Tom Izzo's admiration for Ed Hightower a reminder that refs are human, too

After 36 years as a college basketball referee, 32 of them in the Big Ten, it isn't easy for Ed Hightower to experience something new on the court. After 34 years as a college basketball coach, the last 19 of them as the headman at Michigan State, the same applies for Tom Izzo.

Yet here the two of them were Tuesday, on the floor of the Breslin Center, a timeout with two minutes and change left in a Spartan blowout victory of North Florida. Izzo went to the scorer's table, grabbed the microphone and ventured them into unchartered waters.

This was Hightower's final game in East Lansing. The 62-year-old is retiring after games this weekend at Nebraska and Iowa. Izzo wanted to acknowledge a good ref and a better man – a devoted husband and father, not to mention teacher, principal and now superintendent of public schools in downstate Illinois.

Izzo barely got the words of appreciation out though before his voice began cracking and he started choking up. When he was done, he flopped down on the bench nearly in tears. The emotion had overwhelmed him.

"Yeah, it did," Izzo said Friday.

"I felt the same way," said Hightower, who had to blow the whistle and call the rest of the game.

Izzo had cleared his speech with the Big Ten office and North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll, but he had no idea how it would play out.

For Hightower it was a complete surprise, even though Indiana coach Tom Crean had made similar in-game remarks to the crowd during Hightower's final visit at Assembly Hall. Plus, other schools, not to mention the Maui Invitational, have honored Hightower with game balls on his final pass through their gym.

All this for … a ref?

"He's done the job with such class and professionalism," Izzo said. "Integrity is what he is about."

"He deserves it," Crean said. "My respect for him is incredible. As a high level official, yes, but even more so for the kind of man he is."

"It's been really gratifying," Hightower said.

This, however, is more than just a feel-good story of a bunch of coaches taking a moment to say nice things about an old ref that they spent years arguing with in the heat of battles past. This is more than getting a guy who heard a million boos a couple standing ovations.

This is a reminder to everyone that there are dynamics at play in sports that go beyond winning and losing, charges and blocks. It's a moment to remember that what we see on television isn't always the full story. And, perhaps most importantly, to recall that officials, yes, even officials, are people, too. Sometimes they are great people. And they always have great families who take every blood-thirsty scream or vicious tweet more personally than they do.

One of the reasons Izzo says he respects Hightower so much (and vice versa) is because through the years, no matter how tough their in-game arguing could get over a call, each would later study the tape. If someone discovered he was clearly in the wrong, he would phone the other one and acknowledge it.

"Ed will call and say, 'hey, I messed up on that,' " Izzo said. "That's class. And I think that's what we are all looking for."

"Tom has never been afraid to call the next day and say, 'I was wrong,' " Hightower said. "No one has been harder through the years on Ed Hightower than Tom Izzo, he's such a competitor. But that's the kind of guy Tom Izzo is."

He's not perfect

Hightower is the first to say he's blown calls. In nearly four decades as a college ref that featured 12 assignments in the Final Fours, how couldn't he?

"You know how many judgment calls I've made?" he laughed. "If you think I got them all right you're crazy."

Too often though, fans just see the moment of the mistake. They don't get the calm phone call later, or the pregame talk the next time through, or the hours of work done pre and postgame to improve for the next time. They skipped the part about a ref trying the best he or she can, getting in the perfect position, and just making a snap decision.

And, really, it's not about bad calls. It's about bad calls against their team.

"Let me tell you about fans," Hightower said with a laugh. "You can make the absolute worst call in the world, but if it goes for their team, they'll cheer."

In an element TV cameras rarely pick up, through the years the relationships between coaches and refs (and players and refs) can build into, if not friendship, then profound respect for each other. That's always lost in the din of the stadium.

When screaming outrageous things at him through the years, how many people knew Hightower has been married for 39 years; has two grown, successful daughters; cares for his sick, 81-year-old mother; sits on boards for local colleges and hospitals; volunteers endlessly at his church; and years ago turned down a more lucrative career as an NBA official because it wouldn’t allow him to remain an educator in Edwardsville, Ill., the small community he calls home?

