People who knew Gene Steratore as an NFL referee often are surprised to learn that he spent 22 years as a Division I college basketball official.
But some of those people are about to find that out indirectly. After joining CBS last season as an NFL rules analyst, Steratore will perform the same role for the network for the NCAA Tournament starting next week.
He will work in a studio in New York for the early rounds, then join the game announcers on-site for the Final Four in Minneapolis – the site of his final game as an NFL official, Super Bowl LII last year.
NFL rules certainly are more complex than college basketball’s, but Steratore said that does not mean the sport is easier to officiate – or to analyze its officials.
In part, that is because basketball reviews more often involve judgment calls than football rules do.
“So in that sense, from my position it’s a little more challenging,” Steratore said Tuesday at a breakfast in Manhattan to promote CBS/Turner’s NCAA coverage. “When you start talking about a flagrant 1, was there enough severity? Was there enough restriction? These are judgment situations.
“I’m hoping that my value in this will be in those 2 ½ or three minutes [of review]. In basketball rarely do we go to commercial when the officials are reviewing, and we are scrambling to get the proper angle. So there is an element there where hopefully we start to discuss why are they looking at that.”
Steratore said basketball also is an added challenge in that “decisions are being made in a much more rapid fashion [than football] . . . There are no 15-second breaks between plays. In that sense it is a little more rapid-fire. I thought that helped me play off of the two sports, constantly doing that decision-making four, five, six days a week [in basketball].”
Steratore said he rarely was recognized in public when he was a downfield NFL official, but as a referee his visibility changed drastically. “You do become part of the production of the show,” he said.
That usually does not happen for college basketball officials.
“I’ve had hundreds of people say, ‘Boy, I didn’t know you referee college basketball!’” he said. “Listen, from an official’s standpoint, that was the greatest compliment I could ever get, that they didn’t recognize you.”
Steratore said he grew more and more comfortable with the analyst role over the course of the NFL season. His star turn came in the late stages of the AFC Championship Game, when after a quiet three quarters he was called upon to discuss a series of close, controversial decisions.
“That 10-, 15-minute window that we had in Kansas City, I think there were three or four reviews in that period of time,” he said. “It definitely brought back very, very fond and good memories of being under a hood or looking at a Surface tablet on the field.”
But the day’s most controversial decision was a no-call on an apparent pass interference that likely cost the Saints the NFC Championship Game against the Rams.
“Sure, it bothers you,” Steratore said. “It bothers you as a fan. It bothers you as an official. And most importantly it bothers you as a person. Human error does occur. When we see human error and maybe have the ability to put that into what may have affected a final outcome, that hurts everybody.”
So does Steratore favor adding pass interference to the list of reviewable calls, or no-calls?
“It’s such a slippery slope,” he said. “ I think if you start to say we’re going to add PI, at what point is it black and white? Where is the level of restriction or displacement that’s going to be interpreted as a foul?
“And let’s say we had it in. Once that decision is made upstairs and it’s 'boy that seems awful technical,' what does that do to the officials on the field seeing that now that they did make that a pass interference? Now do we start calling this way tighter than we used to?
“I continue to want to believe and do believe that it was an outlying play and I would hate to see us have a kneejerk reaction to try to fix something that I hope doesn’t occur again for years and years.”