BEATING THE BUZZER: 1968 East Greene grad and legendary referee, Pete Peterson reflects on historic career
EDITOR’S NOTE: The is the first part of a two part series on the lengthy career of long-time Iowa High School official, Pete Peterson. He’s spent 42 years in the business, refereeing mostly basketball with a few softball and baseball games littered in between. He was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame during halftime of the 2A boys’ state championship March 10 in Des Moines. Today, we look at a day-in-the-life of a high school referee. Next week, we examine the official shortage and the precision it takes to call the perfect game.
By BRANDON HURLEY
The life of a high school official is a little more fruitful than one might be led to imagine. Yes, there will be, doubters and skeptics, but there are plenty of haters in every profession.
What other career allows you to stay in shape while playing a key role in the outcome of a game?
Work your way through the ranks and you’ll find yourself running up and down the court with future NBA players, state champions and some of the Iowa’s most renowned coaches.
Pete Peterson’s career is almost as legendary as some of the athletes he’s been lucky to officiate for and the state has taken notice.
Memories piled up quickly for the 42-year veteran and Grand Junction native. Eighteen state championship games, 72 state tourney games, more than 1,000 games in total – the numbers speak for themselves.
If there was a referee record book, Peterson’s name would be right near the top in almost every category. He’s the cream of the crop and has called some of the state’s biggest games.
His career is a marvel in itself.
The 1968 East Greene High School graduate has officiated current NBA players and Iowa legends Harrison Barnes, Doug McDermott, Kirk Hinrich and Kyle Korver from the friendly confines of an Iowa gym. He’s witnessed improbable comebacks, sold out, standing room-only venues and more than his fair share of lopsided games. He’s run at least 2,000 miles just on a basketball court and logged hundreds of thousands of miles on the Iowa backroads, from Harlan to Cedar Rapids and everywhere in between.
It’s a long and grueling career, but it’s one Peterson wouldn’t trade for the world. He started at the ripe age of 23, and is just now getting out at 66.
The adrenaline rush of a state tournament game or an epic substate battle hooked the former Hawk years ago, all the way back in the 1970s – before the three-point line and when girls still played six-on-six.
Peterson has seen it all and he’s ready to tell his story, ready to bring more young blood into a dying profession.
A delicate relationship
The long-time official admits he was that no-nonsense official when he first got started. Peterson wanted to be the authoritative figure and prove his worth, and developed a quick trigger finger with the coaches. He quickly realized a working relationship with them was not only beneficial to his career, but to the players and ultimately, the fans in attendance. It didn’t come naturally, Peterson had to work on it and let his ego take a backseat.
“That’s something that takes years to learn. My younger years, I’d just stare them down and end up giving them a technical foul,” Peterson said. “I learned to visit with [the coaches]. A little more communication and try to settle them down. If that doesn’t work, obviously I’ll have to give them a technical foul, but that’s part of the game.
Most of the time, we can talk to them. After you’ve been in the business awhile, the coaches get to know you and they may trust you. It became easier.”
It remains a working relationship no matter how many games he’s done. Coaches and fans alike will always have a gripe with the officials. The ref-coach relationship is often a matter of feeling one another out right after the opening tip.
“We all form reputations. As an official, we have a reputation. As a coach, they have a reputation. We’ve got to mentally prepare for how it’s going to play out. They know how far they can push you,” Peterson said. “I’ll admit, as I got older, I got a little softer, I wasn’t as bold and as quick with things. I thought I could talk my way out of everything.”
Dealing with coaches is always a challenge, but being reasonable is key. Being aggressive as a coach can get you in some hot water. Peterson said it’s important to remember who they are all doing it for. The long-time official lets coaches have an open dialogue with him more often than not.
“It depends how they approach you. If they approach me in a respectful manner then I’ll do the same,” Peterson said. “But if they challenge me, we are going to have issues. It’s not my game, it’s not their game, but we are a part of it.”
Peterson has learned to get out ahead of a situation. If he lets a coach have too much leeway, it might affect how he calls a game and ultimately may affect the outcome. It’s his job to keep stay focused on the job at hand – officiating the players, not the coaches. But, he still must show the coach who has the authority.
