I see you decided to return to the scene of the crime." This is how the usher with the preposterously bushy handlebar mustache greets referee Ted Valentine as he walks through the door of Indiana's Assembly Hall. Valentine is wearing a leather jacket and a black ski cap pulled low, but the usher spots him right away. Valentine is recognized at a lot of arenas but especially this one, where, 15 years ago, he was half of the most notorious referee-coach confrontation in modern college basketball history.
Valentine greets the usher just as cheerfully as everyone else who calls out to him. At 6' 2" he is broad-shouldered and fit for a 54-year-old, his walk carrying the hint of a strut, the strut carrying a whiff of both the pugnacity and flamboyance that have earned him suspension or banishment from three power conferences and the dubious nickname, TV Teddy. After three decades in stripes and thousands of games, including five Final Fours and four national finals, Valentine approaches this much-hyped Saturday clash between No. 1 Michigan and the third-ranked Hoosiers as just another night at the office. But he appreciates that for the players, it's one of the biggest moments of their lives. "They're gonna be nervous," he says. "They'll be moving faster, so we have to move slower. I always tell the younger refs, you can't try to run with the game. You run within the game."
Later Valentine appears relaxed as he sits on the floor of the referees' locker room, stretching his hamstrings and discussing strategy with his partners. "If I'm the lead, I will not blow [the whistle] across the lane," he says to Mike Sanzere, a 34-year veteran who has worked three Final Fours but who, unlike Valentine, will be familiar to only a tiny fraction of the fans tonight. "When you blow across the lane, you're usually wrong." As Valentine, Sanzere and the third partner, Mike Eades, stand up to go to work, Valentine, the crew chief, dispenses one more dollop of wisdom. "It's not brain surgery out there," he says. "Let's not make it more than it is. Let's have a good time."
Over the next two hours Valentine does just that. By his standards it is an understated performance, though not without its TV Teddy moments. When Valentine calls a kicked ball in the first half, he rushes toward a pile of players flexing his leg as if he's trying out for the Rockettes. Just before halftime, as he whistles an Indiana player for pulling on the back of a Wolverine's jersey, he runs downcourt while yanking the back of his own shirt. When an angry Hoosiers fan voices his displeasure, Valentine smiles and shoots back, "That was a horse-collar tackle! It's a 15-yard penalty!"
Fortunately this turns out to be a great game, not another crime scene. Indiana wins 81--73, and soon afterward Valentine is driving up Route 37 toward Indianapolis, where he will catch a flight home to his wife, Linda Sue, in Charleston, S.C. (Their daughter is a jewelry broker in New York City.) Tonight was the eighth game Valentine has worked in 12 days. During a two-day breather he will spend some time Googling himself, combing through articles, blogs and message boards that proclaim how godawful he is. He finds most of them amusing. "I get blamed for games I didn't even ref," he says with a laugh.
But the folks who spew Twitter vitriol on the #tvted hashtag never seem to ask themselves a couple of simple questions. First, why do so many of them recognize Valentine in the first place? Because he always works the biggest games. And why is that? Because he is among the very best at what he does. Throughout the coaching profession, Valentine is widely (if begrudgingly) praised for his judgment and feel.
"Give me a guy with a high level of confidence any night of the week," says Indiana's Tom Crean. "He's not going to be swayed by any coach. He's not going to be swayed by any crowd. There are always going to be 50-50 calls in a game, and I don't think [Ted] misses many of those. You go back and watch the film and you say, 'That was exactly right.'"
Ever since he started reffing, Valentine has knelt by the sideline before each half and taken a few moments to gather his thoughts. So it was that on March 30, 1991, while genuflecting in Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome before the start of the Final Four game between Duke and UNLV, Valentine looked at Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski and said, "Coach, this is a great day, isn't it?"
"Coach K told me later that when I said that, he knew we were gonna have a great game," Valentine says. "He saw a young kid who wasn't afraid."
It was almost unheard of for a referee to get his first Final Four assignment at age 31, but at that point Valentine had already had several years of major-conference experience. At Glenville (W.Va.) State Teachers College, where he majored in phys ed and played first base, he took a refereeing class and on weekends he made a few bucks working intramural and rec league games. After graduating, Valentine returned to his hometown of Moundsville, W.Va., to teach and coach at his alma mater, John Marshall High. His one coaching stint as a student teacher had not gone well. As a sub in charge of junior high girls, he was whistled for three technical fouls and ejected for arguing. At which point the principal told him, "You just coached your last game."