ATU Alumnus Steps to Forefront of College Officiating

Don Daily Feature Summer 2023

After more than two decades officiating at the highest level of college basketball, Arkansas Tech University alumnus and Russellville native Don Daily has grown to become an advocate for his peers and his profession.

“It’s very prideful for me,” said Daily. “I work hard to do it. I carry that with me because I don’t want to let people down. I enjoy it to a point that it’s a passion, but it’s not who I am completely. I want people to know he’s a referee, but he’s a good guy. As I get older, it’s important to me that my family sees that part.”

Daily was recently elected to his second term as president of the Southeastern Conference Basketball Officials Association. As the organization’s leader, Daily works with the SEC on issues affecting officials such as compensation and performance reviews.

The SEC Basketball Officials Association also raises money for two charities: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Mike Slive Foundation for Prostate Cancer Research, which is named in memory of the man who served as commissioner of the SEC from 2002-15.

“The people who officiate are some of my closest friends because we have a commonality of culture we live in,” said Daily. “We are an isolated group that is protective within itself. When I walk into places like Rupp Arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Bud Walton Arena, Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium or AT&T Stadium, I get to have one of the three best seats in the house along with my partners. That’s special, and you have to treat it special. You receive that opportunity, and you want to make the most of it.

“We’re human just like anyone else,” continued Daily. “We know when we make a mistake. We don’t like to make mistakes, and we try not to make mistakes. I have a job to do, and I have to beat that TV. I don’t want to end up on SportsCenter. If I can keep from being on SportsCenter, I did a pretty good job that night.”

A self-described gym rat during his youth, Daily was exposed to basketball early and often. His father, also named Don Daily, coached for 36 years, including service as the head boys’ basketball coach at Russellville High School.

A junior on the Russellville Cyclones’ 1985 state championship basketball team, the younger Daily began his college basketball career playing two seasons at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He transferred and came home to Arkansas Tech to play for head coach Marty Barnes, who had been his high school coach.

“Tech is a whole lot different than it was back then,” said Daily, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in marketing from ATU and is a Shelter Insurance agent by day. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds. Tech is a school that used to be a well-kept secret. Now everyone knows. It’s a great education that gave me a lot of opportunities to move forward. I learned how to market and how to present myself favorably. The faculty gave me everyday use information that I could go and apply. They were able to spend time with us. If I had a problem, I went to their office and we figured it out. It’s all about communication. If you can communicate, you’re not always going to be right, but you can find the middle.”

No one influenced Daily’s path at Arkansas Tech more than Dr. Joseph Moore, professor of economics in the ATU School of Business. Moore was a full-time member of the ATU faculty from 1988-2009 and was named professor emeritus of economics by the ATU Board of Trustees in 2011.

“If you tried and put forth effort, he wouldn’t cast you away,” said Daily when asked about Moore. “You might have made a 52 on that first economics test, but if he knew you were putting the effort in he would help you. We formed a bond, and to this day he is one of my insurance clients. Joe is a very special man. He thought outside the lines as a professor and helped develop so many young minds. He made it practical so we understood why it was important to learn.”

The 2023-24 season will be Daily’s 25th as an NCAA Division I basketball official. It’s a career that began when an official failed to show for a junior varsity game at Russellville High School. Daily was pressed into service and quickly developed an affinity for officiating.

These days, it’s become commonplace to turn on the television and see one of Russellville’s own officiating a game on ESPN or during the NCAA Tournament. The assignments he earns are evidence that he is regarded among the best at what he does.

“It was a way to stay in the game,” said Daily. “It is more about giving back to the game, serving the game and trying to leave it in a better place. I like to talk to people, and I’ve been able to travel to some places that otherwise I probably never would have as a country boy from Russellville, Ark. All these things fell in line and I got some breaks along the way.”

Daily has paid his good fortune forward by investing his time and expertise in the future of officiating. His 2022-23 season ended with the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship game in Las Vegas on March 30, but he was soon back on the road teaching and mentoring young officials at clinics and summer youth tournaments.

When asked what needs to change in order to increase the number of individuals in the officiating pipeline, Daily points to compensation for high school officials and improved behavior by fans as the two most important factors.

“It has to be worthwhile monetarily for them to do it,” said Daily. “You hate to make it about money, but the pay for high school officials has got to catch up. These people have to travel, and they work so they have to take vacation time to get there. We love to do it, and that’s the major passion behind most officials who do it. They are giving back and they enjoy it, but it has to be worthwhile.

“The more you have confidence in something, the better you are going to be and you’re going to want to go through the next steps,” continued Daily. “With that…there are some unhappy, angry, disgruntled people, and I think they go to high school and junior high games because they want to yell and they want to vent. No one teaches young referees how to deal with confrontation. When fans are yelling and screaming, they aren’t really yelling and screaming at the person. They are yelling and screaming at the striped shirt. They don’t know the person. That’s what we’re teaching the young officials we are working with. We give them tools so they won’t take that confrontation personally. That’s why we’re losing so many young officials and we can’t get them. They don’t want to be screamed at, yelled at, cussed at and threatened for $65. They’ll go work somewhere else. We’re making headway, but fans have got to take a chill pill. They’ve got to understand this is not life or death. It’s the game of basketball. We’ve got to get better at that. If we don’t have referees, we can’t have athletics.”

It’s a fact that Daily hopes fans will remember when they choose their words and actions.

“I just want people to understand the human side,” said Daily. “That’s huge with officials. We need more people to give it a try, and we need more people to take it just a little bit easier on the officials the next time you’re at a game.”