Official business

Wright State alumni, employees’ passion for athletics officiating is making history at every level

From left: Wright State staff members Billy Willis, NCAA football; Jake Wells, Ohio high school football; Rob Cowles, NCAA football and basketball; Jonathan Blount, Ohio high school football; Frank Wolf, Ohio high school football and baseball; and Jason Franklin, Ohio high school football. (Photo by Erin Pence)

There’s an officiating trend with Wright State University employees and alumni, and interest is growing.

Don’t be surprised if you spot a Wright State employee or alum at the next high school or college athletics event you attend. But not in the crowd. Look for them on the basketball court, baseball diamond and football field.

Billy Willis, associate director of campus recreation, said at least eight Wright State employees and about a dozen alumni currently officiate high school and college sports in the region. There are about 1,100 Division I college football officials in the country and three are employed at Wright State, he said.

“Refereeing got me into higher education,” said Willis. “I started refereeing intermural football and I wanted to further my officiating, which eventually led to my career in campus recreation.”

Willis’ officiating career started 20 years ago. After refereeing intramural sports during college, he started officiating middle school games and became certified to officiate high school football and basketball. Today, he is a Division I college football official.

“I love the challenge. Having worked college football for 11 years now, I’m always learning,” said Willis.

Daniel Palmer, a government affairs specialist at Wright State, and Rob Cowles, associate director of recruitment and visits in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, officiate football at the high school and Division I college levels.

“I did my first high school football game at age 17,” said Palmer. “When I came to Wright State, I got really serious about it, especially with all of the intramural opportunities that we have here.”

Daniel Palmer, government affairs specialist at Wright State, officiating an Ohio High School Athletic Association Division I state championship football game in Canton.

As a student at Wright State, Palmer was able to attend referee clinics and connect with people like Willis and Cowles, who were also passionate about the officiating industry.

“My time here at Wright State was purely beneficial to really get me connected with the opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else,” said Palmer.

Cowles said that working as a referee has helped him develop communication and conflict-resolution skills that he now uses in his career in undergraduate admissions.

“My day at work is a lot less stressful because of officiating,” said Cowles. “When everyone else is at a high stress level I can be that calming force and let them know it’s going to be OK.”

Last fall, Hanna Keller, a 2017 and 2020 Wright State graduate, was the first woman to officiate a state championship football game in Ohio High School Athletic Association history.

“It’s cool that I’m the first, but I want to set the bar high at being the first,” said Keller.

Keller said officiating intramurals and club sports at Wright State helped her form lasting relationships that helped her in her officiating career.

Wright State graduate Hanna Keller officiating a football game at Tippecanoe High School.

“On my current high school football crew, I have two members that I worked with at Wright State and another that I met at an intramural tournament while I was at Wright State,” said Keller.

Keller encourages Wright State students to get involved in Campus Recreation activities and officiating because those relationships may develop mentorship opportunities and will pay off in students’ future.

“If it wasn’t for Wright State University, I wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl,” said Gary Arthur, who worked as an NFL referee for 22 years and attended Wright State in the late 1970s.

Arthur said a conversation with a classmate on the Quad sparked his interest in officiating, and in 1997 he joined the NFL as a line judge. Fifteen years later, Arthur worked Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“That day on the Quad at Wright State University is what launched my career,” said Arthur.

Wright State alumnus Gary Arthur was a referee in the National Football League for 22 years.

Willis said there’s been a recent officiating shortage in every sport across the country and university offices like Campus Recreation can spark interest and help train new referees.

“Those who want to get involved with officiating can reach out to any one of us and we will gladly help,” said Willis. “Officiating sports and giving back to area youth is very rewarding. It’s awesome.”

“Campus Recreation offers students a great way of getting involved in officiating, and it might even lead to a career in the professional leagues. One thing is certain, you’ll definitely have support from the Wright State community along the way,” said Willis.

“It’s really awesome to know that there’s a tight-knit community here at Wright State that really cares about my success as an official and equally I care about their success and we are all growing together to be more successful on the field or on the court,” said Palmer.

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