By Joanna Chadwick
On any given Friday night during the course of the school year, Bob Benoit was likely on the sideline of a football game or sitting in the stands of a basketball game.
He probably greeted you with a smile, then you’d laugh together over some funny story or joke.
While Benoit enjoyed the conversation, his real goal was to watch his officials. Yep, they were his officials.
“Make no mistake, every official assigned by Commissioner Benoit was one of his,” said Bill Faflick, the executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association. “He was committed to the success of his team, and for each of his team (members), he maintained very lofty expectations.
“I witnessed Commissioner Benoit clearly articulate those expectations while listening to halftime and end of game debriefs with a crew, reading summary game reports or simply sitting in the bleachers listening to him comment on proper mechanics, positioning and above all, communication.”
Benoit, a longtime commissioner of the AVCTL, died late Thursday night due to complications after suffering a fall at home. He was 77.
Since the news of his serious condition was shared with friends and co-workers, memories have poured in about Benoit, who was inducted into the Kansas Collegiate Officials Hall of Fame in 2007.
“Knowing the shoes I have to fill will never be filled,” said Keith Kinley, the commissioner of the AVCTL, who like many, viewed Benoit as a mentor. “ I will do whatever it takes to maintain the AVCTL standard that Bob Benoit set.”
Athletic directors noted the deep respect that is given to Benoit, and how his dedication meant that assignments would be filled and dates rescheduled – even in spring, when the weather wreaked havoc.
“He has adapted to the ever-changing technology and schedule of the position and always been a phone call away for the athletic directors and officials of the league,” said Luke Smith, Maize South’s athletic director.
Mitch Fiegel, the longtime boys basketball coach at Collegiate and athletic director, called Benoit “the ultimate basketball man.”
“He loved and respected the game and he wanted every official who worked for him to feel and act the same way,” Fiegel said. “He was no-nonsense when it came to how he expected everyone around him to carry themselves when they worked for him.
“He was extremely well-respected by the basketball purists of this state for the only reason that has ever mattered when it comes to respect – he earned it.”
Benoit started officiating college sports in 1978. He officiated football and basketball for the KCAC, RMAC, KJCCC, CSIC and MIAA. He also officiated NCAA Division II basketball games.
He officiated the National Junior College Basketball Tournament twice, the NAIA National Basketball tournament four times – including the Final Four twice and the National Championship game once. He also officiated the Region VI basketball tournament 15 times and the NCAA Division II tournament twice.
In football, he officiated the NAIA football playoffs four times and the Region VI football playoffs nine times.
He also officiated high school games.
Benoit believed in officiating the right way, which meant that he needed to help build a stable of officials across the state. So he did just that.
He attended basketball camps during the summer, recruiting, training and evaluating.
“He has been seen every Friday night in football evaluating a game, and every Tuesday and Friday evaluating basketball,” Craig Helser said. “No one has worked harder at recruiting, training, and evaluating officials in Kansas than Bob.
Benoit ran four basketball camps during the season, training new officials for basketball.
“Bob Benoit was the originator of training officials in the state of Kansas by giving up many hours of his time to put on officials’ clinics to make the officiating in Kansas the best it can be,” Kinley said.
Benoit also spoke up to KSHSAA if he didn’t think something was right.
Ah yes. Benoit was no shrinking violet.
“Commissioner Benoit modeled for his officiating staff the expectations of timely and consistent communication, thorough preparation and a stubborn pursuit of improvement by his officiating staff,” Faflick said. “I had many occasions to witness that stubbornness as regularly, he met with other league commissioners from south-central Kansas in my office.
“As host, I had the opportunity to watch a group affectionately dubbed as the ‘grumpy old men’ labor together in making assignments to football crews and am forever grateful for such a collaborative effort as sharing officials ultimately was beneficial to all schools – and those officials were not left in the middle of a giant tug-a-war.”
Jim Hearn gave credit to Benoit for his career.
“In the 44 years I’ve known Bob, all I can say is he wanted the best for every official and he helped every one of us to move up the ranks,” Hearn said. “His mentorship was phenomenal.”
Benoit started mentoring in 1992 – and never stopped.
“Bob Benoit is a visionary in budgeting extra funds to create a crew of four basketball officials, comprised of one rookie official matched up with three veteran officials,” Mike Gibson said. “The first game, Bob would have the rookie official work with the other veteran officials, and the second game, the rookie official would sit and watch three veterans work the game. This vision has paid large dividends in giving the younger officials the first-hand experience on the court to give these young officials not only experience but also the confidence on and off the court.”
