In April of 2019 Eric Curry hopes to walk from his downtown condo to U.S. Bank Stadium and fulfill a dream. The 2019 NCAA Men’s Final Four will be played in Minneapolis on April 6 and 8, and Curry will be wrapping up 22 years as a college basketball referee.
Curry, 53, told Sports Headliners his goal is to work on the biggest college basketball stage in his hometown. “I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t,” he said this week at Sun Country Airlines’ corporate offices in Eagan, where he is an executive vice president for customer experience and sales.
Curry flew over 100,000 miles from November through March officiating college games, mostly out West but also in the Big Ten Conference. He worked more than 60 games including his first NCAA Sweet 16 Tournament. It was a year that Curry describes as his best for high profile games that also included earlier rounds of NCAA Tournament games and before that the Mountain West Conference title game.
There were also prominent regular season games at marquee basketball schools like UCLA and Arizona in the Pac-12 Conference. Curry is grateful for all those opportunities including the NCAA Tournament. While a hoped-for first Final Four assignment is on his radar, he also keeps the goal in perspective. “I don’t think that defines me as my success in my officiating,” he said.
There is another goal regarding the NCAA Tournament that’s important to Curry. He’s the only referee from Minnesota working games during “March Madness.”
“We’ve got some guys right on the doorstep to getting in the tournament,” Curry said. “I hope the heck they do because they deserve that and the state deserves it.”
When Curry was in college at Trinity International University in Illinois he had an assignment that led him to refereeing intramural basketball. He liked the experience and after college started refereeing high school games back in his home state of Florida. By 1996 his resume and connections were good enough to be earning $500 per game working for a startup women’s pro league—the American Basketball League.
The league eventually folded and owed Curry a few thousand dollars but a woman executive with the ABL became the supervisor of officials for the Big Sky Conference. Curry worked nine games for the conference during the 1999-2000 season. The next season his assignments expanded and he’s been busy on the men’s college basketball officiating scene ever since.
Curry is exhaling now after five months of balancing his life of refereeing, responsibilities at Sun Country, and sharing a family life with Kelly Roysland, his wife of three years who also is the women’s basketball coach at Macalester College. Curry loves the officiating but said, “I am glad the season ends when the season ends.”
Priorities in order are family, Sun Country and officiating. He and Kelly are expecting their first child in two weeks. It will be a boy and Kelly is choosing the child’s first name (that’s a secret) and Curry has selected the middle name of Harmon. Harmon is for the late Harmon Killebrew, the ex-Twins slugger and Cooperstown Hall of Famer.
Before joining Sun Country, Curry was an executive in sponsorship sales for the Twins and he became acquainted with Killebrew who was a mentor. “He knew how to make everybody he talked to feel important,” Curry said. “He was kind and gentle. He made you feel like giving you his autograph was his privilege.”
Curry counts himself as “very fortunate” to have a wife who understands his busy schedule. He also keeps a promise to Sun Country owner Marty Davis that doing his work for the airlines comes before refereeing assignments that sometimes have him out of town a few days per week. “If I am going to be out (of Minneapolis) three days one week, I try to make it just one day the next week,” Curry said.
Curry is efficient in doing a lot of his Sun Country duties while riding in an airplane to an out of town game. He also tries to book early morning flights so he can quickly head to a hotel room and spend the better part of the day doing his Sun Country work. Then, too, there are cities Curry goes to referee a game that also are home to Sun Country clients or airline personnel he needs to see.
Wearing that striped shirt and blowing the whistle has become a big part of who Curry is. Stepping on the court and feeling the excitement of the college basketball experience is something he cherishes. When he got the call this year to work his first Sweet 16 he was honored, “The last thing in my mind was how much we were going to make (money),” Curry remembered. “It was just what time do you need me to be there? I was so thrilled to be invited.”
Referees working major colleges are independent contractors who are paid a fee to not only cover their services working games, but also travel expenses. Curry didn’t say how much per game he typically earns but he did offer that lesser experienced officials are in the range of $1,500 to $2,500. At 60 games or more, the money can add up and Curry estimated about 25 percent of Power Five conference officials don’t have other jobs and make their livelihood refereeing.
