WARSAW – They say good help is hard to find. Well, it will later this year when another of the area’s more decorated officials hangs up his stripes.
Jay Smith has been an official longer than most of the Northern Lakes Conference boys basketball coaches have been alive, now in his 48th year. Rather than push for a round number of 50, Smith is preferring to hang it up while he’s ahead (and still has his knees and ankles intact).
“Sometimes you just have to know when to say it’s enough,” Smith said, fresh from doing two girls basketball games on Dec. 30, the first in Ligonier then the second in Warsaw less than an hour after the first ended. He did three games the day before. “I was doing two and three games a day for a long time. I’m sure I’ve done over 4,200 games in varsity and college. I’ve taken a pounding on my knees and hips.”
Smith has been an official since 1971, getting his start in a metaphorical way, which actually became his introduction into the profession.
“We’re getting hammered out here, does anyone ever call any fouls?,” joked Smith while sitting the basketball bench as a junior at Mentone High School. “Coach took his whistle off and told me to start reffing. ‘You think you can do any better, you try it!’ So I started reffing at practices, and eventually started reffing games when I was at Goshen College.”
Smith worked up to boys basketball sectional duty in 1977 and worked the inaugural girls basketball state tournament in 1976. Smith stated he’s worked all but one girls basketball state tournament, and in total with the boys, has done 82 sectionals, 65 regionals, 25 semi-states and eight Indiana state finals as well as a yeoman’s share of college, junior high and rec league action. He’s been fortunate to work with his brother, Tim, and Trent Long as a crew for years.
Smith was named the IHSAA Outstanding Girls Basketball Official in 2001 and the same for the boys in 2010. In 2009 he was awarded the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Circle Center Award, and in 2015, he was awarded the Mildred Ball Award for excellence in basketball officiating.
Many in the area also know Smith as a football coach, where he worked the sidelines at Wawasee Middle School for a good part of near three decades, 29 years all told. He also did cross country, track and wrestling coaching at the middle school level, and right away tossed out winning 25 conference titles among the lot, something he is very proud of as a coach.
But it comes back to working with young people and staying active, which is what drove him for nearly five decades. Finding niches among the work is what makes officiating both challenging and rewarding.
“After you’ve worked this for a while, you learn to diffuse coaches,” Smith said of building longevity. “I’ve learned how to. You talk to (Eric) Coburn, (Kirk) Robinson, (Lance) Grubbs, you figure out how to diffuse them. You go over to the coaches, they’re all upset, talk to them, say something to them that’s lighter. I’ll get the next one. You lighten the mood. Some officials get uptight, can’t talk to coaches, they lose the moment.
“I also learned over the years the secret to the technical foul is to give it when they don’t want it,” joked Smith, but also with a lot of purpose to his point. “A lot of coaches, they want that tech, fires up the team, gets the crowd angry and rowdy. The idea of the official is to not do it then. If the coaches continues on, then you give it to him. But if he just wants it to get one, you don’t do it. You give it to him when he doesn’t want it. Then he’ll sit down.”
Smith hopes to work through the regional level of the high school state basketball tournament this winter, then wade off into the sunset as most referees do. Saying they are done, then continuing to officiate on a smaller capacity. Because even Smith agrees, officials never really retire.
“It’s been unfair to my wife (Patricia) for so many years to be gone all the time,” Smith said. “Grandkids, can’t go to many of their functions because I’m always out refereeing. So I told her, it’s been 48 years and that’s a long time. It’s time to do something else. So I’m going to. My wife still says, ‘Oh, you’ll still go out and do games.’ And I said, ‘Thank you!’ And I might pick up a JV football game here or there. But I can’t keep doing three games a day, five or six nights a week. She said I could do a couple games a week, and maybe I do, but 48 years is enough at this pace. That’s most of my life. Time to slow it down.”