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Love or hate his calls, this Tri-Citian was one of college basketball’s best

After three decades of refereeing this Richland NCAA basketball official is retiring

Richland's Dick Cartmell a NCAA basketball official retires after three decades. Cartmell talks to the Herald.
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Richland's Dick Cartmell a NCAA basketball official retires after three decades. Cartmell talks to the Herald.

A longtime college basketball referee from Richland has spent 35 years earning his stripes.

Now Dick Cartmell is finally stepping away after officiating the most high-profile games in the sport.

“It’s time. I’ve had enough fun. I’ve had enough travel,” said Cartmell, now 64. “I’ll miss the games. I’ll miss the friends I have made .... And I’ll miss the money. It’s the best part-time job in America.”

The 1973 Richland High grad has decided to call it a career after presiding over the highest levels of college basketball competition -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I.

It’s safe to say Cartmell has been one of the best basketball officials in the country.

His numbers are impressive:

  • 24 NCAA tournaments
  • 5 Final Four appearances
  • 3 NCAA championship games

Cartmell has worked more than 1,500 NCAA basketball games. And in September 2016, he won the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s 2016 Naismith Men’s College Official of the Year award.

It’s been an interesting path from his days as a Richland teenager, when he first fell in love with refereeing basketball games as a ninth-grader, doing lower-level games at Christ the King school.

Dick Cartmell retired after 35 years refereeing for Division 1 basketball. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Cartmell also was an athlete, playing varsity basketball at Richland High – including as a member of the 1972 state championship team his junior year – playing for Frank Teverbaugh.

“I still believe he was the best high school basketball coach in the state of Washington, ever,” said Cartmell.

After graduating from Richland in 1973, Cartmell went to school at Spokane Community College and then Central Washington University, where he officiated intramural basketball games.

“And when I came home for the summer I reffed the Richland Summer League games,” he said.

He looked up to the older Richland officials – guys like Orv Marcum, Bob Cassidy, Big Al Robinson.

“I thought ‘That looks like fun.’ I knew I was either gonna ref or coach basketball when I got out of school,” Cartmell said.

Gardner Webb guard Tyler Strange (2) talks to NCAA official Dick Cartmell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arizona, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) Rick Scuteri AP

He returned to the Tri-Cities after college and got a job at Hanford, working first for Boeing Computers and then Lockheed Martin over a 30-year career.

And he joined the officials association in the Tri-Cities.

“The Tri-Cities association was the best among the state associations back then,” he said.

Cartmell started working high school games – did them for five or six years – immediately.

“Not long after that, I started doing junior college games, and after a couple of years, small colleges,” he said.

But in 1984, he got the call to work his first NCAA Division I game, in the Big Sky Conference.

He never looked back.

His reputation as a fair official who kept the game under control grew, and he moved up to bigger conferences where the money was better.

Over the years, he’s been closely associated with the Pac-12 Conference.

“But I’ve worked all conferences out West,” he said.

As an independent contractor, Cartmell worked games where the best money was.

“It’s a time-consuming job for four or five months in the winter,” said Cartmell. “In my heyday, I was working 35 to 40 games a year. But after I retired (from his full-time job at Hanford) a few years ago, I pumped it up to 60-65 games a year. I did 45 last year. But I do know guys who do 80 games a year.”

Cartmell estimates he runs, jogs and walks 5 miles of steps in every game he officiates.

With that comes ankle, knee and leg problems.

The athletes have gotten better, and the coaches have gotten creative with their strategies, so that means officials have to keep up with them through staying in shape and studying film from games.

“The game evolves. Athleticism of the kids is different. Today the kids are bigger, quicker, stronger and faster,” said Cartmell. “Teams get into you defensively so much more. The game has gotten too rough. There has been too much wrestling in the mid-majors.

“The last 10 years, post play has been an emphasis,” Cartmell said. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, post players didn’t touch each other. You had a lot of guys making plays.”

That’s not the case today. And it becomes a fine line.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, right, argues with official Dick Cartmell in the first half against North Carolina State Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004, in Seattle. Washington upset the Wolfpack, 68-64. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) ELAINE THOMPSON AP

“You have to let them play without them beating the hell out of each other,” he said.

Last spring the physical and, perhaps more importantly, the mental grind started bothering Cartmell.

“The stress and travel of going through the season is tough,” he admitted. “And you’re so scrutinized now. Every play is scrutinized. Every game is on TV. So you’re dealing with all of that.”

With the opportunities of being second-guessed – whether by TV analysts, coaches, players, or official evaluators – it’s one long, big stress test.

“Some guys don’t really care about how they’re graded,” Cartmell said. “Still, if you care about being the best you can be, it just wears you out. I wanted to be perfect every game. Having to prove it every night. And I owed it to the game (to be perfect) every night.”

But no one is perfect.

Cartmell decided last spring it was time to stop and enjoy other things.

Teverbaugh story.jpg
A Richland reunion in November 2016, saw Dick Cartmell, left, officiate a game between Leon Rice’s (second from left) Boise State team and Northwest Christian, where Rice’s son Brock played. Second from the right is former Richland basketball coach Frank Teverbaugh. Courtesy of Leon Rice

“I’ll have more time with my wife, my kids and my grandkids,” he said. “My wife and I can travel more.”

A scratch golfer, Cartmell can hit the golf courses more.

He hadn’t planned on working any games this fall/winter, but national coordinator Hank Nichols, whom Cartmell considers a dear friend, called him.

Nichols often assigned Cartmell over the years to top assignments, including working tournaments in Maui over Thanksgiving seven or eight times, where Cartmell could take his family.

“This time he asked me to work a new tournament in Ft. Myers, Fla., around Thanksgiving,” said Cartmell. “I did it for him. He’s the best. But I told him I’m retiring. I grabbed five of my buddies, played golf for three days, and reffed the tournament.”

Nichols got him to work one more game – last Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic, featuring Ohio State and UCLA, in Chicago.

And then Cartmell hung up his whistle, working just the three games this season.

Last Saturday, ESPN’s Jay Bilas sent out a Tweet to praise him.

NCAA official Dick Cartmell referees his last game at the Ohio State-UCLA basketball game. Courtesy Dick Cartmell

“Ohio State-UCLA is the last game of veteran official Dick Cartmell after almost three decades of dedicated service to this game,” Tweeted Bilas, the top college basketball analyst for ESPN. “Thank you Dick Cartmell, and congrats on a distinguished career!”

Into retirement, he’ll take with him some fond memories.

“Working the high-level regionals and finals were great,” he said. “I reffed 30 conference championship games, in the Pac-12, Big West and WCC (West Coast Conference). And of course the five Final Fours.”

But he’ll also miss the atmosphere, the coaches, players and fans.

“The excitement. The enthusiasm. Everybody cared. Everyone was into it,” Cartmell said. “You’re usually around successful people that cared. In college football and basketball there is so much more enthusiasm than the pro game.

“I am satisfied (with retiring). But I’ll miss this game.”

Jeff Morrow is the former sports editor for the Tri-City Herald.