September 1, 2014

Medina
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Bova set high standards to follow

Steve King

The Gazette

A physical education teacher at a Northeast Ohio elementary school was talking with a friend one morning several years ago as he set up plastic cones on the gym floor for a game his students would be playing that day.

As the two men went from subject to subject — most of them involving sports — the teacher stayed busy, looking up only occasionally as he tried to be ready for the start of the school day. It wasn’t until Phil Bova’s name came up that the teacher, who officiates men’s college basketball on the side, completely stopped what he was doing, put down the cones and looked up with an excited expression on his face.

It was obvious they had swerved into something — or someone, as it were — near and dear to the teacher’s heart.

“Phil Bova is the guy,” the teacher said. “For all the young basketball officials, especially those like me who work college games, Phil is the guy we look up to the most. He’s the guru. He’s the guy we all aspire to be someday.”

If you went around the region and talked to any younger referee, you would hear similar praise of Bova.

To those people — and to so many others in the game who know Bova, or just know of him — he really is the guy. He really is the guru. He really is the guy those young refs all aspire to be someday.

Actually, to any fan who has sat on the sidelines watching basketball and fantasized about being a ref, taking charge of a close game in the waning minutes and having a sellout crowd sway back and forth emotionally with every call and non-call, every stoppage in play, Bova is the guy, deep down inside in their Walter Mitty dreams, they all aspire to be someday.

Phil Bova has done it all, and seen it all. He has rubbed elbows with most every notable figure in the college game over the last 3½ decades, and can call each one of them by their first name, and as a friend.

That, in itself, is more than enough to admit him into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame.

Bova will be enshrined into the hall during induction ceremonies on June 18. The event, sponsored by the Medina Breakfast Kiwanis Club and The Gazette, will be held at the Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth. Doors will open at 6 p.m., with the program beginning at 6:30.

But there is even more that is HOF-worthy about Bova. He’s not just worked countless games. He also worked for more than two decades to try to make sure there would always be a steady stream of qualified young referees in Northeast Ohio entering the field. He did so by running an officials camp for 23 years, one of the first schools of its kind.

He became the guy, the guru that those young refs could see and talk to, learn from, and ask advice of, not just for that week or two, but whenever they felt they needed to do so.

In fact, even though he no longer runs his camp and has been retired from officiating since the end of the 2005-06 season, ending a 41-year career, he still fields those calls.

It’s simply part of what you do when you’re Phil Bova, and you’re well … the guy.

Bova’s connection to Medina County — and it’s a strong one — is that he is a long-time and accomplished teacher at Buckeye High School, having just completed his 32nd year there. And he will just as gladly, proudly and passionately tell you about his work as coordinator of vocational education at Buckeye as he will his work in basketball. It’s why he seems to have no immediate plans to retire from that career.

“The people at Buckeye have been very, very kind to me over the years,” Bova says.

Indeed, there are two Phil Bovas. No, on second thought, make that three.

Bova is intimately involved in baseball as well. He was an All-Ohio shortstop at Cleveland’s West High School and, according to him, “had a cup of coffee” in the minor league chains of the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels.

Later this month, he will run his 36th annual youth baseball skills camp. Having to be moved from its longstanding home, Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, the week-long event will be held at Cuyahoga Community College-West in Parma.

“I am as much a baseball guy as I am a basketball guy,” Bova says.

Indeed. He once served as an assistant baseball coach at Cleveland State University and helped guide a young shortstop named Jerry Dybzinski to a major league career with the Indians.

If you count his time at CSU and at Buckeye, and his time at a few schools in the Cleveland area, then Bova has spent a lifetime — 42 years — in education.

“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful time,” he says.

With a resume like that — with a resume that full — you wonder if Bova has ever gotten a full night’s worth of sleep. He wonders, too, if he really cares. His life is too much fun.

“I’m very blessed,” he says. “I have a wonderful wife of 42 years (Donna), three beautiful kids (Michelle, Jennifer and Michael) and nine beautiful grandkids, and I’ve had a great life in education and athletics.”

What more could a man possibly want?

Bova, who turned 63 on June 4, played basketball and football in addition to baseball at West High before graduating in 1964.