“It’s hard for me to operate out there if I have a coach in my ear all night long, that tells me he doesn’t trust me. I have to eliminate that from the process,” Peterson said. “I understand emotions, especially in tournament time and I have to work with that and give a longer leash, but you can’t let them disrespect you or show you up in a game.”
Hecklers, of course, come the territory. Whether from the coaches, players or fans. But with the way Peterson calls a game, he hasn’t run into too many issues. He’s only had to eject a coach once in 42 years – in the consolation game at the state tournament – and became known for his leniency.
“I probably had a reputation for calling games loose and letting the kids decide the game,” the 66-year old said. “We worked a lot of bigger games and schools over the last 25 years and that’s how they play.”
Fans will always be on his case, no matter who they root for or what call he made. Most of the time, though, Peterson doesn’t let the hecklers bother him.
“The bigger the crowd, the easier it is because you don’t hear as much,” Peterson said. “But when there’s no one there, you can hear every word they say and they want you to. But I don’t know if I’d had any major issues.”
It’s not always a constant back-and-forth struggle though, Peterson has even developed strong off the court relationships with some of the coaches. He got to know a coach through softball and was even asked to stand up with him at his wedding. Now, 25 years later, they are still friends.
Getting a jump from old, new friends
Of course, just like any long, successful career, Peterson wouldn’t be where he is today, a member of the 2017 Iowa High School Association Hall of Fame class, without the friendship, cooperation, teamwork and dedication of his long time officiating partner, Steve Debeout. The two have worked nearly every game together since the mid-70s, and quickly became best friends. The Woodward native is now retired, but joined Peterson in the Hall of Fame this winter. Peterson will soon follow him out as he’s nearing full retirement as well.
The friendship grew naturally as they spent four nights a week together every winter for four decades. They’ve spent hundreds of hours in the car, logged years on the road. If they didn’t like each other 40 years ago, they certainly wouldn’t be in this position now, earning such prestigious honor.
The teamwork between officials is just as important as it is for the players out on the court. Peterson and Debeout held each other accountable and challenged one another.
“It was a lot of fun because he’s a good friend. We both have the same goals and have a vested interest in each other,” Peterson said. “We have the same philosophy of the game. Even though we may not always agree on something, we have the same goals and want to do it the right way. Everything we did was by the book. We didn’t make up our own guidelines. We grew together.”
After wrapping up his high school career as a guard for the East Greene Hawks, Peterson stepped into the officiating realm following the urging of a few locals in 1974. Jim Greene of Grand Junction and Jim Paulsen, a retired coach and teacher from Ogden, convinced him to give it a try and off he went.
Peterson was playing in a nearby church league and began officiating a few games as well. And as they say, from there, the rest is history – a historic career emerged.
Peterson dove in head first and worked his way up, grabbing assignments whenever and wherever he could, from middle school, to junior varsity and finally, the varsity level. The passion sprouted quickly.
“I wanted to be a part of the game, you can’t play forever,” he said. “So I took on officiating and once I got started, it got in my blood.”
He called his first varsity game for Prairie Valley High School, which is now Southwest Valley and stuck around north central Iowa for the infancy of his career, officiating games for Manson-Northwest Webster, Panorama, Guthrie Center and Pocahontas.
His newfound profession really started to take off after that. Peterson soon had risen to officiate big time games for the Central Iowa Metro League Conference near Des Moines, working mostly boys’ games. The speed of his career was mostly a surprise surprise.
“It was a hobby and just went at it. Before you knew it, you’re up to 30 years,” Peterson said. “The last few years were a little harder because our bodies started to wear down and you just get tired. I have a hard time believing that I won’t be doing it anymore.”
He’s now mostly retired, reffing a few games here and there and mentoring a few of the younger refs.
Peterson’s success blossomed from a love of basketball, his favorite sport. He cherished the individual aspect and latched on as his playing days began to dwindle. His passion hooked him, it’s as simple as that. His favorite players of all-time include Julius ‘Dr. J’ Irving and Walt Frazier. Steph Curry has captured his attention in the new age. But true to his profession, the refs also caught his eye.
“I like people that are good at their craft, I have favorite players,” Peterson said. “Joey Crawford was always a guy I liked to watch when he was officiating games.”
Teamwork is what really sets Peterson’s career apart, but he lives for those big games, the ones with the most on the line and the crowd breathing down his neck.
