April 2, 2014

The world of Mike Saia

Kevin McCarthy

Very, very few people have played basketball, coached it and also donned the uniform of a referee, so count Marin Catholic High Coach Mike Saia as unique with his three-dimensional hoops résumé.

photo of  Mike Saia

Having chosen three very public endeavors, ones in which a majority of spectators of any actual visual acuity, intelligence level and regardless of blood alcohol content devoutly believe they could do a better job, Saia did so to remain attached to the game in which he was enamored --“I still wanted to be involved in basketball, a game I loved.”

Call it catching the fever that never breaks.

His background opens with playing for Drake High and earning all Marin County Athletic Leagues honors as both a junior and senior

Then it was a year on the hardwood at College of Marin followed by three at Cal Poly. All the while, he was refereeing CYO games and intramural matchups.

After a move to San Francisco, Saia again donned the striped uniform for Marin County games in the late 1980s. After attending various camps and gaining exposure to junior college and DII officiating supervisors, he moved up to those levels.

In 1991, Saia made a positive impression at a Las Vegas DI officiating camp and was hired to work West Coast Conference and Big West Conference matchups. The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) also picked him up the next season as Fresno State and San Jose State University joined the WAC and officials from those geographical areas were needed.

An NCAA basketball official until 1999, Saia noted two career highlights. In 1998, he worked a Big Dance game pitting Duke (Mike Krzyzewski ) against Radford at Rupp Arena and the next year, it was Maryland (Gary Williams) and Valparaiso (Homer Drew) in Orlando

So what can he tell laymen about life as an official?

“It's a professional line of communication between a referee and a coach, but not constant communication,” Saia explained. “If a coach said ‘you missed the foul at that end,’ and it's legitimate. I'd respond with ‘I wish I had that back, I missed that one.’ I gave short, professional responses back.”

He issued but one ejection throughout his refereeing career. “Cal Poly was playing at St. Mary's and I gave the Cal Poly coach his second T. They were down 25 with eight minutes left and he had been warned 'not one more word.' He just picked up his jacket and left. They earn it and you move on.”

For Saia, his DI initiation rites came very much sooner rather than later.

It was just his fourth DI game, one pitting Cal State Northridge against Eastern Washington. With the former up by two and 4.5 seconds remaining, Saia recounted: “I was the center referee and an Eastern Washington player caught a pass at mid court, took two dribbles, jumped and released the shot. He landed in the middle of the key. The ball went in and I signaled it as a three-pointer so Eastern Washington won. My fellow referees, guys with 25 and 15 years experience, must have asked me 10 times 'are you sure?' and I kept saying ‘yes’ but I was beginning to doubt myself.”

He stuck to his proverbial guns.

“So the game was over and we headed to our dressing room. The Northridge coaches must have banged on our door for 10 minutes. Later on, we were able to leave and we saw the Eastern Washington coaches in the parking lot. They had watched the film and told us ‘you got it right.’”

And yes, college coaches do have a sense of humor despite the industry really being a business.

Saia recounted, “It was the fourth time I was working a San Diego State game in two and a half weeks and it was on the road for them. Flying home, we were on the same plane.”

Rather than familiarity breeding contempt, “their coach came up to me and said, ‘I need to get your jacket size so I can get you a letterman's jacket.’”

From the once a referee, always a referee department, Saia, in his fourth year heading the Marin Catholic program, offered, “Now I see the game more from a coaching perspective but I still officiate from my couch.”

Plus, being a former referee provides certain advantages to his guys.

“I give my players insight into where the referees are going to be positioned, what to be aware of and when you can't do certain things.”

Spoken like a former zebra.