Sullivan Returns to Court After Coaching, Sees Game In New Ways as Official

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

February 6, 2024

Gary Sullivan is getting a whole new perspective on basketball.

Southeast & BorderAfter 25 years of coaching the game on several levels – including the last six as the boys varsity coach at Blissfield Community Schools – Sullivan has replaced his school logo with stripes and a whistle. He’s enjoying his second basketball career, this time as a referee.

“I’m having a good time,” said Sullivan, who will retire this month as a teacher at Blissfield. “I’ve had fantastic experiences so far. I hope it stays that way.”

Sullivan is an Ohio native, having grown up just across the state line and attended Evergreen High School. After graduating from the University of Toledo, he landed a teaching job at Blissfield. Early on, he took a stab at officiating basketball.

“(Former Blissfield baseball coach) Larry Tuttle got me into it,” he said. “I did a few middle school and some junior varsity games. Then, when I became an athletic director pretty early in my career, I gave officiating up.”

He started coaching along the way, from youth sports to middle school basketball. He took over as the Blissfield varsity coach in 2016-17

After winning seven games over two seasons with an experienced roster, Blissfield rebounded with 12 wins in 2018-19 and 19 in 2019-20 – the most for Blissfield since 1992.

The Royals won Lenawee County Athletic Association and Division 2 District titles in 2021. The LCAA title was the first for the Royals since 2003, and the District championship was the first for the school since 2004. He won 60 games in all and earned two county Coach of the Year awards.

He stepped down as basketball coach two years ago.

It wasn’t long and he was being courted to help tackle the referee shortage in Michigan and across the country. His brother, Terry, is a basketball official in the Jackson area.

“When I was finished coaching, I started thinking about it again,” Sullivan said. “My brother does a ton of officiating in the Jackson area. He told me, ‘Just do it. It will be fun. What else are you going to do in the middle of the winter? You might as well referee.’ It gives you a chance to still be involved in the game.”

Initially, Sullivan figured he’d officiate a few middle school and junior varsity games. Once he got his feet wet and adjusted to life with the whistle, however, he was hooked.

Sullivan directs his team from the sideline during his tenure as Blissfield’s boys basketball coach. “Last year was my first year – that was my intention, do middle school and some JV, maybe a couple of days a week,” he said. “Before I knew it, they were assigning me games left and right. The more I did it, the more I liked it. By the end of the year, they had the chance to assign a couple of varsity games. No one complained too awful bad, and they gave me a few more.”

With his basketball background, Sullivan found being a referee an outlet for his competitive nature.

“Being around basketball has made it much easier for me than someone who just comes in and, ‘Hey, I’ll try to do this,’ he said. “You are competing with yourself a little to make the right call and keep the game flowing along.”

There have been a few unexpected moments in the transition from coach to referee.

For one, Sullivan said, being on the court is a completely different perspective than being on the sidelines.

“It is so much faster when you have to run and follow that person than it is when you sit there and watch it,” Sullivan said. “When you have to run, get to your primary spot, then keep the peripheral vision going to watch everything, it's much faster, more difficult than I ever anticipated.”

Sullivan said certain aspects of the game are different, too.

“As a coach, I always anticipated what I thought was going to happen,” he said. “In your mind you know someone is going to travel, then as soon as they travel, you are yelling ‘Travel!’ As an official, it is better to be a second late and be correct than a second early and be wrong.

“To me, the toughest transition has been to slow down, wait for the actual play to let itself run its course. Make sure it really was a foul. Think about it. Don’t get in a rush to make the call.”

He’s grateful to other area officials who have helped him learn the tricks of the trade during either formal training sessions or by example. He’s had the chance to review some of his games on film, which has helped him dissect the game from a new angle. He’s also learned from coaching to block out fans and people from the crowd who might disagree with a call.

“I have not had a negative experience yet from a fan,” he said. “As a former coach, I put myself on double probation – I dished out enough that maybe I’m a little more tolerant than some other officials. That’s just my personality at this point.”

This year Sullivan has had a full schedule of middle school games plus about a dozen girls varsity basketball games and a handful of boys varsity games. The most recent was Friday in Ottawa Lake in front of a big crowd watching rivals Whiteford and Summerfield.

“That was a ton of fun – full house, competitive game. I was glad to be a part of it,” Sullivan said.

There’s another bonus to being an official. When the game is over, he can go home and sleep. No more late nights watching film or scouting for the upcoming opponent.

“My cats are much happier,” he said. “I’m not waking up at 4:30 in the morning and watching a film, then going back to bed. It’s fun. I’m enjoying it.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Official Gary Sullivan monitors the action while working a boys basketball game at Ottawa Lake Whiteford. (Middle) Sullivan directs his team from the sideline during his tenure as Blissfield’s boys basketball coach. (Top photo by Mike Doughty; middle photo courtesy of the Adrian Daily Telegram.)