In the late 1980s, Pat Driscoll’s workspace as a basketball official came on the dusty, pride-filled intramural courts at St. Bonaventure University.
Driscoll was an undergrad at that point, already a certified referee and also one of the student-managers for the men’s basketball team, and, even then, he took the job very seriously.
In 1987, for instance, he had no choice but to T up his friend and classmate Mike Vaccaro. The two had become close through the Bonnies - Pat was the manager while Mike covered the team for the student newspaper (The Bona Venture) - but Vaccaro, who was playing for Fourth East at the time, had overstepped his bounds.
“I GUESS I thought he’d cut me a little slack because of our friendship,” Vaccaro recalled, “and I was 100 percent wrong.
“After he teed me up I said, ‘Pat, what the … um, heck?’ And he said, ‘you earned it, pal.’”
Some 28 years after that light-hearted incident, Driscoll’s career as a referee brought him to a different, slightly bigger, platform: Monday’s national championship game between Duke and Wisconsin.
Driscoll, a Syracuse native and 1989 Bona graduate, began officiating for the NCAA in 1996. He’s officiated every year since then, working as an independent contractor with three major conferences - the Big East, the Big 10 and the Atlantic Coast Conference - doing as many as 70-plus out-of-town games each season.
He’d done big games before - last year’s Elite 8 game between Florida and Dayton, for example - but this year, he was called to do the biggest, the title game in Indianapolis, and it was an experience he won’t soon forget.
“EXCITING, thrilling to be part of the Final Four,” he said, “which, you know, I have thought of for a very long time given the fact I’m a huge basketball fan, and have been for a very long time. It’s really a magical moment. I was truly proud to be part of the weekend.”
How was Driscoll chosen to work a game of this magnitude?
He first went through a nomination process by his leagues’ supervisors to be selected for the NCAA Tournament. The 96 officials that are chosen are then evaluated throughout the course of the tournament; 40 are picked to work the regionals and then, of those, 10 are selected to do the Final Four.
“I WAS TRULY humbled by the opportunity and certainly grateful that I got the call to go back to the Final Four,” said Driscoll, who also did a 2009 national semifinal between North Carolina and Villanova in Detroit.
As somebody who has officiated nearly 1,000 games and visited (many hostile) arenas in 35 states, Driscoll has gotten used to the flak that fans and coaches give referees throughout the course of a game. These days, especially in collegiate basketball, reactions to almost every call, or no-call, have become second nature.
“That comes with the territory,” he said. “Basketball, like any sport, is a competition - somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose. Coaches, players and fans are doing their best to win the game, and of course they’re going to react. It’s just part of it.
“What I can tell you as an official is: if you’re giving both teams an opportunity to win the game and you’re being consistent on both ends, then you’re doing your job.”
Though Monday was his first national championship game, “I always thought that the off-campus and fourth Devereux games (at Bona) were of that magnitude,” he joked. And Bona has been with him throughout his officiating career.
Back in those intramural games in the 80s, Driscoll and Vaccaro would joke all the time that they’d figure out a way to get to the Final Four. And then in 2009, they happened to bump into each other there; again, Driscoll to officiate and Vaccaro to cover it, this time for the New York Post.
“OUTSIDE OF the basketball side of things, when I got selected to the Final Four or even games throughout the year, I would hear from fellow Bona alums from time-to-time. They’d say, ‘hey, way to go, congratulations’ or ‘we haven’t been in touch in a while, but I wanted to let you know, I remember you calling a T on me in the intramural games.’
“That was very rewarding for me to hear because, as you know, the Bona network is a very close-knit network, and they are very supportive of each other as classmates.”
The former student-manager to both Jim O’Brien and Ron DeCarli, who calls all those games while holding down a day job in Syracuse as the local director of the ‘Say Yes to Education’ program, understands that his crew was placed under some scrutiny after Monday night’s game. The one truly talked-about call, which wasn’t Driscoll’s, was whether the ball went off a Duke or Wisconsin player late in a close game.
Driscoll, though, is happy with how he and his crew fared Monday night.
“I am,” he said. “Could you look at a call here or there? Probably. But I think that’s natural. Overall, I was very pleased with our efforts, and it was just a really terrific memory for me to have.”
(J.P. Butler, a Times Herald sportswriter, can be reached at email@example.com).