Wheeling-native Chiazza rising in the ranks of NCAA’s Division 1 referees

Given the social climate, it’s not a stretch to wonder if guys are batty for wanting to be a referee.

At any level.

Wheeling native Tony Chiazza, who has ascended the refereeing ranks to the NCAA Division I elite, has taken that theory to a whole new dimension.

What started out as a side gig at the local YMCA, has turned into a job for the local rising official.

In a time when an official’s every move is watched and scrutinized, ad nauseum, it isn’t a career choice for just anyone.

Scrutiny or not, Chiazza loves it.

“Our boss used to make us referee the kids games,” Chiazza said of the local YMCA, which he frequented and began working at as a high school student. “I guess they liked what I was doing because he said I should take the officiating class and get certified.”

While a student at Marshall, he started officiating junior high and junior varsity games, and he attended a West Virginia Conference (now the Mountain East Conference) officials camp which was held in Huntington.

That is where he met Mike Eades.

Eades, a Princeton native, was already climbing the ladder to officiating success, calling games in many of the high Division I conferences, most notably, the Atlantic Coast Conference, his primary conference.

Eades had started in virtually the same way as Chiazza, at the Princeton Rec Center, and had risen up through the ranks, from some high school, to the West Virginia Conference to Division I. In 2013 he was the alternate referee at the NCAA Final Four, which pretty much put him among the Top 10 officials in the country.

“I was just there to learn and Mike had heard some things about me and he reached out to me,” Chiazza said. “He gave me his e-mail and his number. We just kind of hit it off. The (West Virginia Conference) ended up hiring me. Mike really helped me get my foot in the door. He definitely is my mentor. I try to model myself after him. He is a great referee but he’s a better person. He told me the only thing he wanted was when I had a chance, help someone out down the road. I’ve tried to remember that. I really can’t say enough about him.”

Eades, now the Mountain East Director of Officials occasionally calls on his old buddy to call conference games and Chiazza, who does not do local MEC schools West Liberty and Wheeling Jesuit, is glad to help.

These days, though, Chiazza is usually busy doing Big East, American Conference (which includes national champion UConn), Big South and Horizon games.

It is, as you would expect, a grind.

“I never really thought it would turn into what it is,” Chiazza said.

The 34-year-old Chiazza, whose main job is selling sporting goods, said his bosses have been more than understanding with his time on the road. He often does business when he is on the road in hotel rooms before games. His computer is a godsend.

“Coming home once or twice a week is tough, and honestly, being a single guy, I don’t know how guys like Mike, guys who have a family, do it,” Chiazza said. “I do know this. I love it. Obviously, the financial reward is good, but there is more to it than that. There is a camaraderie among the guys. We go out and talk officiating. No matter where I go, I know people. I want to do this as long as I can stay healthy and enjoy doing it. It’s a fun job.”

He has ascended to the position he had once set as a goal, calling games in his primary conference, the Big East. Along the way, he even did a couple games at WVU, one an exhibition game, another a game against Radford.

He has called a Division III national championship game, worked the NIT and even done games in the NBA’s Developmental League.

Of course, there is the disdain of fans.

“You hear what people say sometimes, and sometimes they get off a pretty good one-liner, but most of the time, you don’t hear it,” Chiazza said. “You’re too busy being in the game. There’s too much going on during the course of a game. We strive to make every call the right call. We realize that we are human and we make mistakes. With technology what it is, we are scrutinized more and more. If we can review a call, and we have to change it, you have to be man enough to say you made a mistake. It has happened.”

There is endless scrutiny, via ESPN and other of the endless sports channels.

The coaches are a different animal as well. Young officials must earn the trust of a coach.

Those are small drawbacks in a tough profession.

He has had many career highlights.

His favorite venue, he said, is Madison Square Garden. It’s not really close.

He said getting to work with Eades, his mentor, and Moundsville native Teddy Valentine, a highly decorated and respected locally-based NCAA official, are also career highs.

As far as being batty, well, that literally happened.

“I was doing a Marquette-Providence game,” Chiazza said. “Here we are, trying to get calls right and there is a bat in the arena. All of a sudden, it swoops down. And it is right about head length. Well, it goes back up, play continues, then all of a sudden the crowd is cheering, at a point where there was nothing going on to cheering. The bat was swooping down again. We had to stop play five, six times. People are throwing towels at it. It’s swooping around our heads. Finally, we stop play and one of the maintenance guys said he was going to power down the lights, so it would go back up in the rafters, and back to the vent where it apparently entered the building. The guy powers down the lights and eventually, the bat left.”

All in a days work.

“You never know what you are going to see,” Chiazza said.

Yep, sometimes you have to be batty to want be an official.