Mutual respect

More often than fans would believe, coaches and refs joke later at even some of the most intense of confrontations.

Hightower is often asked if Bob Knight is the most intimidating coach he ever met. He counters with platitudes to the General's intelligence and fairness, and notes that few did more to help the officiating profession over the long haul.

"A lot of games Coach Knight would just sit there for 38 minutes while the other guy was going crazy up and down the sideline the entire time," Hightower said.

And Hightower still laughs at the most famous time a coach took hold of a live microphone during a game.

It was in 1989, during a Missouri-Oklahoma game featuring two top five teams. Mizzou jumped to a 23-8 lead. Sooner fans were upset about what they believed were a series of bad calls and took to throwing garbage on the court. Along came OU's ever-colorful coach, Billy Tubbs, asking Hightower if he could talk to the crowd because he didn't want his team to get assessed a technical foul due of their behavior.

"Billy was always looking to do something to change the momentum of the game," Hightower said. "He was the best at that."

Tubbs got the microphone and delivered an all-timer of a command.

"We please request that regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw stuff on the court," Tubbs said as the arena erupted into cheers and laughter.

"I T'd him up so fast I almost broke my finger," Hightower said, chuckling at the memory.

Tubbs didn't care. Oklahoma promptly went on a 25-9 run and won the game going away. The two were and remain close friends. It was all part of the show, nothing personal. It's one of Hightower's favorite moments.

Friendly advice

Both Crean and Izzo said Hightower treated them with respect when they were just young, nobody, overaggressive assistant coaches in the Big Ten. That stuck. This, they realized, was a wise, smart, caring gentleman.

Crean recalls his second year as the head coach at IU, when he was nearly overwhelmed at the challenge of trying to rebuild a national power with a young, undermanned team. "I was at my wits end," he said. His sideline behavior during the losses was, well … "I've had my moments," he said, laughing.

In the middle of one of them, Crean said Hightower spoke to him quietly, "to remind me to keep my emotions in check and remind me of my professionalism. He and Rick Hartzell [another highly-respected ref] did that for me. They reminded me I'd had success before and would again.

"Ed's always had a tremendous nurturing ability," Crean continued. "But it's moments like that when you realize someone is doing a lot more than just their job. They are being a great person."

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Stepping away

Hightower could keep going as an official, but responsibilities at home, especially caring for his mother, told him it's time to stop. His father passed away last year. He has a demanding full-time job. He calls it "a hard, hard year." He's been on the road for too many winter nights. He owes more to his wife Barbara, although he says he figures she'll probably ship him out once she realizes he's home too much.

"She's wondering how this new marriage is going to work," he joked.

And, truth be told, being a ref has just gotten tougher, with the spotlight brighter and the backlash more vicious.

Every game is on TV now. There are now, six, eight, 10 different high-def camera angles on each play. The fan at home can break calls down to the frame. Heck, people in the stands can on their smart phones. And then the criticism doesn't end when you escape the arena – "social media," he notes with a sigh.

That was part of what motivated Izzo. He knows the feeling.

"Some fans come to the games with two phones, one to rip the coach, one to rip the ref," Izzo said. "I say, 'we're in the same fraternity after all.' … I just wanted our fans to know we are losing a great man, a Hall of Famer."

Izzo, Crean and Hightower, all agree, that should be the message here. This is bigger than the games, bigger than the call, bigger than even sports. This is about treating each other – everyone – with dignity.

"It's beyond us," Hightower said. "I think, there needs to be greater civility in society. There is no sense of civility any more. People think they can say anything that crosses their minds with no regard to how it affects other people. They don't care.

"I feel that every moment that we can teach people and show people a sense of respect and responsibility," Hightower continued, "we have an obligation to do it."

All this from … a ref?

You can understand why Tom Izzo decided to take that microphone on Tuesday for a brief speech about Eddie Hightower.

And why he almost couldn't get through it.