Verne Harris has an NCAA college basketball resume that rivals Mike Krzyzewski or Bob Knight.
Six National Championship games, nine Final Fours, and too many conference championship games to count.
“The first time I went to the Final Four, that was pretty cool, that was unbelievable,” said Harris. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous at first.”
But Harris hasn’t been on college basketball’s biggest stage as a coach or player. Instead, he’s been right in the middle of the action as an NCAA basketball referee.
“You can tell when the players get more excited, where there is a big crowd, or a big game, or a rivalry game or anything like that, there just always seems to be a little bit more energy in the crowd,” said Harris. “We kind of feed into that as well, but we’re still going to do our job.”
It is a job that Harris admits does not come with much praise or fanfare.
“We are never popular,” Harris said with a laugh. “You’re out there (officiating) and people are just sitting there yelling at you. Why would anybody want to do something like that? So, I get it. But I’m just so used to it. It doesn’t bother me.”
Harris, 59, is a Denver native and longtime parishioner at Cure d’Ars Catholic Church in Denver, where he went to elementary school as a child. He played a lot of sports growing up, and after graduating from George Washington High School in Denver, followed his older brother to Arizona State University for the weather and the university’s real estate program. It was during his time at ASU that a friend first invited him to ref some intramural basketball games.
“I said no, and he said, man they pay $5 a game and the games can’t last longer than an hour,” Harris recalled. “I’ve always been involved in athletics and sports, so it was a way to keep me there and something to do and get a little money on the side.”
After college, Harris moved back to Denver to begin his real estate career, and he also started officiating high school games. From there, he moved his way up to the NCAA Division II level and then Division I by the time he was 26.
For the most recent NCAA Tournament, Harris was on the court for Indiana vs. St. Mary’s in the first round, Gonzaga vs. Memphis in the second round, and St. Peter’s vs. North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Harris said he has loved his officiating career, even if there isn’t always a lot of love for the refs.
“One time a coach was saying, ‘you know, you missed the call down there,’ and I said, ‘well shoot, (the other coach) just told me I missed the one down at the other end. If nothing else at least I am consistent.’”
Harris’ Catholic morals and values provide a foundation for dealing with the constant criticism and negativity that is a part of officiating. Most importantly, according to Harris, is a lesson he learned from his father.
“Always treat people the way you want to be treated,” Harris said. “And I just think that if everybody did that, I don’t think there would be any other problems. I really don’t.”
Harris says when things get heated on the court, he tries to lower the temperature, and will encourage the coaches and players to just have a conversation with him. And if Harris makes a mistake and misses a call, he says it is important to not make excuses.
“As officials, we just have to admit when we’re wrong as well, you know, we’re not always right,” said Harris.
But most of the time, Harris says he can be confident he was in the right position to make the right call, and so it just doesn’t get to him that players, coaches and fans aren’t always happy with the result.
“I don’t want this to sound the wrong way, but you have a way of knowing that those people don’t know what they are talking about, so it doesn’t bother me,” Harris said.
Harris just finished his 34th season as an NCAA Division 1 referee and while he has no current plans to hang up his whistle, he is extremely grateful for everything his officiating career has given him, including traveling to nearly every state and even overseas.
“I’ve been able to go places and see things through officiating that I never would have been able to do otherwise,” Harris said. “Officiating made me a better person. I’m a more thoughtful person, I really think about what’s fair for everybody.”