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NCAA Referee Duke Edsall – Over Three Decades On The Hardwood

Duke Edsall has been one of the most respected NCAA basketball referees for 36 years.

NCAA referee Duke Edsall has been around the block in college basketball. He has stood toe-to-toe on the hardwood with some of the all-time greats including coaches Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Huggins and Jim Boeheim. Likewise, players named Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neil and the one he still says was the best he’d ever seen, Len Bias.

As a NCAA Division I referee for 36 years, he’s been associated with the ACC, CAA, Big South, Southern, Big-12, SEC, Atlantic 10, MEAC, CAA and C-USA conferences. Edsall has worked 24 NCAA tournaments, 8 NCAA regional tournaments, one NCAA Final Four and four NIT championships. Duke, who was named after Dodger baseball great Duke Snider, called games in the ACC for 25 years, including 9 of the matchups between North Carolina and Duke, three of which went to overtime.

And, while he’s the first to admit  that at age 61 he’s winding down his zebra career, Edsall is still on the court calling a reduced number of DI college games. Likewise, he’s taken up a new career, overseeing the daily operations as general manager of Hunting Hills Country Club in Roanoke. His “home team” is wife Jody and daughters Kacy and Kali.

Edsall’s stint as one of the most respected referees in the college game was one that took numerous twists and turns in the early days, to one of taking advantage of opportunities and perseverance along the way.

Edsall grew up in Glenrock, Pennsylvania, just over the border and north of Baltimore. He was a 3-sport athlete at Susquehannock High School, proficient in basketball, golf and baseball. After graduating in 1974, Edall was planning to play basketball at Division III York College, when a freak accident ended his playing aspirations, but set the stage for the different direction as a referee.

“I was trying to get in shape for my freshman year at York and was running pass patterns for my younger brother, Randy,” Edsall noted of that fateful evening with a chuckle. Randy Edsall was the Susquehannock quarterback who would later become the head football coach at Maryland. “I went deep on a post-route and ended up a little too close to the post. I collided with the post going full-speed. I didn’t drop the pass, but I seriously injured my knee.”

While recovering from his injury, Edsall was asked to ref some junior varsity, then varsity high school games in York County. He called high school games for three years, and graduated from York in 1978 with honors as a banking and finance major. It earned him an early career in banking at Commonwealth Bank in Pennsylvania, before moving to Citicorp, where the banking giant wanted Duke to transfer to St. Louis.

“My Dad told me ‘go and see the world; if you can ref here, you can ref there,’ ” Edsall recalled. He took Dad’s advice and continued refereeing around St. Louis in evenings and on weekends to gain experience. Duke traveled with college refs to watch and learn the game from the stands and in the locker room and back east, he went to Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell’s scrimmages.

His first college game came in Missouri when he was asked to ref a game between Quincy College and Milligan. Edsall questioned the guy about having never seen him work. “He said, ‘I know, but you’ve got a letter of recommendation from Lefty Driesell. If Lefty says someone can ref, they can ref.’ ”

Later, Edsall was invited by ACC refereeing supervisor Fred Barakat to attend a referee camp in Pittsburg where 66 refs were being looked at to join the ACC ranks. It was there he met Roanoker Dan Wooldridge, a leading ACC referee at the time. “I was there to gain experience and get my name out among these top referees,” Edsall noted.” I had no preconceived notions. I had no idea it was a tryout camp.”

Two weeks after the camp ended, Edsall came home to find a letter from Barakat. He had been selected to join the ACC referee corps, and had also received a box of referee’s equipment to get started in style. The big show was on the horizon. “They were looking for young guys,” Edsall pointed out. “I was told they had picked me on my performance.”

Edsall noted he, like any DI official at the time, was brought along slowly. Plus, the ACC pay was was as good as any in the country, the games were the among the best and little turnover occurred. “In 1982 I got 5 assignments, in 1983 it was 15, all non-conference matchups, and in the 84-85 season it increased to 20.”

His first game involving an ACC team was an exhibition game, Wake Forest vs. Marathon Oil. His first all-ACC game was Duke at Maryland. “Duke versus Maryland at Cole Field House, it was huge,” Edsall said. “It was like coming home for me. I knew Lefty and fortunately it was a smooth game.”

Edsall “explains” a call during a Big-12 game to former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford.

Duke says his big break came in 1988 when the NBA went from two to three officials per game, and it resulted in the ACC losing a sizable number of its officials to the bigger money at the pro level. It gave him the opportunity to pick up more games in the conference.

Edsall’s first NCAA tournament game came in 1988 at the Greenboro Coliseum. He also pegs games between LSU and Duke, and a game between LSU and #1 Georgetown in the New Orleans Superdome, played in front of 68,000 fans, as two of his most memorable. “I remember Shaq coming up to me during warmups in the Superdome and asking in his deep voice,’ Mr. Ref, you going to let us play tonight?’ ”

His Final Four came in 2002, a semifinal matchup between Indiana and Oklahoma before over 53,000 fans at the Georgia Dome and millions watching on TV.

Needless to say, Edsall had his encounters along the way with many of the game’s most notable and colorful coaches. One of the most vocal was Bobby Knight. “Bobby Knight had his way of doing things,” Edsall laughed. “He treated me with respect, but wanted three things to be constant with refs – know your place in the game, work as hard as my players and I do, and respect the game as much as I do.”

“I had an Indiana game in the NIT and he stopped me three times to question a call. I’d explain my call and he’d say ‘that makes sense.’ Finally, he said ‘as long as you explain it, that’s fine, but if you try to BS me . . .’ ”

“After Bobby moved to Texas Tech in the Big-12, I had a game that Texas Tech lost. Bobby sent me a tape of the entire game, with 17 calls he deemed as questionable or no-calls, and wanted me to review it. I went over it and answered every play. Turns out he had included a few that he agreed with, but just wanted to test me. He sent me a letter back thanking me for my honesty. It was a great relationship with Coach Knight. I’d go to bat for Bobby Knight 100 times over.”

Edsall points out quickly that the college game has changed a lot since he started. “The big changes are the shot clock and the 3-point shot,” Edsall notes. “The game has moved from a game of skill to one of athleticism. Now, it’s run-and-gun, and jerking up 3-pointers. Many players you see now learned to play on the playground. They come up the court and can’t identify a zone or a man-to-man defense. It used to be if you called 60 games, 45 were good and 15 were root canals. Now, it’s just the opposite.”

Edsall likewise sees changes coming to the college game. “I think you’re going to see the game going to uniformity from high school to the NBA. They will all have four quarters, widen the lane and move the ball to half court after a timeout.”

Duke Edall loves to talk basketball and he’s definitely an expert on the college game. In 36 years, he’s been around the block with the best; several times around.

Bill Turner

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