The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 7, 2014

A Don McCormack column: Getting his Phil

As a businessman, an official, a mentor and as a person, Phil Garcia has certainly more than earned his stripes

Sports Editor

— The conversation went something like this... “See that guy right there, the official?” I said to a few young girls basketball players, who nodded in affirmation.

“Well,” I continued, knowing said official was well within earshot (though he probably couldn’t see me... you know how officials and good vision go together about as well as oil and water, right?), “he was a referee way back when, when I was playing high school ball!”

As a shared look of astonishment ran across their faces, I couldn’t resist.

“Yeah, he was terrible then, too,” I said, laughing, of course.

With that, Phil Garcia smiled, gave me a quick nod and sped back down the opposite end of the floor, “sped” being relative, of course.

After all, 41 years of officiating varsity basketball will take a toll on 58-year-old legs.

A busy guy

Phil Garcia, who has no idea this is being written, by the way, is one of the busiest people in the area.

Aside from being one of the most recognizable officials in the area, he is the assigner of officials for seven schools in the Premier Athletic Conference, St. John, Conneaut, Edgewood and Grand River Academy. Additionally, he handles junior-high assignments for others, including Jefferson, a member of the All-American Conference.

Then, there’s his “real job,” owning and operating Phil’s Catering, a venture he kicked off more than a quarter of a century ago.

“Really, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I weren’t as busy,” he said.

Unfortunately, he has found out the past 2 years.

In 2012, he was sidelined with pancreatitis, which had him hospitalized for 10 days.

Then, last  year, he was out of commission as his gall bladder had to be removed and during the procedure to do so, it was discovered he had a hernia. The double whammy had him laid up in the hospital for 7 days.

“I’ve been down more days the previous 2 years than the rest of my life, combined,” he said with his trademark laugh. “Hopefully, it’s all past and taken care of, now.”

As he worked a basketball game Saturday afternoon, Garcia looked fit and trim and appeared to be in excellent shape.

“I am,” he said, a trace of pride heard in his voice. “I’m eating well... taking much better care of myself.”

Not to mention, obviously, still getting plenty of exercise.

“This is the best I’ve felt in years.”

Great philosophy

A few years ago, Garcia explained his business situation to the late-great Karl Pearson.

One wonders how Garcia has the time to do justice to his business, headquartered at the intersection of Carpenter Road and Lake Road, and still be as involved in officiating as he is.

But it hasn’t had a negative impact on either aspect. The different sides of his life actually work in concert with each other, Garcia believes.

“It gives me the flexibility I need to do all those things,” he said.

It has been a bit of a journey for Garcia into his business side.

“I started out in the grocery business with Valu King in 1978,” he said. “Then I went independent for a while up on Jefferson Road.”

In 1988, he decided to shift his focus to catering.

“It just seemed natural to me,” Garcia said. “I liked the idea of working for myself and it gave me more time to handle all my officiating assignments.

“I can make my own schedule. I like to be out of here by 5 o’clock or a little after so I can get to my officiating assignments in plenty of time.”

Like many of his endeavors, Garcia seems to get thrown right into pressure situations. He remembers the first with amazing clarity.

“My first big job was for Premix’s 30th anniversary,” he said. “It was my first year in catering. I knew some of the people out there and they asked me to do it.

“It was for 4,000 people. We served chicken cacciatore, ham, pasta, potatoes, meat and cheese trays and Jell-O. It went off without a hitch. It’s still my biggest assignment.”

One big reason he was able to do it was finding a labor force he has come to rely upon ever since — students from area high schools.

“I called all the schools to ask them about students who could help out,” he said. “I called Harbor, Ashtabula, St. John and Edgewood. We used 100 students for that event.”

Since then, hundreds of students from area schools as far away as Harvey have worked for Phil’s Catering. Several have stayed with him beyond high school and are people he counts upon to coordinate other catering assignments which he can’t attend because of officiating.

“I have several people on our daily staff, including myself,” Garcia said. “You’re only as good as your employees.”

There are almost no limits to whom Garcia and his staff serve.

“Groups of 200 to 300 are normal, but we’ll serve as few as four people,” he said. “We do a lot of open houses and a lot of work with schools. I’ve worked events as far away as Bedford High School.”

Garcia’s staff is also comfortable with handling a person’s second-biggest event — their wedding reception.

“You have to be on the top of your game for weddings,” he said. “We usually have at least eight people working a wedding reception.”

Actually, the business works out well with his basketball duties, particularly because most are during the slow months.

“We’re really busy around Christmas with all the parties and in June and July with open houses and weddings,” Garcia said. “January through March is usually a little slower, which works well with basketball officiating.”

Garcia and his staff pride themselves on their ability to handle almost any catering request.

“If we have an opening, we can probably plan a wedding in about a week,” he said. “An open house probably takes a couple days. I can do a small lunch with just a couple hours notice. But remember, it’s first come, first served.

“Most major events, I’m there. I try to limit Saturday assignments to one, although sometimes I’ll book two.”

Vacation? What’s a vacation? Garcia doesn’t believe in being away from the business for more than a few days at a time.

“I might go to Chicago once a year for three days because I’m a big Bulls fan,” he said. “I’ve been doing that since Michael Jordan played. I’ve even taken some of the workers with me.

“I probably work 300 days a year. I usually try to get away over the Fourth of July weekend, too. I like to go to (U.S. Cellular Field) and other places in Chicago. I love it there.”

Being a mentor

While Garcia has employed hundreds of young people through the years with his business, he has also been there for young officials.

