tied for the ACC regular-season title averaged shooting 95.5 more free throws per ACC season than their opponents shot against them. That's an average of almost six more free throws a game. We got similar results (see charts) when we compared various ACC records with free throw differentials.
There were a couple of blips - 9-7 teams had a slightly better differential than 10-6 teams, and 3-13 teams had almost exactly the same differential as 7-9 teams! Still, the breakdown showed what we would expect, that on the whole, the better teams had better free throw differentials.
So how does this apply to Duke and the perception that the Devils benefit from an officiating bias?
When we broke down the numbers by team (see charts), we found that over the last 10 years, Duke had the second-best free throw differential (plus 473), behind UNC (plus 542). Over the last five years, Duke had the best differential (plus 333), ahead of Wake Forest (plus 176) and UNC (plus 168).
But Duke also had the best ACC record over the last five and 10 years. Are the Devils' numbers out of whack, or just what you'd expect for the conference's best team?
When you compare Duke's yearly numbers, its yearly finish and the ACC average, a surprising pattern becomes clear.
Duke finished first in the ACC six times in the last 10 years. As we saw, the ACC average for first-place teams was a plus-95.5 free throw differential. Duke was better than that twice - in 1999 and 2000. Duke was below the average four times. The Devils also finished second twice, both times with differentials below the ACC average for second-place finishers. And in its fourth-place finish in 1996, Duke was at minus-36, well below the ACC average.
That's seven times in 10 years that Duke's differential was less than expected.
When we compared free throw differentials with ACC records, Duke showed up above the ACC average just once in its top seven seasons - in 2000. There was no comparison for Duke's 16-0 mark in 1999.
It doesn't appear that Maryland is getting the breaks, either. The Terps finished below the expected free throw differential six times in the last 10 years, including 1999, when a 13-3 team was at minus-39, and in 2000 when an 11-5 team was at minus-50. Those were the two most out-of-whack differential numbers in the study.
So who is getting the calls?
Wake Forest was one team that accumulated better free throw numbers than its record suggested, especially in the last two years. And despite Prosser's complaints, the Deacons are enjoying the ACC's best differential this season, for a third year in a row.
But the one team that had the most consistently impressive numbers in the study was North Carolina, which surpassed its expected free throw differential in seven straight seasons. Here's another interesting tidbit to chew on: Over the five previous seasons, UNC and N.C. State had exactly the same 40-40 ACC record, but UNC's differential over that span was plus-168, while N.C. State's was minus-75.
Evidence Difficult To Quantify
The trouble with proving any kind of bias is that basketball is so free-flowing, with so many potential calls, that everybody is going to see what they want to see.
Take one play from Duke's victory over North Carolina earlier this season. Late in the game, UNC center Sean May tipped in a missed three-point shot by guard Rashad McCants. When the replay was shown by Jefferson Pilot productions, which was broadcasting the game in the ACC region, Packer was positive that it showed goaltending by May. But the game also was being broadcast nationally by ESPN, and when commentator Dick Vitale looked at the replay, he was certain the tip-in was legal.
Barakat, who later watched the play dozens of times in slow motion and with stop action, still isn't sure.
"I'm not sure if it was or it wasn't (goaltending)," he said. "It's that close. I absolutely can't tell."
He points out that his officials have to make those calls in real time, without benefits of replays ... and without slow motion or stop action. He willingly concedes that sometimes the calls are wrong.
"We get a pretty darn good percentage of the calls right," Barakat said. "Because they're human, they make mistakes. There are mistakes on every one of these tapes I have. (He points to a stack of almost a dozen VHS tapes sent to him by coaches.) When you have judgment issues and you have to make a decision like that, there's going to be a question of whether it was a charge or a block ... was it basket interference ... was the ball off the rim?"
Obviously, some of those mistakes go in Duke's favor. Those are the ones the conspiracy buffs remember. But they forget errors that go against the Blue Devils. Where was the officiating bias in February, when five Duke players fouled out at Maryland? Or in last year's ACC Tournament championship game, when all three Duke big men ended up on the bench with five fouls?
The officials who have worked in the league seem to feel that what's going on is less a case of bias and more an example of influence. Krzyzewski is a prominent coach with an intimidating sideline manner.
"He's an intimidator, pure and simple," another ACC assistant coach said. "That's one of the things he does best."
While every ref surveyed denied that he ever was intimidated by Krzyzewski, all four former officials complained that the Duke coach is a pain to deal with.
"What I don't understand is this: He's a Hall of Famer; he's a great coach; he's got great players; he's going to win anyway," a very prominent ref said. "Why is he always on the officials?"
Another veteran official agreed, suggesting that Krzyzewski, like many coaches, usually targets the weakest official in any crew.
"Most of the time coaches go after a young guy," he said. "When they go after an older guy, they get on him and it's over. The younger guys, they stay on him."
Does that ever impact calls?
"What it does is mess up their concentration," the official said.
The officials surveyed disagreed on whether Krzyzewski is worse, much worse or about the same as his peers when it comes to ref-baiting. One target of his ire suggested that Krzyzewski was the worst by far, while another said Gary Williams and Hewitt can be just as difficult.
What all four agreed was that they see no concerted effort by officials to favor Duke or anybody else.
"Every ref I know is an honest guy, trying to get the call right," one 15-year officiating veteran said. "There's no question in my mind there's sometimes psychological pressure. But I know in my heart it's never intentional."
Seth Greenberg is a newcomer both to the ACC and to the world of the ACC officiating bias. He seemed ready to join Williams, Hewitt and Prosser on the battlelines after his first visit to Cameron. The Virginia Tech coach was ejected from the game after protesting too much as Duke piled up a 49-23 free throw advantage.
But while Greensberg is still unhappy with how the game in Durham was called, he sounded less like a conspiracy buff when asked about that game before the rematch with Duke in Blacksburg.
"If you watched Duke at Maryland, you saw a very similar situation, except in reverse," he said. "What makes Duke good is not the officiating. What makes Duke good is that they play so hard. They will themselves to be good. That's part of coaching, and (Krzyzewski) does a great job of getting those guys to compete probably harder than any team in the country."
Was that just coach-speak, or was Greenberg looking at Duke and the officials with a fresh eye?
Undoubtedly, Duke gets calls. And, just as clearly, there are games when Duke appears to get a lot of calls, especially at Cameron. But the claim that Duke gets an inordinate number of calls, or that ACC officials constantly favor the Blue Devils, is a hard charge to nail down.
Is there bias? Or is the criticism merely the same jealous posturing that almost all successful teams have to deal with?
"Every conference has one team where that perception exists," Barakat said. "You don't think it existed at UCLA that John Wooden got all the calls? You don't think it exists now at Arizona? You don't think it exists at UConn? You don't think it exists at Kentucky? You don't think it exists at Kansas?
"The team that's on top, the Yankees ... the Boston Celtics, they're the team to hate."
In the ACC, that team is Duke. Its defenders always will believe that the Devils get the calls because they've been the league's most successful team for a number of years. Their opponents always will believe that one of the reasons Duke has been the league's most successful team is because the Devils get the calls.
Perception may be reality, but in this case there are two conflicting perceptions ... and that makes reality a hard concept to nail down.
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 35 years. He is a 1974 graduate of Duke.