by Jim Riggs
February 18, 2005
Cooley Hangs Up Whistle After 43 Years
On February 8, Cooley worked his last Section 6 assignment, the Cassadaga Valley at Chautauqua Lake girls’ game, and on February 11 he officiated his last game, a boys’ varsity contest at Bethel Christian Academy.
“I hate to give it up, but family situations,” said Cooley, who will turn 70 in April. “I think it’s time to move on and life is too short not to think about the grandkids and the kids.”
He has three daughters who live in the South and he hopes to spend more time with them. And his wife, Martha, who still attended all the games he worked, will be happy about that.
“She’s put up with this for all those years, so that’s kind of a big reason,” Cooley said.
When he started officiating in 1961-62 season, Cooley didn’t think he’d still be blowing the whistle 43 years later.
“It was another way of being active in the winter,” Cooley said. “I was coaching spring sports.”
He began a 33-year career of teaching English, journalism and photography at Cassadaga Valley Central School in 1960. In 1962 he began a 12-year stint as the junior varsity baseball coach and then coached the varsity in 1975 and 1976. From 1984 through 1993 he coached girls’ softball and his 1991 team lost in the state semifinals.
But to fill his winter lull, Cooley turned to officiating basketball.
“I just wanted to be involved in sports,” the Gerry resident said. “It’s a very competitive thing, you’re under a lot of scrutiny, everybody is watching you and evaluating you on every call. I’ve always been a competitor, even though I wasn’t a good athlete, and this was a way of competing, I guess.”
Officiating supplemented his income, but not much.
“Money was never an issue at that time,” he said. “I think at the time they were paying $7.50 for a jayvee game and $12 for a varsity game and there was no travel (expenses) involved.”
He added, “I can remember going to work a college freshman game at Niagara University and because of a snowstorm it took me eight hours round trip and I got paid $25 and no travel (expenses).”
Cooley almost missed his first-ever high school assignment, a junior varsity game at Clymer.
“It was on a foggy night and I’d never been to Clymer,” Cooley said. “There was rain and fog and we drove straight past Clymer Central and never saw it and the next thing I know I see down the road a sign that says ‘Corry 6 Miles.’ I figured we’d gone too far.”
When asked if there was ever an earlier time when he thought about calling it quits, Cooley said, “One year I did. I had a situation where toward the end of the season at a boys’ varsity game, the coach threatened me physically. He told me I better not step outside the gym and that sort of thing. It was a wild confrontation and my wife was there and it just wasn’t pretty.
“Other than that, I’ve enjoyed it.”
Confrontations such as that were the only drawback to officiating.
“I guess the big thing that’s bothered me over the years is that the coaches and fans approach the officials as adversaries and that’s not the case,” Cooley said. “We’re in this all together for the kids and we work just as hard as we can to do a good job. Nobody feels any worse when they come home and know they’ve had a bad ballgame and made a bad call than the umpire or the referee who made it. It’s tougher on them than it is to the kids or the parents.”
And that’s why there is such a shortage of basketball officials.
“In all the time I’ve been in, 43 years, there’s been hundreds of officials that have come in and a lot of them will last a year or two years,” Cooley said. “We had one of our top officials announce at the banquet that, ‘I’m done, I just don’t want to take the abuse from the fans.’ He was a former college basketball player and a good athlete and a good official, working his way up. He just quit. He just said he didn’t want it anymore.”
Cooley took it for nearly a half a century and saw a lot of changes in basketball.
“The 3-point shot has been a big thing and the shot clock speeded the game up,” he said. “But I think the biggest change has not been a rule change, but it’s been a philosophy change with the coaches that everybody presses from start to finish now. When I started you’d see a press in the last two minutes of the game if you were behind. But now everybody does. And that puts a lot more pressure on the officials.
Also adding pressure schedule-wise was when girls’ high school basketball arrived in the mid-1970s.
“Girls’ basketball just doubled it,” Cooley said. “It’s not uncommon for somebody to work four, maybe five or six games a week now.”
He added, “Some nights we’re short of officials so guys would work a junior high doubleheader and go do a varsity game or the jayvee game and the varsity combined.”
And Cooley would know because this season he took on the added responsibility as the girls’ basketball assigner whose job is to make about 650 assignments for 17 schools among 50 officials. He noted that in December alone he made more than 350 phone calls.
Cooley retires as the second-oldest and second-longest active official. Roger MacTavish is only a year older than Cooley and he has officiated for seven more years.
“Two years ago we were probably the oldest pair to work a play-off game,” Cooley recalled. “I had 41 (years) at that time and I think he had 48 and we worked the Fredonia-Southwestern girls game at Lockport and Dick Prince walked up before the game and he said, ‘Do we call the emergency crew now or later?’”
Seriously, Cooley was only sidelined once when he tore a calf muscle during a playoff game and was in a cast for 6 weeks. Other than that, he’s never missed a game and noted, “My weight’s about the same as the time I was in college.”
So now Cooley can sit back and relax, right? Well, maybe soon.
On Tuesday there was a problem and an official was needed to work a middle school doubleheader. So who went? Cooley, of course. And his wife watched both games from the stands.