Nov 9, 2021: Referee Roger Ayers looks onto the Virginia Tech Hokies and Maine Black Bears men’s basketball game at Cassell Coliseum. Courtesy of Ryan Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

As much as he valued an assignment to serve as an official at college basketball’s Final Four, Roger Ayers, who lives in Roanoke, left New Orleans with another memory that will not be forgotten.

Ayers worked the semifinal match-up between North Carolina and Duke, which turned out to be the final game for renowned Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils lost to the Tar Heels 81-77.

Ayers’ phone had rung March 28 at 2:35 p.m., when he took a call from J.D. Collins, the national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating.

“I hit the wrong button,” Ayers said. “I call him right back and he says, ‘Was it something I said?’ We got a good laugh out of that.”

Ayers didn’t know his assignment at the time and just as easily could have had Kansas vs. Villanova. Although most of his assignments are in the ACC, he also officiates in the Big 12 and Big East.

“It wasn’t like there was a coach I didn’t know or was uncomfortable with, which, at this time of year, makes a huge difference,” Ayers said. “It’s a comfort level for me and them. They don’t want to see a ref they’ve never seen before.”

As of noon Saturday that week, he didn’t know what game he would be working. 

“Finally, about 45 minutes later, they say, ‘What you guys really want to know is the game you’re going to be working,'” Ayers said. “They started out with Kansas and Villanova. Then, they said, ‘The crew chief for Duke-Carolina will be Roger Ayers.’

“At that moment, I was super pumped. I knew what the stakes would be for that game and how big a game it was going to be.”

He also knew that he would not be working the championship game.

“I knew it was over because, if you work Saturday, you cannot work Monday, which is ironic,” he said. “The guys who work Monday can’t come in and watch the games on Saturday.”

“There’s a thousand Division I refs. Every ref in America starts out Nov. 5 wanting to be the referee in the national championship game. There’s a running joke among referees. At the end of the season, there’s only one ref that’s happy. That’s the guy who throws it up on Monday night.

“To me, personally, just to be in the Final 4 is exciting. It’s an incredible atmosphere. There’s 70,000 people and I’m standing there before I throw it up and I look around and you know what? That’s pretty special coming from working ball games in Roanoke, Virginia.”

And, working Krzyzewski’s final game is something he’ll never forget.

“Absolutely,” Ayers said. “I knew that going in. We talked about that in the locker room. I’d go, ‘This could or could not be his final game, but we’ve got to treat Hubert Davis of North Carolina the same way we could Coach K and we did.’

“To watch the game, Coach K and Hubert Davis could not have been more first class. The plays they asked about, they were right to ask about. With Coach K, you never would have known it was his last game.

“At the end, he was still coaching and was into it as I have seen him and I’ve been doing these games now for 24 years He was just as energized and just as pumped in the timeouts and the huddles and I was watching him. He was the ultimate competitor.”

For Ayers, the assignment this year was particularly noteworthy, given his experience in 2021, when he was found to have COVID and was one of six officials sent home early from the NCAA Tournament.

So, where was he sent this year? He returned to Dayton, his ill-fated 2021 destination.

“Then, ironically, the game ends and they say they’re sending me [from Dayton] to Indianapolis. Same interstate, same route, same hotel.”

He was in his room for five minutes this year before taking a call from the night clerk, who said he would be moved to another room. It turned out to be the same room he had in 2021.

“I opened the blinds and outside the window was a Smith & Lewinsky and a Harry & Izzy’s, same as last year, when the guys went to dinner. I walked by [this year] but didn’t go in.”

This year, Ayers was the crew chief for the Murray State-San Francisco game, which went into overtime, followed two days later by Murray State and St. Peter’s.

“It’s ironic,” Ayers said. “After that game, the St. Peter’s coach went to Seton Hall, the Seton Hall coach went to the University of Florida and the Murray State coach, the day after he loses, goes to LSU.

“So, I don’t know if I was a good-luck charm or what.”

On the following Monday, Ayers learned that he had been chosen for the Elite 8. He had been bypassed for the Sweet 16 because officials can’t have both.

Ayers had been on officiating crews that had called Final 4 games in 2016 and 2018 and he was a standby in 2012. 

“If I wanted to stay for the national championship, I couldn’t have stayed,” Ayers said. “They said, ‘Sunday morning, you have to leave.’ On Sunday morning, I was on a plane at 5 a.m. They want to keep us away from everything.”

At 56, Ayers, a product of Fallon Park Elementary School, Jackson Middle School and Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, should have ample time to rank among some of the likes of Paul Housman, Dan Wooldridge and Duke Edsall in what has been a stellar tradition.

Ayers also will be able to work a University of Virginia game, a no-no until his daughter, Laken, graduated from UVa last year. She was in John Paul Jones Arena for a late-season UVa game with Florida State, won by the Seminoles on a 35-foot heave as time expired.

“I can’t say she was pleased with that,” her dad said.

Doug Doughty

Doug Doughty has been writing for more than 50 years starting as a high school student in Washington, D.C., through his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, and 47 years at the Roanoke Times...