The technology used for game clocks has become part of a basketball referee’s on-court DNA, something few could see coming considering the system was initially scoffed at by some officials.
The Precision Time system created more than two decades ago by former referee Mike Costabile currently is used at nearly every level of the sport, including the NBA and college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. Costabile estimates by stopping the clock automatically on a referee’s whistle can save roughly 90 seconds formerly lost to reaction time when timekeepers manually stopped the clock.
The improved technology also makes the refs’ whistle essentially their fingerprints. The system uses a specific type of whistle with calibration precise enough to identify the sound coming from each official. That allows the system to produce an on-demand list of every start and stoppage, and who caused it.
While the data isn’t being used to evaluate officials for things such as tournament assignments, Costabile said that “wealth of information” can be used however conferences see fit in the future.
“I think it makes us all better clock officials,” said veteran official Mike Eades, who has worked four Final Fours and in numerous major conferences. “I’ve been doing it a long time, it’s kind of second nature. I know it’s going to stop it, I know I’ve got to start it and I know I’m always looking at the clock to make sure it’s running when it should be or stops when it shouldn’t.
“Any time we’re able to catch it when it doesn’t do one or the other and fix it right away, it makes us look like, ‘Hey, those guys know what they’re doing.’”
Officials are so accustomed to having Precision Time that they instinctively check the clock on each whistle and reach for their beltpack button on every stoppage.
“The best example is that like a golf club in a golfer’s hand, the officials that use Precision Time, it becomes a part of how they do what they do,” said J.D. Collins, the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating.
“We have signals that we use when we start the clock. Well now, you’ve got one hand on the box, you’ve got one hand out, you count time differently. It changes some signaling mechanics, but because it’s used so widely, the top officials all know how to use it. And it becomes part of their DNA quite frankly.”
Precision Time has long been used in most major conferences for men’s and women’s college basketball. The NCAA adopted the system for its tournaments in 2015, the same year Collins assumed his job after years of refereeing games using Precision Time.
That wasn’t necessarily the goal when Costabile created the system in the 1990s. Back then, it was simply about giving officials the ability to instantly stop the clock on any foul or out-of-bounds call, then control exactly when it restarts.
Now it’s a routine part of the game, largely going unnoticed.
“It’s great technology. It helps our guys,” said Atlantic Coast Conference coordinator of men’s basketball officiating Bryan Kersey, adding: “It’s habitual, it’s part of our game and it’s here forever.”
The system uses a microphone attached near the referee’s whistle. A beltpack on their waist transmits a clock-stopping radio signal at the whistle and one to restart it when the referee presses the button on the pack’s side. That signal goes to a base station at the scorers’ table to start and stop the clock.
That station has a manual control for a timekeeper, though only as a backstop.
“From the time (referees) blow the whistle — which is at the speed of light over to the scorer’s table, again we’re using radio waves — once it hears the frequency of the whistle, it stops the clock,” said Costabile, who lives in North Carolina after a career of officiating high school, college and NBA games. “It’s that fast.”
Costabile estimates it takes 0.6 to 0.8 seconds, sometimes longer, for a timekeeper to react to a whistle and manually stop the clock. And with roughly 60 to 80 whistles per game for fouls or out-of-bounds calls, those added seconds are invaluable at the end of games when referees often turn to replay to adjust the clock.
And with college basketball fans around the country counting down the seconds at the Final Four this weekend in Minneapolis, officials will be counting on the system.
It wasn’t always that way. Costabile remembers when some skeptical leagues needed convincing when it came to adopting his then-new technology.
“Sure, they thought I was crazy,” Costabile said. “And then all of a sudden, they finally started seeing that these problems in their game were really there, and they go, ‘Well maybe this thing will fix it.’ And it did.”
Kersey, a former official who used Precision Time for years, recalls Costabile bringing his invention to ACC officials for a demonstration. So impressed, Kersey left the room saying, “Whoa.”
“One of the things that we stress in all of our meetings and all of our memos and training videos is clock awareness, so this does give them that,” Kersey said. “Because we want them to start it on every live ball, so it makes them hit the button and look at the clock to see that it has started.
“Same thing, we want them to blow the whistle and notice the clock. We want them to know the difference in the game clock and the shot clock. … So it makes them better at being clock aware of the whole game.”
The system isn’t designed to take the human element out of officiating, it just ensures refs are taking full advantage of the technology.
“The only human reaction time we have now is coming from the official,” Costabile said, “because they have to visually see the play and then react and call a foul.
“When the referee blows the whistle, the clock stops, on the whistle. And that’s what they want, especially when the game’s tight,” Costabile added. “You want to have that clock stopping, because the team that’s fouling (late) wants the time to give them the opportunity to score.”