Officiating the College Game


by Alex Ivahnenko with edits by John Van de Vaarst

Officiating at the college level is different than working other games (amateur, professional, etc.).   The successful intercollegiate soccer official knows these differences and acts accordingly.  This article will focus on some of the key components of the college game.

College players are Student-Athletes, not professionals, and the game is part of their education.  As such, their health and safety is paramount, the referee’s responsibility is to make the game a positive experience for the players.   Players’ injuries must be handled with briskness.  Stop the clock.  Run to the player.  Assess whether medical attention is needed.  For head injuries, ensure the player leaves the field, and does not return until trained medical personnel can affirm the safety of doing so.  Without the presence of a trained medical person, it is the referee’s responsibility to error on the side of player safety, even if in contradiction to the coach.  Substitutions: besides knowing when, know that there are no re-entries in the first half and each of the OT periods.  There is one re-entry in the second half.  Goalies are permitted one re-entry in all periods.   Know the rules on substitutions for Blood and Head Injuries.  If a referee misinterprets these rules, the game can be protested.  This creates problems for the officials, teams, conferences and everyone involved.

The referee’s behavior must be positive and professional at all times.  The referee is a dispassionate enforcer of the rules.  To the players, the referee must think of himself/herself  more as a teacher than an enforcer.  Stay calm.  Be firm.  But don’t scold or talk down to the players.  In spirit, college is closer to youth soccer than professional leagues, in spite of the ability of some players.  Intercollegiate players do not respond well to the dictatorial style of officiating.

The coaches need to be respected since the coaches are stakeholders in the college game.  The officials must display respect for the coaches.  This is critical to success.  Each week a coach’s career can be at stake based on a win or a loss.  They work hard throughout the year recruiting and preparing their teams.  While a coach may be emotional during the game, an official must remain calm and professional when responding to a coach during any given situation.

Referee mechanics must be correct and clear.  For example, on goals, cautions and injuries, the referee first crosses the arms overhead to indicate “stop the clock”.  As mentioned above, treat injuries quickly and seriously.  For cautions and ejections, separate the player so that it is clear to all who is the recipient of the Caution/Ejection.  Once again, be dispassionate.  Remember, in the college game the referee controls the clock and has the prerogative of stopping the clock whenever it is required, such as late in the game when the losing team cannot restart for some reason. Gamesmanship and delays should not be condoned.  Deal with it when needed and stop the problem quickly and decisively.

Don’t just play advantage, show advantage.   The official must thrust arms forward and verbalize “Play On” or “Advantage” letting all know that the foul was observed but play will not be stopped.  Remember, an official can still caution or eject a player at a stoppage after applying advantage.  A good way to help prevent retaliation is verbalize that “I am coming back for that foul.”

Players and coaches must recognize early that the officials assigned are a team.  The referee can demonstrate this by supporting your AR’s.  This starts with the pregame and continues throughout the game. A positive word or gesture to the AR during the game lets everyone know the team is working together.  Better referees do not simply in the business of making calls, they are also in the business of selling calls.  Being close to play, using the whistle to demonstrate emotions, strong mechanics, all lead to players, coaches and bench personnel respecting the officiating team.

Pregame discussions with the entire referee team is critical to success.  Going over the various nuisances with the alternate official and AR’s will help prevent problems during the game.  A good pregame discussion will also help a less experienced AR gain confidence and feel like part of the overall team.

Knowledge of the NCAA Rules is paramount.   A NISOA or a conference assignor cannot protect an official if they make a misapplication and the game is protested.  Each year, all NISOA members receive (also available on the NISOA website) “A Comparative Study of Rules and Laws” that makes it easy to know the differences in the intercollegiate game.  Study this guide and be most familiar with the differences so that a misapplication of the rules is avoided.

Some conferences have unique requirements. Consult the Rule Book: it should always be in the referee’s bag.  If an issue comes up—such as forfeiture, or suspension, or lightning—take out the book.  During situations that do not come up very often, do not assume the answer.  Make sure of accuracy by consulting the rule book.  Junior Colleges have different rules on substitution and cautions and the referee must be aware of this difference.   Ejected players must leave the bench area.  At the beginning of the game, get the name of the Site Administrator, and ensure that they will see to it that an ejected player is removed. Do not allow a player, coach or bench personnel that has been eject remain on the bench.   This could create future problems.

Incidental, foul or abusive language is not acceptable in the college game.  Some officials feel they can ignore the incidental language.  It does not matter and impact the game. at the college level it could not matter more.  The rule book requires a caution for incidental language and an ejection for foul and abusive language.   The referee cannot ignore these rules.  The NCAA has emphasized this and referees must deal with language when it is heard.  Fans are close to the game and can see and hear everything that occurs.  In addition, many of the conferences are on a tear to eliminate bad language from their games.  Some conferences now require the officials to speak about language as part of every pre-game (in addition to a discussion of sportsmanship), which must also include the coaches.  Further, as mentioned before, more than ever both officials and paid observers are monitoring the games, and referee failure to deal with language is considered unacceptable.  This can cost a referee an excellent assessment and the possibility to officiate at the post season.

Respect the Game.  Part of this is respecting the timing protocol for all games.  Contact fellow officials and verify assignments and arrival times and location.   Arrive early enough to ensure the game will be started on time and all pregame activities are concluded in a professional manner.   Respect the players, coaches and bench personnel.   They have worked as hard as the referee to reach the level of competition.  Be confident but not overzealous and the game should be enjoyable for all.