A couple of years ago I suffered through a football game I thought would never end. Penalty flags repeatedly littered the field, and the referee seemed to be posing for holy pictures between plays as he waited for all eyes to be on him before he gave the ready-for-play signal.
The next week I was at a game in Wyandotte, which was the polar opposite of the game the week before simply because of the way the referee administered the game.
Joe Kavulich was the referee at Wyandotte, and the next day I left a message on his voice mail telling him he could never retire.
If only …
Football and basketball seasons will never be quite the same again. Kavulich passed away Dec. 30 after suffering a series of heart attacks.
Kavulich was 72, looked 62 and acted 42. He was playing in a hockey game the day he first detected heart attack symptoms. He was a counselor in the Detroit Public School system for 42 years but was best known as one of the state’s absolute best football and basketball officials.
“Our coaches loved him even when they hated him,” said Vic Michaels, director of athletics for the Detroit Catholic League. “Even when they hated his calls, he was just the guy you wanted on the game.”
Coaches wanted Kavulich because they knew nothing crazy would happen with him in charge.
“Whenever I saw Joe coming onto the field, I knew there were not going to be a lot of flags thrown and when they were, they were legit,” said former Westland Glenn football coach Chuck Gordon. “I knew I was not going to watch the film and wonder how he came up with a penalty on that play.”
It is one thing for an official to know the rules, but it is even more important for an official to understand the spirit of the rule and how to interpret the rule. Kavulich had few peers in those departments in either sport.
“He let the kids play,” said Canton football coach Tim Baechler. “He called the obvious stuff. He didn’t call something 15 yards to the left or the right of the play or way behind the play.”
Kavulich was such a good official because he understood tempo and pace. It didn’t matter whether it was football or basketball, the game moved quickly when Kavulich was in charge.
And Kavulich could have a conversation with a coach without it becoming confrontational.
“He was relaxed and looked at the positive side of things and wasn’t afraid to come over and explain,” Baechler said. “He let you have your say, and then he’d have his say, and then it was over. I have a lot of respect for officials who have that confidence and let you talk to them a little bit.”
Over the last few years Kavulich’s son, Mike, was on his football crew, where he gained an even greater appreciation for his father. He saw how his father could not only control a game’s tempo, but could sense when things were about to go south and defuse potential bad situations.
“I think he had pretty good control over the game and over people,” Mike Kavulich said. “He knew when to be nice and when not to be nice. He got along great with the kids, and usually if the kids are going OK the coaches are all right.”
Kavulich never tried making himself the show. He wanted to be invisible.
“His biggest thing was: ‘If nobody knows we were here — great,’ ” Mike Kavulich said.
I always knew when Joe Kavulich was there, and I know he will be missed more than he could have imagined.
Click on usatodayhss.com/market/detroit to see game summaries and scores from winter sports, including boys and girls basketball.
Call in your results to the Free Press at 313-222-6660 or 800-678-6728 anytime after 6 p.m. weekdays or 3 p.m. on Saturdays.
Keep up to date with high school sports all year round at usatodayhss.com/market/detroit, on Facebook at Detroit Free Press – High School Sports, and by following @freeppreps on Twitter.