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Omaha referee John Higgins putting life back together after threats from angry Kentucky fans

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Omahan referee John Higgins urges good sportsmanship, says safety was a concern

John Higgins, an Omahan who officiated games during the NCAA tournament, received a flood of criticism and threats following what many Kentucky fans believed was questionable officiating during the Wildcats' Elite Eight game against North Carolina.

John Higgins told himself that it was just a basketball game and that he had a job to do, just as he’s done thousands of times before.

But it wasn’t easy walking out on the court Saturday to officiate the Gonzaga-South Carolina Final Four contest.

Not after thousands of phone calls, emails and Facebook postings from disgruntled Kentucky fans disrupted his roofing business and frightened his family and employees.

It scared him, too.

“I knew the eyes and cameras would be on me because of the national exposure and situation,” Higgins said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to quit because of this — it’s too much pressure, it’s too hard.’ We got through it, and I thought we did a good job. I’ve got seven months to think about next year.”

That was Higgins’ final game until next season. But there will be no vacation. He has a company to put back together.

Business at Weatherguard Inc., has become somewhat more normal since phone calls with a Kentucky area code were blocked. Little business got done last week after around 25,000 contacts were made through social media after Higgins officiated the Kentucky-North Carolina game, which the Wildcats lost by two points.

He’s still dealing with the fallout from those thousands of negative emails and phone calls and the reviews on Weatherguard’s Facebook page that dropped its rating from 4.8 to 1.2. It’s back up to 3.0, but that’s still not good when weighed against the competition, Higgins said.

He’s also got the unseen victims to take care of — his wife and family, some of whom wanted him to stop officiating after 28 years, and his employees. They were nervous and a little shaky, Higgins said, driving around the Omaha area in company trucks after everything they’d heard.

False reports were even filed with the Better Business Bureau, using names such as Adolph Rupp, the legendary former Kentucky coach, and Calipari John, a reversal of the current Kentucky coach’s name.

Higgins still isn’t sure exactly why the calls and emails started. Calipari did mention the officiating right away after the loss.

Higgins left that game thinking he and his two fellow officials had done a good job, but he said no one is ever perfect, and that includes officials, coaches and players.

That’s why he’s graded by his supervisors after every game. His performance has been good enough that he was given his eighth Final Four.

“My job is to be fair to both teams, be professional and demand sportsmanship,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do as officials. That’s what I try to do every time I get out.”

Higgins said the other officials didn’t suffer the same kind of harassment. He likes to think of himself as just another ref, but he’s more well known because of the number of games he officiates and, of course, the sun-bleached hair.

“As you know, people like to give me crap about the hair, the Twitter account,” Higgins said. “I try to blend in when I referee a game.”

Company officials started getting notifications about a half hour after the Elite Eight game. By Monday morning, it was a flood.

Weatherguard has three lines, and they rang nonstop. Higgins said some people called 40 to 50 times a day.

His home and company address were shared publicly, so the Omaha Police Department and the FBI were notified. OPD gave both special attention.

After the situation became public, media outlets from across the country called for interviews. One even offered $10,000.

Officials from all levels of the game started contacting Higgins, too. They’re used to screaming fans, but this was new.

They were scared, too.

They wanted to know how they would handle this new wave of criticism, which Higgins attributes to social media.

“Nobody has ever seen anything like this,” Higgins said. “This is crazy.”

Higgins got lots of support — from people in the Cathedral area where he grew up, people who contacted members of his large family and also the college coaches who reached out. Calipari did not.

But it’s changed him. He’s a little more guarded in the aftermath.

“You lose a little faith in people,” he said.

Last week hurt. Still, Higgins said both he and his business will be OK. It will just take some time.

He watched Monday night’s championship game from home and sympathized with the officials. It was a hard game to work because neither team shot particularly well, he said. With more than 30 cameras focused on every move, calls, as always, were probably missed.

But he’s hoping that’s as far as it went.

“At the end of the day, it’s a basketball game,” he said. “It does not affect anyone’s life.”

Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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