For some people, though, the money wouldn’t be worth the verbal abuse that officials endure. Curry hears the typical comments like “you suck,” or “go back to refereeing high school games.” One irate fan wrote him a particularly painful email this season.
“He had some nasty things to say,” Curry said. “It was hurtful but at the end of the day it wasn’t a death threat or anything like that.”
Curry’s friend and referee John Higgins did receive death threats in March from Kentucky fans after controversial calls in the Wildcats-North Carolina Elite Eight game that sent the Tar Heels on to the Final Four. “What happened to him was unconscionable,” Curry said about his colleague who had private security and the FBI monitoring him at the Final Four.
Do referees have bad games? Nights when their work is less than stellar?
“Absolutely,” Curry answered. “Every once in awhile you will have a game that for whatever reason your mind is not there.”
There are games when not only the officiating is poor, but the play of the two teams isn’t sharp either. “They’ll be nights we (the three referees) go in the locker room and say, ‘Boys, we weren’t very good tonight,’ Curry admitted. “Or, ‘Boys, the game was terrible, we were a little bit better than them.’ ”
Then there are games like the first half of the Michigan-UCLA game last season that are truly special. Curry remembered only about 12 fouls being called, and the players put on a spectacular offensive show leading to a 50-50 halftime tie. “We just sat in the locker room (at halftime) and nobody said anything for about three minutes. Then I said, ‘Boys, I don’t think we will see that again. Ever.’ That was as good a 20 minutes of college basketball from a scoring perspective as you’ve ever seen.”
Curry said referees who consistently grade out well by their supervisors, and who are experienced officials, don’t favor home teams with their whistle blowing. “But I’ve worked with some young fellas that it’s their first time at Arizona, or their first time at Michigan State—and between the head coach and the crowd—it can be very, very intimidating. You have to learn that if you’re going to be successful, you…shut that out. Just take care of your business.”
Taking care of business can mean calling technical fouls. When does Curry know it’s time to “T” somebody up?
“I am not going to let you do something that embarrasses me or embarrasses the game,” Curry said. “There’s some guidelines in there for what that means. …Not going to be out there yelling at officials.”
Curry respects the responsibilities of coaches who are under enormous pressure to both win and set an example of sportsmanship for their players and fans. “I have less tolerance for players than coaches,” he said. “That’s not their job.
“We talk to them (the players) before the game. …I say, ‘Don’t yell at me, it hurts my feelings. You want to ask me a question? I am your guy all night.’ And I say, ‘By the way, you better be my guy when somebody from your team steps out of line.’ ”
Several years ago Curry was officiating a game at New Mexico in the Lobos’ raucous arena known as “The Pit.” New Mexico coach Steve Alford was upset with Curry and the fans were feeling hostile toward him because they thought visiting team UNLV was being favored. Alford stomped his feet and yelled unfriendly words. Curry answered back with a reply about objectivity that let Alford know if the Lobos were on the road they too would be treated fairly. Alford bought in. “My goal as an official is to be the guy they (visiting teams) want to see on the road,” Curry told Alford.
“The Pit” and most of the other places Curry frequents are a long way from Minneapolis but maybe the best “trip” of his officiating career will come in 2019 in his hometown at the Final Four.
A notes column starting with reporting from Winter Park, the Vikings training facility.
Defensive end Everson Griffen spoke light-heartedly about playing against former teammate Adrian Peterson when the Vikings and Saints meet September 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium in the opening regular season game for both teams. “I can’t wait to hit him, it’s going to be fun,” Griffen said this morning.
Griffen had reporters laughing when he made that remark, and also when recalling how during practices he and other defensive players were never allowed to hit Peterson, the future Hall of Fame running back.
Last week it was announced the Vikings-Saints matchup will be one of two NFL ESPN televised Monday night games on September 11. Then today reports confirmed that Peterson, who played for the Vikings from 2007-2016, was signing on with the Saints. Griffen wondered if the NFL office has known for awhile that Peterson was New Orleans-bound and that A.P. playing against his old team would create high drama in the Minneapolis Monday night game.
There’s no doubt it will be an electric atmosphere in the stadium that night with the game generating high TV ratings. Look for the Purple faithful to give Peterson a standing ovation. StubHub.com listed 6,764 tickets available for the game as of early afternoon today.