On Saturday, for example, the man who has worked 10 state tournaments (all since 1994) led a crew that also included Duane Jackson from Akron and Simone Jelks, who was a star player at Brush and then played college ball at Southern California and then professionally in Puerto Rico.

“It’s very rewarding to work with good, young officials,” he said. “It’s something I really enjoy doing.

“They are the future of our side of the game, after all.”

Garcia is paying it forward, just as the likes of officiating icons such as Bud Ruland, Bill Sopchak and Bill Brainard did for him.

“Bud Ruland was my mentor,” he said. “I worked a lot with Bill Sopchak and Bill Brainard, too. I consider Bud and those guys to have been my mentors.

“Bud would work any game if he had the time, including junior high games. He always told me, ‘If you think you’re too good to work any game, it’s time for you to get out.’”

Which is why, upon his return from his health issues back in August, Garcia assigned himself to a junior-high game.

“It was a great feeling-my-way process for me,” he said. “Plus, I never mind working junior-high games. It’s always great to see younger players as they work at and try to learn the game.”

Getting the ball rolling

Of course, Garcia’s No. 1 mentor was his father, the late Andrew Garcia, for him Conneaut High School’s gymnasium is named.

Long before Phil struck out on his own in business, the son of the legendary coach and athletic administrator and his faithful companion, Rose Marie, was already catering to the needs of high school athletes all over Ohio. That service has been going on for 41 years in boys and girls basketball, starting just a year after he graduated from Conneaut High School in 1973.

Phil actually began officiating while still in high school, even younger than that, in fact.

“I started umpiring Little League baseball games when I was 12 or 13,” he said. “I helped work fifth- and sixth-grade basketball, too.”

Never much more than a run-of-the-mill athlete himself, young Garcia didn’t find much success on the court. He came along too late to play for his dad, who retired as Conneaut’s head basketball coach in 1968, and was cut from the Spartan squad before his senior year by his dad’s old assistant coach, Paul Freeman.

“We had a lot of seniors on the team that year and I got caught in the numbers game,” Garcia told our Karl Pearson. “I stayed around and kept stats and traveled with the team.”

He also ran cross country for retired Conneaut athletic director Bill Fails.

Officiating gave him a new outlet into which to pour his love of sports. He got his license to referee basketball when he was 19, back in the days when prospective officials were only required to pass a written test. Several years ago, the Ohio High School Athletic Association required all officiating candidates to participate in a 25-hour class to earn practical experience on the court, a class Garcia has organized and conducted for 19 years.

“All you had to do back when I started was get a 75 percent on your written test,” he said.

A one-year apprenticeship officiating junior high, freshmen and JV games followed, but by his second year, he was working games at the varsity level. He was already something of a known commodity.

“I think it helped that my dad was the official assigner for the NEC,” Garcia said.

His first varsity game couldn’t have been more intimidating, encountering two coaches with hall-of-fame credentials.

“I worked the game between Harvey and Geneva, which was a non-conference game back then,” he said. “John D’Angelo was coaching Harvey and Bill Koval was coaching Geneva. I was nervous, but it went all right.”

Andy Garcia’s connections in the athletic community also helped his son get assignments in Lake, Cuyahoga, Geauga and Trumbull counties and even in the Akron area.

“My dad knew guys like Harry Winters from South, who did the Greater Cleveland Conference assigning, and Charlie Hall from Chardon, who did the assigning for the CVC,” he said. “(Northeast District Athletic Board of Control secretary) Ed Batanian has also helped me a lot over the years.”

By his fifth year of basketball officiating, he was assigned to work tournament games. His first sectional tournament assignment was an eye opener, too.

“It was a first-round game at Euclid,” Garcia said. “I always like to get to games early, and it was an 8 o’clock game, so I got there at 6:30 with my dad.

“It was a game between St. Joe’s and Lake Catholic. I walked out before the game and looked up and the stands were just packed. (Future Ohio State and NBA standout) Clark Kellogg was playing for St. Joe’s and I think Dave Youdath was playing for Lake Catholic. I was a little nervous for that game.”

In the years since, he’s worked games involving many great athletes and coaches.

“I’ve worked games when (NBA player) Earl Boykins played at Cleveland Central Catholic, Treg Lee was at St. Joe’s, with Jay McHugh at Geneva, Maurice and Alan McDonald at PV and (the late) Ryan Turner and Fred Scruggs at Harbor,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for coaches like Koval and D’Angelo, Jon Hall, Rod Holmes, Bob Hitchcock, Frank Roskovics and Bob Callahan.”

Earning his first state tournament assignment is also a fond memory.

“I remember getting the call to work the girls tournament from (OHSAA assistant commissioner) Fred Dafler,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to get it, but one of the other officials couldn’t do it, so he called me. I was so happy.”

Still going strong

Now into his fourth decade of officiating, Garcia has a keener appreciation for not only his craft, but the people who are parts of the game.

“I realize I’ve lost a step or two, but I like to think I’ve made up for it by having better mechanics and being in better shape,” he said. “I owe it, especially to the players and the coaches, to give it my best effort, night in, night out, regardless of the level of the game or the caliber of the teams.”

And, like any good son, he’s never forgotten the words of his father.

“There’s a statement up on the wall in (Garcia Gymnasium) that my dad used to say,” Garcia said. “It says, ‘If you give your best, you’re a winner.’ I really believe that.”

And by his demeanor on the floor, his interactions with players, coaches and spectators, all the while being a successful businessman and mentor to youngsters and up-and-coming officials attempting to earn their stripes, while Phil Garcia believes that, he also is that.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at