Fred Barakat died last night. He had a heart attack at a hospital in Greensboro where he had just undergone knee surgery. He was 71 and had dealt with all sorts of health issues for the past several years.
Unless you are a big-time ACC basketball fan you probably have no idea who Fred was. But he played an important role in changing the college game. He came to the ACC in 1981 as the supervisor of basketball officials after 11 years as the coach at Fairfield University. His hiring was an out-of-the-box move by the ACC. Until then, almost without exception, the men in charge of basketball officials had been former officials. They had a tendency to be very defensive about the guys who worked for them, often because they were former colleagues and friends.
There was an aura of secrecy that surrounded college basketball officials. When I was in college, I did a story on officiating in the ACC—a controversial subject then as now—and I was able to talk to all seven conference coaches. (To be fair, I got Dean Smith to call me back by saying I wanted to give him the chance to respond to what Lefty Driesell had said and I got Lefty to return my call by saying I thought he should hear what Dean had said about him. When Lefty asked me what Dean had said, I fessed up and said I’d just told his secretary that to get him to call. Lefty said, “that’s pretty good son, you got me.”).
I couldn’t get anyone from the ACC to comment on officiating. No one. That was the norm until Fred arrived. From day one, he took every call he got—from coaches, from the media, from just about anyone. “I let them talk,” Fred once told me, talking about the coaches. “I knew how they felt because I’d been a coach. Sometimes when they were done I told them why they were wrong. Other times I had to tell them they were right and we’d try to do better. But I think they always felt better because I let them talk.”
According to the coaches he was right. “You always knew Fred would listen,” said Gary Williams, who has complained about ACC officiating as much as anyone through the years. “Sometimes you’d get pissed at him because he’d defend someone you thought shouldn’t be defended but he never cut you off, he never got impatient and you knew he wanted his guys to do better the next time. That’s really all you can ask.”
When Rick Barnes was at Clemson he got so frustrated with what he saw as Duke-Carolina bias in the officiating that he flew to Greensboro armed with tapes to show Barakat what he was talking about. Barakat sat and watched all the tapes with him, then showed him some tapes of his own. “I still wasn’t happy when we were done,” Barnes said. “But I left there knowing that Fred was conscious of what I was talking about. He gave me an entire morning and never flinched.”
“I let him vent,” Fred said later.
Fred was the same way with the media. He always returned phone calls. Sometimes he called YOU if he thought what you’d written was unfair or not entirely correct. He defended his guys but he also knew they weren’t perfect. He was disliked by a number of officials because he stopped giving them ACC assignments. Officiating was very much a good old boy network into the 1980s. Fred began working with younger officials, bringing them along so they could work bigger games. Occasionally they were put in over their heads and couldn’t swim. Others did swim and became very good refs.
Fred and I had our battles but it was more over the way he ran the ACC Tournament than his work with the officials. Fred thought the tournament needed more discipline. He hired a thuggish security company run by a thug and pretty much gave them the run of whatever building the tournament was in. Sadly, that company is still working for the ACC. Two years ago in Atlanta, the guy who runs the company decided the hallway that led to the locker rooms and the interview rooms should be off-limits to the media—it’s about 100 yards wide—until the players and coaches had reached the interview room after a game. That created a five-to-seven minute delay in starting postgame interviews with people scrambling on deadline. When I asked him why he needed such a rule in such a large building he said, “I don’t, I just decided to do it.”
When I told him that was a ridiculous and arbitrary decision he looked at me and said, “What does arbitrary mean?” He was serious.
That disagreement aside, I always liked Fred. He and I had an annual routine at The Final Four (now it can be told I guess) where he would tell me on Friday who the nine referees were for the weekend. The NCAA always tries to keep the names of the refs a secret (I think it has something to do with the way the games are bet on depending on who might be calling them) and it always gave me great pleasure to tell Hank Nichols, who was then the officiating supervisor, who his nine officials were for the weekend. Fred didn’t think Nichols ever selected enough of his guys. This was one little payback for him.
It also helped me to know who the officials were when writing my advance stories: certain guys were going to ref the game one way; others in a different way.
Fred was a gentleman—always. You could disagree with him, argue with him, even tell him his security company buddy was a thug and he’d tell you why you were wrong and when it was over you’d always shake hands and vow to have a drink together soon. Coaches respected him because he’d coached and he understood their frustrations. The media respected him because he never ducked a question and those he worked with him respected him because he worked hard and was fun to work with and work for. My old friend Tom Mickle nicknamed him, The ‘Cat,’ early on and it stuck because Fred was quick and smart and sly.
I always looked forward to seeing him, especially in recent years. He had retired but still had his hand in and knew what was going on in college hoops. He was a good resource to get an expert’s honest opinion on officials, especially those he had NOT worked with because he was completely unbiased. And he always had a good story to tell, one he would tell with a big smile on his face.
I’ll miss him. So will a lot of people.
Two notes to some recent posters: For those of you who are bothered by my criticisms of Tiger Woods—seriously—just don’t read the blog anymore. There are enough people out there willing to kiss Tiger’s butt for anything and everything that he doesn’t need me to do it and you don’t need to get all bent out of shape reading what I think about him. As one poster said: “Tom Watson good, Tiger bad, what a surprise.”
Yup, that’s the way I feel. I don’t think Tiger’s changed even a little bit since his fall from grace—one reason he will start winning majors again soon—and I do like and respect Watson. Has he lived a perfect life as one angry e-mail pointed out? No. Neither have I and I suspect neither have you. But he’s learned as much as anyone I’ve ever met from his failings and changed considerably through the years.
Am I biased? Of course I’m biased. As I’ve written before, we’re ALL biased. I’m just more willing than some of my colleagues to admit my biases and try to be aware of them. I’ve always recognized Tiger’s brilliance as a golfer (tough to miss) and thought of him as bright and someone with great potential to do good. His failure to do that—and please don’t tell me about his foundation, that exists for PR purposes as with so many athletes—with his money, power and platform disappoints me. Sorry if you don’t like that. Again, there are plenty of places to go to read about what a great guy Tiger is.
And, as for the one comment that when I wrote “a lot of guys,” thought Tiger was acting like a baby last Thursday that I got that from other media members or The Golf Channel people? Are you kidding me? Do you watch Golf Channel? My God, Tiger walks on water there most of the time to the point where I tease people there about it. And I do NOT quote other media members. I should have written “a lot of players.” I thought that would be understood. But believe me it was players who thought he was being a baby.
So, as I said, if my being critical of Tiger is that bothersome, go on his website and find comfort there.
Second: To the poster who wondered how much I got paid for the rights to ‘A Season on the Brink.’ Let me answer that this way: If giving back the money would have kept the movie from ever being seen, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show (www.jimrome.com) to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases