High school sports officials generally abhor the idea of inclusion in a sports story.
Nevertheless, more than 50 years of officiating makes Art Hamm a story in himself.
Tony Turina spent 27 years as a basketball referee before changing sides, becoming a legendary Torrington coach.
Art Hamm went the other way.
Growing up in Terryville, playing basketball and baseball with the Kangaroos, he came back to Terryville after playing shortstop for Frank Viera, at the University of New Haven.
“I wanted to be a pro baseball player, but I was 5-4 in high school” Hamm smiles, “After a couple of years in college, I realized it wasn’t going to happen (despite an eight-inch growth spurt). I decided I wanted to be a teacher and transferred to Southern Connecticut.”
By 1968, he was back in Terryville as a sixth-grade math teacher.
But Hamm grew up in an ultra-athletic family — of his three younger sisters, one was captain of Yale’s field hockey team, another was coach of UConn’s women’s basketball team for a year.
“As kids in pickup games, they’d pick one of them before me,” Hamm grins.
Dreams of professional glory fade, but love of sports does not.
Hamm became athletic director at Terryville’s Fisher Middle School, then the high school.
For 10 seasons, from 1973 through 1984, he was also Terryville High School’s head basketball coach. The Kangaroos owned the Berkshire League basketball crown for half of them, then won back-to-back Class S state titles in his final two years.
“I had a great relationship with my assistant coach, John Swicklas,” he says as part of the success. The other parts, one assumes, came from Hamm’s intensity.
Physical limitations can define the ceiling for players; determination knows no bounds. Hamm, a self-described Bobby Knight disciple, went to coaching workshops by Knight and many others.
“We never scrimmaged in practice,” he says. “In two hours, everything we did was based on drills and individual competitions.
“It was all designed to be used in games. The whole thing was based on being in shape, good scouting reports and everybody playing their role.
“We pressed full court the entire game. We had a guard who didn’t score more than four points a game, playing defense on the other team’s best player.”
Jim Welcome’s Gilbert teams dominated the Berkshire League for the next two decades with similar techniques.
Hamm established the Terryville Trotters, a youth ball-handling squad that charmed half-time audiences while developing young players. Bob McMahon’s Thomaston Trotters followed the pattern as part of his girls basketball success at Thomaston High School.
From the beginning, Hamm officiated soccer and baseball games using the same kind of study, organization and determination that worked in coaching.
When he played high school sports (class of 1963), Terryville offered only basketball and baseball.
When he came back as a middle school teacher, a colleague at Fisher Middle school, spotting a Waterbury Republican-American article on the need for soccer officials, said, “Let’s go.”
“I didn’t know anything about soccer. I knew baseball,” Hamm said.
Study and determination kicked in.
“I was never comfortable in soccer at the beginning,” he says. “I knew the rules, but the most important part of officiating is a feel for the game. The rules are simple; most of the time, making good calls relies on judgment.”
So Hamm embarked on a continuing study — clinics, watching other officials, and his own tools as a highly-successful coach.
“In 10 years as a basketball coach, you know how many technicals we had? Zero,” he says. “I told my players if they got a technical, they could turn in their uniforms.”
Hamm retired as a coach to raise two sons, but the coaching philosophies didn’t change as an official, for three sports now, including the addition of basketball refereeing after retiring as a coach.
“I have zero tolerance for dissent,” he says, then harks back to the role players on his teams.
“Players play; coaches coach; refs ref; and fans cheer,” he says. “If one of those elements gets out of hand, it spreads. Fifty percent of my (penalty) cards are for dissent. When I give one to a player, I say, ‘Go back and tell your teammates, ‘Just play the game.’”
The discipline applies to everyone. Hamm once tossed a school principal for arguing a call on the sidelines. It earns both respect and a certain amount of opprobrium, along with another root of his officiating fame.
“Over the years, I think about what sports have done for me. It’s not about me — it’s about the relationships — seeing the coaches and people I know,” he says.
On the field or in the gym, he’s not about to give up those relationships.
Regardless, he earns — and sometimes demands — respect.
Hamm ran off 47 straight state soccer final assignments, 58 in all three sports, in a job reserved for the best officials.
He was selected to investigate the now-infamous Derby/Torrington girls soccer fracas this year on the officiating side.
Nobody knows the rules better than Art Hamm. Nobody has more success in game management, for which he still attends clinics.
And nobody loves the game more.
“It’s still exciting for me to get a schedule, going to those gyms or those fields,” he says.
For the past 35 years, he’s been the rules interpreter for the 120-member Western Connecticut Soccer Officials Association, going over new or old rules at every meeting. He conducts winter clinics for new soccer officials. He started a mentor program three years ago. He’ll kick off an evaluation program for the board next year.
He doesn’t get paid for that.
“The longer I’m in this, the more I want to give back,” Hamm says.
Need a footnote for his success?
Sons Brian and Greg are also doing fine.
Brian, after starring in three sports at Terryville and two at Middlebury College, coached baseball at Amherst College for nine years, earning the New England Small College Association’s Coach of the Year award in his final season after compiling the Mammoths’ winningest record over that span. Last year, he was selected from 175 applicants for the head coaching job at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Greg didn’t play sports. Instead, he went to Yale and Georgetown Law School, recently retiring as a Citibank corporate attorney to start his own business.
“I think I’ve become a better official, watching my son coach and recruit in college,” says Art Hamm, who, by the way, also officiates college games.
But that’s another story.