Eric Curry Great Fit for 2019 Final Four
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.