If today’s college basketball players only knew how Clarence Armstrong treated referees back when he was on the court at Drexel University, there might well be a revolt every time he called a foul. There may be bigger cases of irony out there than the story of how Armstrong went from champion referee-baiter to becoming an official, but there aren’t many. “I was horrible toward referees,” Armstrong says. Armstrong piled up the technical fouls and engendered plenty of enmity from the fellows in stripes when he was a point guard for the Dragons. He was one of those guys who thought he never committed a foul. And if he drove into the lane, and there was even a hint of contact, he would plead for a call.
These days, he travels the country trying to maintain order as a new generation of Clarence Armstrong types disagrees with his judgment. Armstrong recognizes the paradox and doesn’t try to rationalize his transition from truant to officer. We all mature, and on the court, Armstrong has become a reasonable person, capable of maintaining order and relating to those who feel aggrieved by his decisions. “I got more technical fouls when I played than most players, Armstrong says. “I was on the radar as a problem guy. The notion that I am now a referee is funny to most who remember me when I played. But that helps with my approach to problem guys today.” Armstrong has averaged between 50 and 75 games a season over the past three seasons and travels across the country working for a variety of leagues. He will often ref three or four games a week and has done as many as five during a seven-day stretch. All the while, he works full time as an IT consultant for a financial services company and lives in New Castle. One cold December morning, he flew back to the area from Chicago after officiating a game at Notre Dame and was set to head north to Syracuse a couple of days later for a game in the cavernous Carrier Dome. For someone whose games were played in front of relatively small crowds at Drexel and its (now defunct) North Atlantic Conference rivals, being part of a game with 25,000 people watching is a great experience. “Basketball has taken me so many places,” Armstrong says. “It got me a free [college] education. I have played, coached and now I am a ref. Every day, I walk into arenas that I didn’t get to play in [at Drexel], and I thank God I have gotten the chance.”
Armstrong grew up in Chichester, Pa., not far from the Delaware border, and was a standout player for the Chichester High School Eagles. Though not especially tall at 5-11, he scored more than 1,000 career points in high school and was recruited heavily by then-Drexel coach Eddie Burke. Armstrong scored 909 points during his four years with the Dragons and finished ranked fourth all-time in assists. He graduated in 1993 with a degree in information systems. His participation in Drexel’s co-op program helped him get a job with Mobil Oil in Virginia right out of college, handling desktop support and network administration. Armstrong may have moved on to the business world, but he didn’t want to abandon basketball. He played for a season with the Delaware Blue Bombers, a professional team that staged its home games at Newark High School, and played in the now defunct Atlantic Basketball Association. Armstrong knew there wasn’t much future in that, so he turned to coaching with the Youth Interlock team, a Philadelphia-area Amateur Athletic Union powerhouse that featured Jameer Nelson, who would go on to star at Saint Joseph’s and is in his 11th NBA season. Armstrong spent two years with the team and enjoyed the experience. “It gave me a chance to help a bunch of kids,” he says. “I was able to help them get into college. I enjoyed coaching.” When Armstrong’s first son, Tre, was born in 1999, he stopped coaching, but he wasn’t away from basketball for long. A fraternity brother (Armstrong is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha) assigned officials for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) league, a men’s confederation that featured former stars and some not-so stars. He wanted to know if Armstrong wanted to don the striped shirt and ref some games. Armstrong agreed to officiate the SEPTA games, but things didn’t go well. The players didn’t exactly respect authority, and Armstrong found himself in plenty of arguments, not to mention some challenges for hundred-dollar, one-on-one showdowns after games. “Fortunately, it never got that far,” he says. “But I took it personally.”
Armstrong found that he enjoyed being a referee, even if the SEPTA experience was unsavory. He applied to ref grade-school games for Pennsylvania public schools. “I found that refereeing kids wasn’t as intense as what I had been doing,” he says. “I started to catch the fever.” Armstrong moved on to middle-school games and then to the high school ranks. Two college refs, Bob Donato and Joe DeMaio, assigned him to prep games but couldn’t believe that the guy who had given them so much trouble when he played wanted to be an official. They told him that if he continued to improve, he could graduate to college refereeing. By 2004, Armstrong was working Division II and III collegiate games. Then came the big question. “Mr. Donato asked if I was interested in doing Division I basketball,” Armstrong says. Of course, he was. And in the 2007-08 season, Armstrong began reffing games in the Ivy and Patriot leagues and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. It wasn’t quite Duke or Kentucky, but Armstrong had made it to the top level of officiating. The next year, he was invited to a tryout camp for the Big East and Atlantic 10 conferences, quite a step up. Armstrong passed the audition and has been on an upward arc ever since. He now works for 10 different leagues, including the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences. “As Clarence broke into the Big East, I met him and had the opportunity to officiate with him,” says John Cahill, who officiated for 35 years and is now the coordinator of officials for the Big East. “He did not have a great deal of experience, but he had a great feel for the game and a keen interest in learning more about officiating. “The two biggest attributes he has are a willingness to get better and a desire to put in the time to do so.”
Clarence Armstrong knows the rules, and he is a strong technical referee. That means he gets the calls right—most of the time. As Cahill says, there is no perfectly officiated game, but Armstrong does a good job with the interpretation of the rules and making his decisions quickly and accurately. But that’s only part of the game. The best referees are able to create an environment where coaches and players can question them but where things remain under control. “I want to allow coaches to coach and express their emotions, but I want to defuse as many negative situations as possible,” Armstrong says. “I want to recognize certain situations, have a quick conversation with a coach, tell him what I saw, and then move on.” Armstrong’s next move—at least, he hopes—is to get a spot in the NCAA tournament. Just as the best teams in the country reach the Round of 68, so, too, do the top officials gain spots in the biggest college games of the year. Being chosen for that opportunity means a referee has demonstrated competence and the growth necessary to handle work on a stage that attracts tremendous attention and scrutiny. NCAA tournament games are analyzed from every angle, and TV commentators pick apart every call. The difference? Armstrong and his referee brethren have a second to make their decisions. The television folks have several minutes and multiple camera angles to second-guess. “Clarence has set the goal of getting to the NCAA tournament, and his schedule has improved this year, something that shows he deserves the chance to prove he can do it at this level,” Cahill says. So, while basketball fans wait to find out which teams will be taking part in March Madness, Armstrong will be sitting by a computer, waiting for an email telling him he will be part of the fun, too. Quite a journey for the kid who used to drive referees crazy. Now, he has the last word. Or, at least, the last whistle.