“Phil Argento and I were the team captains in basketball,” he said. “He did all the scoring and shooting and I did all the rebounding because I was grabbing the shots he missed. I didn’t get the ball from him to shoot it myself.”

Always joking, mostly at his own expense and other times with a good-natured jab at a dear friend. That’s the classy way to live your life. Let others be the critics and throw the punches that hurt, the mud that sticks.

Bova never played baseball at Cleveland State but graduated from there with a degree in education. He went on to get his master’s at what was then known as Ashland College.

“I did a little work toward my doctorate degree but never completed it,” he said. “Looking back, I’m kind of glad I didn’t, because now, I’d be known as Dr. Phil and that’s all I would have needed.”

It was along about this time that Bova, to stay close to the game he loved, basketball, started officiating games.

“CYO, junior high and the like,” he said. “I started at the bottom and worked my way to high school junior varsity games, then to the varsity.”

And finally to college, where he worked for 35 years in Division I. He eventually was selected to work in the NCAA Tournament for 20 consecutive years.

“I’m very proud and honored to have worked for that long in ‘The Big Dance,’ ” he says.

He worked 35 years in two conferences now known as the Atlantic 10 and the Horizon League. He worked in the Mid-American Conference for 32 years and then, beginning in 1976, he had his highest-profile job, working 30 years in the Big Ten.

There weren’t a lot of Big Ten games televised in those early years but every time a game was shown, it seemed Bova was working it. He had many of the big ones, and memorable ones, such as the Indiana-Purdue clash at Bloomington a little over 24 years ago.

“I’ll never forget the date,” he said. “It was Feb. 23, 1985, the birthday of my daughter, Michelle. It was the night (Hoosiers head coach) Bobby Knight threw the chair in frustration.”

Frustration about the way the game was going, and maybe even a little frustrated at the officiating, too.

Bova took it for what it was — a hiccup in the relationship between the two men — and nothing more. Knight did the same.

“I was a no-nonsense ref, and he understood that and liked that,” Bova said. “If he thought you were weak as a ref, you were done. It was ‘Katie bar the door’ with the way he would treat you then.

“And I have to tell you, too, that the very next year after the chair-throwing incident, he showed up at my officials camp. He was going to talk for about a half-hour, but he ended up talking for about three hours. I couldn’t shut him up. But the young refs who were at the camp loved it. They were in awe.”

Bova said he could have worked six or seven days a week if he had wanted to do so. But he didn’t. He had a family — and a teaching job at Buckeye — that he cared for deeply. He worked with his assigners to work a couple nights a week locally, at games to which he could drive, and then he’d take the longer trips on the weekend that required plane rides.

“I wasn’t going to be away from my family any more than I had to,” Bova said. “I wanted to be there as much as I could for the birthdays and the school functions for the kids and all that.

“Even if you work a schedule like I did, you have to have a very understanding wife. And I did. If you don’t have an understanding wife and you work a lot, you can go through two or three marriages by the time you’re done because it can very quickly and easily turn into a full-time job.”

Bova is also proud he missed only a small handful of school days at Buckeye because of his officiating job.

“And every time, it was because of weather problems,” he said. “The people at Buckeye understood that. They always knew where I was and why I wasn’t there.”

But in 2006, after exactly three decades in the Big Ten, he stepped away.

“I wanted to go out on top,” he said. “I didn’t want to get a phone call from my supervisor saying, ‘Phil, it’s time to circle the wagons,’ ” he said.

So now he spends more time with his wife in their home in Westlake, where they’ve lived for 27 years. He misses the spotlight and the game, but it has allowed him to go on a cruise with Donna.

“If I knew I’d get to take a cruise every time, I’d retire more,” he quipped.

And he will be at the Galaxy soon with his family, anxious to go into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame, and excited that after doing so much on a national basis for so long, the people back home have seen fit to honor him.

“The Hall of Fame is rich in tradition,” he said. “So to become part of all that is a real thrill. I’m honored.”

That night, for one more time, Phil Bova gets to be the guy, and that’s the way it should be.

Contact Steve King at sports@ohio.net.