The adrenaline rush on the other side
The product on the court is what really matters. Calling 13 boys’ state championships and five girls’ state championships has given Peterson the chance to officiate some of the bigger moments in the state’s history. He thrives off the atmosphere of a sold out show.
“Going into the arena with a full crowd of people and the intensity of it all, it was a rush to me, like a player,” he said. “I enjoyed being in the environment and not just observing it. I wanted to be a part of it. I liked being around the younger kids and the enjoyment of the game.”
Even the non-state tournament games get the juices flowing. He recalls a substate game at West Des Moines Valley High School between Marshalltown and the Jeff Horner-led Mason City Mohawks.
“It was a great game and was standing room only. That is on the top of my list,” Peterson said. “There have been a lot of fun games.”
The rush from the old Veteran’s Auditorium and its sold out crowds in Des Moines also lingers in his mind. Though he’s had the chance to officiate some of the most legendary names in Iowa basketball history, he never really let the moment go to his head. That’s when he buckled down and called on his experience.
“The intensity is so great, you don’t have time to be in awe,” Peterson said. “When everybody else is getting emotional, you have to become un-emotional and stay focused on the game at hand, that’s the trick.”
The thrill of his first state championship game caught him a little off guard though.
“They shut the door and I said ‘should we be doing a final?’” Peterson remembers. “Well, they think so, I guess if they think so we should.
There’s pressure, but you create your own. My first year down there, I don’t think I had a clue what I was doing,” he continued. “But then you settle in. Once you throw the jump ball up, it’s just a game in a bigger arena. The championship game, you’re on TV so you think about not screwing up. But once you get going, it’s just another game.”
It hasn’t all all been fireworks and buzzer beaters, though. Blowouts are a common occurrence when he’s calling 50-plus games a year. Peterson arrives roughly an hour before every game, taking a bit of time to watch the players warm up, identifying the shooters and whether or not they have a post player.
“Every game you start over. You want to be fair and consistent and give them effort,” Peterson said. “I think I did that every night, I never took a night off. Some nights, the games are lopsided or there’s two bad teams playing, but I tried to give them everything I had for 32 minutes.”
Those games match ups that are over in the first half are Peterson’s biggest challenge. But he owes it to the young adults he’s calling the game for to stay committed for the entire game, he said.
“It’s hard to stay focused but you need to for those kids. You have to realize it’s important to them,” Peterson said. “If I don’t give them an effort, I think that’s unjust. We have three things we always hold ourselves to – pride, commitment, character.”
Just like with a coaching staff, the game doesn’t end after the final buzzer. The three-man officiating crews go over the four quarters, touching on what they could have done better.
“We need to do it the right way or we won’t be good at it,” he said. “You need to be honest with yourself. It’s like coaching, we are a team and we have to be on the same page.”
Peterson has been married to his wife, Jane, for nine years and they live in Urbandale. Peterson has four kids – Kevin, Ken, Joe and Jesse.
“[Jane] is very supportive,” he said. “That’s another thing you got to have, a supportive wife to be gone as much as we are.”
Not always perfect
It’s tough to get every call right. When a crowd is at full tilt, a state tournament berth is on the line and emotions are running high, mistakes happen, even with the best officials. As long as he makes the right call at the end of the game, any other mistakes can be corrected in time. Just like a superstar who misses a few shots early on, it’s important to move past a mistake and not let it get to you.
“If [I] do something stupid, I’m aware of it. When you’re younger, it eats you up, but when you’re older, you just kind of laugh at it,” Peterson said. “If it doesn’t change the outcome of the game, you’ll be fine. That’s what veteran officials have over younger ones. They don’t [stew] over a missed call.
When you miss one, you better move on or you’re going to miss another one and you’re going to mess up the whole night,” Peterson added. “When I was younger, I messed up nights, but when I got older, I messed up calls.”
As he reflects on his storied career, Peterson cherishes the people more than anything. Championships come and go, but the relationships last forever.
“I’ll remember the camaraderie, the friendships. The relationships you build, the people you get to know,” Peterson said. “I was fortunate to stay healthy for 40 years. You have to have commitment and passion and I got to work with my best friend.”
And what does the Hall of Fame honor mean to him?
“It means I’m old, I guess. It shows total appreciation, mission accomplished,” Peterson said. “I’m getting to do it with my partner. We’ve pretty much done it all together.”