By Trey Williams
Refereeing and umpiring sporting events would have landed Charlie McConnell more than enough verbal abuse even if he hadn’t been an African-American calling games in Appalachia beginning in 1964.
McConnell, who died Thursday, March 24, spent parts of six decades officiating and supervising officials.
McConnell once had a physical confrontation with Bobby Cremins after Cremins’ Appalachian State lost a close game to Sonny Smith-coached East Tennessee State in Brooks Gym.
Smith razzed Cremins about the incident at an event Jay Bilas emceed in Johnson City in 2013. Cremins said he was reprimanded by the Southern Conference for the clash, which took place in the officials’ dressing room after the game.
Cremins conceded that he’d acted regrettably but noted that McConnell threw the first punch. Smith, ever adept at getting a few laughs, quickly added, “And the last one.”
Two decades after the scrape, McConnell had triple-bypass surgery.
Official Larry Hutchinson, like McConnell, a TSSAA Hall of Famer, was one of few who knew that McConnell had a special visitor during that health scare. Hutchinson and legendary official Ralph Stout visited McConnell, learning a surprise visitor had been there the day before.
“When Charlie had his spell in the hospital Bobby Cremins went to see him,” Hutchinson said. “He’d felt so bad. He’d apologized to Charlie and all that, but Charlie was sick and he’d had that triple-bypass surgery on his heart. Bobby Cremins wasn’t at Appalachian State then. He was at Georgia Tech. Someone let him know about Charlie McConnell and he drove all the way up here to Johnson City.”
McConnell officiated college games in the Southern Conference, Ohio Valley Conference, Tennessee-Virginia Athletic Conference and at the junior college level.
McConnell officiated when Bristol College defeated Dyke College (Cleveland, Ohio) 72-70 in Viking Hall for the National Little College Athletic Association title in 1986. Bristol College was coached by former Science Hill and Milligan player Brien Crowder.
“Charlie was not only a friend of my family but a wonderful person as well as ref and umpire,” Crowder said. “He was an umpire when I started playing Little League at nine years old. And he was a ref from middle school and high school all the way through my playing and coaching days.
“He was a very fair man. No one could ever call him a homer. He would always, in the most professional way with the wonderful smile, explain why he called the call and not hold a grudge afterwards. I loved to watch him call games even when I wasn’t involved.”
McConnell helped inspire veteran African-American official Herb Greenlee to enter the field.
“He was one of my mentors,” Greenlee said. “He officiated at Carver and Langston a lot before he got up the ladder.”
Climbing the ladder meant becoming a pioneer.
“I mean Charlie was the only black official back in those days, I’m telling you,” Hutchinson said. “He was the only one (in the region). There weren’t many around (anywhere).”
Greenlee said McConnell mentioned pulling a gun on a disgruntled fan in Erwin one night.
“He didn’t take no junk,” Greenlee said. “But he was fair. When I got started calling TSSAA sometimes I’d hear, ‘You’re just like Charlie McConnell.’ Shoot, I thought that (comparison) was the height of my career.”
McConnell officiated football for a long time as well, spending the majority of it on a crew that included Stout, Shelby Miller, Hutchinson, Ernest “Blackcat” Rasar and Billy Bob Garrison.
“Charlie was a back judge in football,” Hutchinson said. “I was the clock operator. … Everyone in that crew is in the (TSSAA) Hall of Fame.”
Stout enjoyed a lengthy stint as the OVC supervisor of officials.
“I’d say Ralph helped Charlie get into some of those (college) leagues because he respected him really well,” Hutchinson said. “Charlie was a hell of a basketball official. Shoe-wee, he was good; there ain’t no doubt about that. He was one of the better basketball officials that I’ve ever been around, just to be honest with you.
“I was a young official and he helped my career, and I’m sure he helped other people. He was top-notch. He never criticized anybody. He had a good basketball mind. He was a better basketball official than he was a football official. He could just command a game.”
Hutchinson recalled officiating a high-speed Walters State game with McConnell during what turned out to be the end of his college career.
“We’d started to have three-man crews and they still liked to have run our (butts) off,” Hutchinson said. “The score was like, 133-128. After the game we were about killed. I said, ‘Charlie, I don’t know how in the world you made it up and down the court.’ He said, ‘I didn’t, I just floated.’ …
“I’d never been in a game like that, and it was with Charlie in his latter years. … In fact, after that game he thought maybe he ought to quit because he couldn’t keep up with the players, you know, even in a three-man crew. That was probably about his last game he refereed in college.”
Hutchinson said McConnell’s wife Ann, who died last year, seemed to be worried about McConnell after a game that turned out to be not too many years before his heart surgery.
“His wife had called and asked me how I thought Charlie got along, and I said, ‘Well, he struggled a little bit,’” Hutchinson said. “She said, ‘Well, what do you think about him?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I hate to say anything.’ She said, ‘Charlie trusts you more than anybody.’ And I said, ‘Well I think it’s time maybe for him to give it up’ because he’d struggled so much in that game. Even though he said he floated, he struggled awfully bad and he knew he did. As we rode back up the road we talked about it.
“His wife was something else. We talked on the phone three or four times. She was an awfully nice lady. She was active in the NAACP.”
Hutchinson has supervised officials a number of years.
“Charlie supervised me,” he said. “He told me what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right. And after the next game he’d come along and say, ‘Well, you listened didn’t you.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, when you look up to the best you want to be the best.’ He was one of the top officials in the state of Tennessee. He was kind of like Ralph.
“And he was good man, a good Christian man. He never said anything negative toward an official. I can always remember that. He’d tell me things officials needed to work on, but he never criticized them. He’d go out of his way to help another guy try to make it.”
McConnell officiated boys state championship games in 1973 and ’87. He’s in the Johnson City Parks & Rec and Carver Recreation Halls of Fame. He was inducted into the Northeast Tennessee Hall of Fame in 1997 with sports writer Bill Lane, who also recently died, and Greeneville coach Ty Disney.
“All I ever wanted to do,” McConnell said that night, “was referee ballgames.”