LEESBURG – He was always in the position to get it right. He had to, it was the only thing he was there to do.
And after 33 years of doing his best to get it right, Eric Coburn is making another correct decision. After chasing children and young adults up and down a basketball court for more than three decades, Coburn is in the final stage of his officiating career, deciding to retire from the zebra stripes after this boys basketball postseason.
Why? It’s not because of the verbal abuse, or knee injuries, or the pay. He wants to hold his wife’s hand again.
“I’ve had three seven-day vacations with my wife, it’s time she doesn’t have to sacrifice anymore for me,” Coburn emotionally said of his relationship with his wife of 44 years, Yvonne. “Our sands in the hour glass are not stopping, I’d like to take a lot more time with her.”
Coburn has been one of the exemplary officials, and has the résumé to prove it. A quick look at the two-sided, college ruled highlight reel includes nine state championships, nearly 20 semi-states, over 30 regionals and almost 50 sectionals worked. He was both the 2007 and 2015 Official of the Year, the first for girls basketball and the more recent for boys basketball. But getting those lofty achievements and experiences was more a product of the journey rather than a means to attain for Coburn, who cites his time on the force as what largely built his work ethic.
When asked about what kept him in the stripes and the police uniform at the same time, Coburn said his ability to diffuse situations as an officer made policing the basketball court a lot easier. “It’s like verbal judo. It’s difficult to stand there and take it. But it’s not about me. It’s not about the coach. It’s about the players and the game,” noted Coburn, who worked the police beat for 32 years. “Working as a police officer was probably the best training to be an official. We learn really quick how to diffuse a situation.”
The start of Coburn’s three-plus decades of officiating began with his buddy, Lance Grubbs, as they were working security detail as the 1984 Warsaw boys basketball team was en route to immortality. Watching from the sidelines, the two would squabble and criticize the officiating just like every other red blooded American in those gyms. After taking umbrage with a call, Grubbs told Coburn they should walk the walk and get their officiating licenses.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“As we watched during the 1984 State Finals, at one point in the first half of the semi-final game that Warsaw was not playing in, a player drove to the basket and the defensive player took the charge. One of us said, “Charge”, the other said, “Block”. Standing side-by-side, we couldn’t agree on which was the correct call to make. I already had taken the officials’ exam in previous years and we started talking right then about becoming officials. Once we became officials, we studied the rules regarding block-charge intently, and still to this day, don’t always agree on the call!”
Time and situation eventually wore on Coburn’s mind. Grubbs and longtime partner Kirk Robinson both hung up their whistles, Robinson just a year ago, and that helped Coburn continue to angle his mind away from the game. But when Yvonne’s health went south recently, including surgery, that was the final straw. His notions were true, and after being away for so long as a police officer and then moonlighting as an official, it was time.
Coburn worked his last regular season games the final week of the season like any other, getting recognized at Warsaw, West Noble and South Bend Riley for his years of service. His final sectional stop was at Hamilton, where he worked the tourney just like any other night, staying ahead of plays, communicating with his crew, hollering “rebound!” when the ball was in the air and off the rim. He smiled during timeouts, walked backwards during lulls in play to let coaches say their piece. Nothing changed.
It’s the time once the tournament season ends that will likely catch up with Coburn. Having his bags packed and trunk constantly full can still happen, he just doesn’t have games to go to. Rather, he and Yvonne will unpack those bags in a hotel or possibly at one of the kid’s houses. Away from the crowds, away from the screaming coaches and incessant buzzers.
There will finally be some peace.
“Eric is going to wonder how the heck he got everything done all those
years being gone four, five, and sometimes six nights a week,” Robinson said. “Eric always treated each game like it was a state championship. No
matter the school size. No matter the records. No matter the predicted
outcome. Those games are important to each and every coach, player and fan. Few officiate with those ideals. Eric lived it each night.”
Coburn said he likely will find himself at a game, surely in a mentoring role. His whistle will ultimately get put on to work a middle or elementary school game if there’s a need. For all the state championship games and all-star tournaments Coburn did, he was the one catching heat at the Warsaw Elementary Basketball Championship in early February for not knowing the language of a rules interpretation. And that’s fine with Coburn. He’s a student of the game. He’s a lifer. He’s also one of the best, and deserves to get a hand from his biggest fan. Yvonne is waiting.
“When we gave it our all, when we walk off the floor, we know that we gave it our all,” said Coburn. “Dr. Seuss said, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’ I’m trying to look at it that way.”