Apparently Peterson’s days as a part-time Minnesota resident are also over. Mike Max reported on WCCO Radio’s “Sports Huddle” show on Sunday that movers were at Peterson’s suburban Minneapolis home last Saturday.
Veteran Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, per earlier media reports this spring, is likely to retire after the 2018. But Robison told Sports Headliners today he might play longer if the Vikings offer him another contract. “I think the only chance for me would be if I got brought back here to Minnesota. I am not going to move my family across the country. It’s just something that I don’t really want to do.
“To me there’s more important things than just making money in this business. There’s always been the other things that are important to me. The respect of my peers. Being in the right place.
“Minnesota is definitely the place that I want to be. If that opportunity arises where I am able to come back here another year, or two, then yea, I might stick around…but otherwise…I am pretty much positive I am going to hang it up.”
Robison’s wife Jayme Miller has an ongoing career as an accomplished rodeo barrel racer. Robison said barrel racers may compete even into their 70’s.
Drew Wolitarsky, a senior last fall for the Gophers and now hoping to sign on with an NFL team, is reportedly excelling in workouts against pro defensive backs. A source said the Vikings may have interest in signing the California native as a free agent.
The same source also said Mitch Leidner, another senior for the Gophers last season, is impressive working out under the direction of ex-Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon. An NFL team may use a late round draft pick on the Minnesota quarterback and Lakeville native.
Condolences to Gophers linebacker Jonathan Celestin after the unexpected death last week of his father in Georgia. Donations are being accepted to assist with funeral and burial arrangements for Frederick Celestin. More information about donations is available by contacting Eric Raines at 229-435-4813.
The Minnesota Football Coaches Association’s clinic March 30-April 1 drew record attendance of 1,700, according to an email from MFCA executive director Ron Stolski. Speakers at the clinic in St. Louis Park included Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman and Dartmouth’s Buddy Teevens.
The MFCA Recruit Combine takes place Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Rockford Community Center in Rockford. For a cost of $50 per participant, athletes from the high school classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020 can be tested in speed, strength and agility in front of Midwest college football coaches. More information is available at Preptree.com.
Jim Dutcher expects son Brian Dutcher, 57, to include the state of Minnesota in his recruiting territory now that the former Bloomington resident is head coach at San Diego State. Brian, who earned his undergraduate degree at Minnesota in 1982, succeeded Steve Fisher as head coach earlier this month after being an assistant at San Diego State for 18 seasons.
Twins authority Roy Smalley told Sports Headliners before the season his old team could win a dozen or so more games this season than last year’s win total of 59 but it won’t happen without improvement from veteran starters Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes. How are the two pitchers doing for the 9-10 Twins who have lost seven of their last 10 games?
After four starts Gibson is 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA. In his last start on Sunday he lasted 2.2 innings, giving up eight hits and six earned runs. Hughes is 3-1 with a 4.71 ERA and was the winning pitcher Monday night against the Rangers, giving up two runs in six innings.
Former Chaska High School baseball coach Dale Welter emailed that three former Chaska youth players are playing professionally as pitchers. Jake Esch and Brad Hand are with the San Diego Padres organization, while John Straka is on the Saint Paul Saints roster.
The Twins are 7-8 so far this season after losing to the Indians yesterday at Target Field. What does manager Paul Molitor think of the club that is coming off a 59-102 record in 2016?
“We’re playing okay,” he told Sports Headliners yesterday morning.
The Twins third-year manager believes the team record in 2017 can be “significantly” better than last season. He knows there are no guarantees the team can move to about a .500 record by early fall, but in the first three weeks of the schedule the pitching and defense have impressed. Molitor also sees a Central Division that has a kingpin in defending AL champ Cleveland but also has a membership of clubs Minnesota can compete with.
Despite a difficult day yesterday giving up 11 hits and six runs against the Indians, the Twins pitching staff’s ERA of 3.18 ranks as the sixth best among 30 major league teams. A surprise showing this spring by Twins pitchers includes lights-out performances by No. 1 starter Ervin Santana who is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA. Closer Brandon Kintzler has three saves in six games with a 0.00 ERA.