So it made sense that KSHSAA included Benoit when they started organizing basketball officials camps more than 15 years ago. His vision for expectations of clinicians and officials set the standard for camps in three areas of the state.
“Bob has lofty expectations for officials,” said Fran Martin, a longtime KSHSAA assistant executive director. “He was very straightforward with officials about their strengths and areas they could improve upon. He had first-hand knowledge of what it took to be a high-quality official having officiated at multiple levels in his career…. While Bob seemed tough on the outside, he always did what he could to help officials reach their highest potential.”
Like most officials who came into contact with Benoit, Lance Ferguson was on the receiving end of that Benoit honesty.
“Through camps, clinics and evaluations, you always knew Bob was trying to make you better – whether you liked it or not,” Ferguson said. “I recall 14 years ago when I got back into officiating, Bob challenged me at a camp. He told me if I continued to come to camp, keep working hard and drop a little weight, he would hire me.
“That’s what was so great about him – he would be straight-up honest with you, but also reward you when you met his high expectations.”
When Kurt McAfee was working as the gate agent at United Airlines, he approached Benoit to ask for help in becoming a basketball official.
In true Benoit fashion, he agreed, telling McAfee to meet him at his house the next day, bring a six-pack because McAfee would be driving him to Hutchinson to work a game.
“Bob hired me to work on his college football crew,” McAfee said. “He told me we were friends but would fire me if I couldn’t do the job. As the basketball assignor for the GWAL basketball, I have benefited from working with Bob, as we work out of the same pool officials. No one has moved sports officiating to the next level except Craig Helser, the GWAL football Supervisor of Officials.
“In my first year at the Kansas Jayhawk Community College as a basketball official, I worked with Bob and Bill Linhart. We went over to introduce ourselves to Coach Randy Smithson, and he said ‘hello Bill, hello Bob,’ and he looked at me and said ‘who the heck is this guy?’ Bob said, ‘Leave him alone tonight, and you will appreciate his work.’”
McAfee worked with Benoit on his last game as an official, seeing what everyone knew – Benoit was a true pro who could handle anything.
“Bob has been a friend, a mentor, and my second father all my whole career,” McAfee said. “I owe my entire officiating career to Bob Benoit. He was one of the best game officials in the country. I am proud to say that I love the man, and I am so appreciative of what he has done for me.”
“I am forever grateful and a better person to have had Bob in my life,” he said.”
But there was another side to Benoit, too.
“I can’t think of anyone who was as fun to be with as Bob Benoit,” McAfee said.
Benoit was fun. No doubt about it.
“When I would see him at league meetings, he would always ask about my college games and how things were going,” Shannon Haydock said. “He would talk to me about the officials he was watching and always had some colorful language to describe his thoughts on him.”
Ferguson added: “Thanks to Bob, I now willingly volunteer my time assisting with basketball officiating camps/clinics, as I feel I need to ‘give back’ to our vocation in hopes that we can bring new officials up to his standards. Finally, as I got to know Bob over the years, I found out just how ornery he really was, all while still getting the support and advice.”
Benoit was serious about officiating the right way.
“Bob was the master of holding a serious pregame conference with his partners before every game,” said Joe Kleinsasser, who officiated for 40 years. “He wanted us to be as mentally prepared as possible to do the best job we could each night out. This helped us as officials communicate more effectively on the court during games.
“Bob was an excellent official in his own right, but what set him apart was the ability to effectively communicate with the players, coaches and fellow officials. He took the job seriously. Don’t get me wrong – he could have fun. But he made sure our focus was on the rules of the game and how we applied them.
“Bob was demanding in some ways, and maybe some officials wondered if he was too harsh.”
Kleinsasser didn’t think that was the case.
Benoit was quick to note that even in a game when there were missed calls – more of them were right. And after a multiple overtime game, Kleinsasser said Benoit came into their dressing room to say, “You missed some, but not as many as the two teams playing did.”
Joel Maldonado noted that Benoit inspired his officials to support him, too.
“I enjoy talking to Bob on the phone – he’s always positive and encouraging me to go forth,” Maldonado said. “Sometimes after I get done talking to him, I feel like running through a brick wall for him.”
Again, that was Benoit’s standard for interactions. He knew how to challenge, teach, communicate and support.
“I officiated 33 years and worked many games with Bob,” said John Blazek, the NCAA Division II national coordinator of officials. “To this day Bob Benoit is one of the best officiating instructors the state of Kansas has ever had at the high school level.”
“Basketball officiating,” Ferguson said,” is in a better place due to Bob’s unyielding desire to make us all better.”