What two words stir more emotion from Iowa basketball fans than “Ed Hightower?”
OK, “Steve Alford.”
But Hightower is the one Big Ten basketball official that seems to be more of a lightning rod for fans than any other. Why does Ed Hightower hate the Hawkeyes? I’ve heard that question more than once.
Fans of many other teams have asked the same thing, only they substituted “Buckeyes” or “Jayhawks” or someone else for “Hawkeyes.”
I suspect that’s primarily because of Hightower’s longevity in the sport, the fact he continues to work about as many games as anyone else, and his rather theatrical way of calling a game.
But this is a fellow who has worked 11 Final Fours, and they don’t give those assignments to just anyone who owns a black-and-white striped shirt.
I like Hightower. He brings his own energy to a game, and he is quick with a smile (more officials should understand an occasional smile can be a powerful asset).
But he calls a lot of fouls and always has. Statistics show games involving Hightower’s crews mean more personal fouls than most other games. Fans and teams, I believe, would prefer a few less fouls in their basketball diets.
The site http://statsheet.com/mcb/conferences/big-ten/referees tells us that, through Sunday, Hightower and Ted Hillary were tied for the most Big Ten conference games worked at 19.
But 724 fouls were called in Hightower’s 19 games compared to 611 in Hillary’s.
Hightower has worked 64 games this season, in 22 different states. Those of us in the Iowa media will see him working a 3 p.m. game in Iowa City and joke he has a 7 p.m. game that same day in Texas or someplace.
From last Monday to yesterday, Sunday Feb. 22, Hightower worked games at Connecticut, Purdue, Louisville, Michigan, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis.
There are airline pilots and truck drivers who would read that and shake their heads in amazement.
But Tom O’Neill, another Big Ten ref, has officiated 82 games this season, through Sunday. Other Big Ten officials, J.D. Collins and Rick Hartzell, have done 76 and 73, respectively.
However, no regular Big Ten official one has quite the number of foul-calls in their games that Hightower has. Since the 1996-97 season, his games have averaged 39 fouls. Maybe he has a keener eye than most and sees fouls others miss. Maybe he simply feels rules are to be enforced as strictly as possible.
Sunday, Hightower reffed the Northwestern-Minnesota game. Forty-two fouls were called.
It drives some a little crazy.
Still, only 12 technical fouls have been called in Hightower’s 64 games, while 29 were whistled in O’Neill’s 82 games. That would make me more suspicious of O’Neill’s work, not Hightower’s.
Not that there’s any cause to be suspicious of any of these gents. Many jobs are a whole lot harder than they look, and officiating high-level basketbal is certainly among them.
I figure if the NCAA thought highly enough of Hightower to have him work 11 Final Fours, he’s plenty good enough for the Big Ten.