Minnesota is tied with two other clubs for fewest errors in the big leagues, with four. Shortstop Jorge Polanco and third baseman Miguel Sano were hardly Gold Glove candidates coming into the season but their work in the field this spring has been professional. The outfield defense pretty much lets nothing drop except rain, with center fielder Byron Buxton perhaps having more range than anyone in baseball.
The Twins, though, have lost seven of their last nine games this season. Five of the team’s seven defeats have been by one or two runs. Of those five games, the club scored only a single run four times. Minnesota has a total of 60 runs this season, with just nine other big league teams scoring fewer.
Maybe the Twins will pick up the offensive production when the weather warms and more bats find their rhythms. Maybe. Truth is the Twins have several inexperienced hitters in their everyday lineup including Buxton, right fielder Max Kepler, left fielder Eddie Rosario and Polanco. None of them can say they don’t have a lot to prove as hitters.
Sano had a news-making rookie season two years ago, then slipped in 2016 when he learned feasting on big league pitching was no given. This season will show if his work ethic and commitment are improved. Can he return to more consistency in 2017?
Outside the Twins organization, fans and media have all but given up on Joe Mauer leading the offense and the locker room. Coming off of seasons when he hit .277, .265 and .261 with a total of 25 home runs, he is off to a .218 start this spring with no home runs and six RBI. At age 34, Mauer shows no sign of producing the kind of numbers that years ago made him a batting champion and one of baseball’s best hitters.
With a glitzy career resume, $23 million salary, and a lifelong commitment to the Twins, you might think Mauer would be a clubhouse leader. But neither today, nor in the past, are there consistent reports about the quiet Minnesotan being a voice in the locker room. The Twins found that voice two years ago when outspoken veteran outfielder Torii Hunter helped lead the Twins to a surprise 83-79 record in Molitor’s first year of managing. Brian Dozier, the 29-year-old second baseman, hit 42 home runs last season and he has tried to be a club leader.
Molitor’s hopes of at least turning the Twins into a .500 or better team this year partially rest on new baseball boss Derek Falvey not trading Dozier away. Ditto Santana. The idea of both going away in return for prospects looks legit if the Twins are struggling in July.
Falvey, 34, was named the franchise’s chief baseball officer last fall. Known as one of the game’s more astute young minds, Falvey and new general manager Thad Levine place an emphasis on obtaining the best information possible on everything baseball related and place a high reliance on analytics. Under Falvey’s watch, the Twins are expanding their information gatherers and number crunchers.
Some early results are already in on the Falvey influence. His offseason signing of free agent catcher Jason Castro looks like a winner. Castro is one of baseball’s best at framing pitches—the term for positioning the catching glove so umpires are more likely to call strikes. The team’s pitching staff does seem improved and Castro is deserving of praise.
Veteran reliever Matt Belisle signed with the Twins as a free agent in February. He has helped the bullpen and his numbers show that with seven strikeouts in 6.1 innings and a 2.84 ERA. Both Belisle and Castro are potential locker room leaders all season.
Since the 2011 season the Twins have lost more than 90 games five times. Because of their dismal records the club has been given high draft choices but Minnesota doesn’t have a lot to show for its opportunities. There is a talent-gap on the roster that could have been assisted by better draft results.
Starting with the 2011 MLB June drafts, the Twins have selected the following players with first round picks: shortstop Levi Michael (2011), outfielder Byron Buxton (2012), pitcher Kohl Stewart (2013), infielder Nick Gordon (2014), pitcher Tyler Jay (2015) and outfielder Alex Kirilloff (2016). Buxton, who is hitting .082, is the only player currently on the major league roster. If you go back to the 2009 draft, the Twins used their No. 1 choice on Kyle Gibson, who is one of their starters but he is coming off a 6-11 record with a 5.07 ERA season last year.
This June the Twins will have the overall first selection in the MLB draft. How Falvey and his associates ultimately do with that opportunity will be another evaluation of their progress in rebuilding a franchise that won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, and division titles in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010.
For right now, though, the Twins need to just end a four game losing streak starting tonight at home against the Tigers. They want to avoid the kind of spring that last year stopped the season before it even started—losing 53 games in April, May and June. At a minimum this club needs to live up to the manager’s evaluation yesterday of playing “okay” while crossing collective fingers for a .500 year.