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By Chris Gregory, Managing Editor

One might imagine that serving as president and CEO of Hartsville’s Citizens Bank is enough to keep Todd Austin busy.

But Austin enjoys filling much of his spare time by serving as a basketball referee – first in the high school ranks and eventually in college basketball.

It was in that capacity in which Austin had a front-row seat to NCAA Tournament history, as he was one of the three officials on the court in top-seeded Virginia’s loss to University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the 2018 tournament’s first round. It was the first time a No. 1 seed had ever dropped a first-round game to a No. 16 seed.

Photo courtesy of SEC

“As a sports and basketball fan, I knew it had never happened,” Austin said. “But as a referee, you get so focused on the game and what’s going on that you really don’t get caught up.

“I guess in the last minute of two you realize it more. You know, but you don’t think about it.”

It was the second straight year Austin has officiated an NCAA Tournament game, after working one of the so-called ‘First Four’ games in Dayton, Ohio, last year.

Out of around 900 referees around the county, 100 are chosen to work the NCAA Tournament based on performance and rankings by the various conferences.

“You have to be nominated by your conference, which shortens the list,” Austin said. “They’ll evaluate you all season long and make those decision from the national office.”

Austin began officiating in 2003 after graduating from college. He walked on at Tennessee and finished his playing career at Cumberland University, where he also served as a graduate assistant.

“I got to know some of the officials and knew I didn’t want to go into coaching,” Austin said. “They said, ‘This is a great way to stay involved in the game… you ought to give it a try.’

“I went to an officiating camp that summer, got bit by the bug and loved it.”

Austin started officiating middle and high school games and began in lower-level college games after a couple of years.

Attending officiating camps is how Austin gained notice and moved his way up the ranks.

“The high-profile camps where high school players try to be seen by colleges, we referee those,” he said. “We get observed and they decide if you’re ready to move up.”

While Austin primarily officiates SEC games, he also serves with six other conferences, including the Sun Belt and Conference USA. The job means a lot of travel, and Austin said he has traveled as far as New York City and Las Vegas to referee games.

“We’re independent, so we work with whoever hires us,” he said. “My typical games are in the Southeast.”

The assigning process begins before basketball season begins, and Austin ranks each conference by priority for scheduling purposes. While he reserves specific dates he will be available to officiate, Austin said he typically does not learn which games he is assigned to until a month or so beforehand.

Asked if there were particular officials he enjoyed working with, Austin named other Middle Tennessee natives such as Rick Shoulders, David Carter and Gary Maxwell.

“The guys that I grew up going to camp with, those were my mentors,” he said. “For us to get to work together, you feel at home and know you’re going to have a good time.”

Asked about his favorite sites, Austin said he did not have one in particular but that he especially enjoys the rivalry games.

“I’ve been able to do Lipscomb-Belmont games, and those are awesome,” he said. “Some of my best memories are of high school games, the local heated rivalries where the gyms are packed and everyone’s screaming at you. Those are intense.”

Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or cgregory@hartsvillevidette.com.