Gene Steratore grew up in an officiating household. His father, Gene Sr., was a college basketball and college football official, notably working for the Eastern 8 (precursor to Atlantic 10) in basketball and Big East in football.
“I was fortunate enough as a child to be around watching college basketball and college football at a very high level,” Steratore says. “And my father was the official that I was watching all of those years.”
Steratore ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps — and then some. Just like Gene Sr., Steratore broke into officiating NCAA basketball in the A-10, later working throughout college basketball in an officiating career that lasted from 1995 until 2018. But in 2003, he began to work the NFL, too, eventually becoming a crossover success story. He served as a referee for both the Super Bowl (LII) and the NCAA Tournament (2008 and 2009), as well as the Atlantic 10, Big East and Big Ten Conference Tournaments. Steratore’s retirement from officiating leaves only Bill Vinovich officiating in both the NFL as well as NCAA Basketball.READ MORE: Despite Exit, David Levy’s Presence Looms Large Over March Madness
All the while, Steratore and older brother Tony, a current NFL official since 1999, have run Steratore Sanitary Supply, a janitorial paper supply distribution company, out of Western Pennsylvania since 1988.
Steratore traded in his zebra shirts for a suit last summer and promptly signed on with CBS Sports to serve as an on-air rules analyst for both NFL and NCAA Basketball coverage. This month’s NCAA Tournament is his first on the media side. Fans watching the First Four and first weekend of March Madness probably saw Steratore pop in to offer his analysis from a CBS studio. He will carry the same role during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight before being on-site at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
“Now, a lot of people on social media, seeing me on this platform are saying, ‘Wow, why is he doing basketball?” Steratore laughs. “It means the 20-plus years of Division I basketball I did, I obviously wasn’t recognized as much, which is the ultimate compliment to an official. When you’re not seen, that means you did a great job.”
Now, Steratore is seen. His name and headshot pop across the screen every time he breaks down a call.
Just like with football, Steratore’s March Madness plan with CBS is to jump in for every possible questionable call, especially those being reviewed. He also wants to follow the teaching model he established this NFL season.“With this position, what I think I did in some ways this year [in the NFL], was at least take the viewer into the mind and the eyes of that official and to try to humanize a little bit of the speed of this game and how quickly decisions are being made.” Steratore says. “I want to put a human element on what these unbelievably talented officials are doing without the luxury of slow motion and, really, how many more times they’re really right than they’re wrong.”
CBS gave Steratore a few warm-ups for March Madness. He contributed his analysis to the network’s college basketball broadcasts in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Those few games alone were enough to introduce Steratore to the differences between basketball and football broadcast production.
“Basketball is so fast,” Steratore says. “In football, in the fall, when we have a review or a challenge play, the majority of the time, we break for commercial, I would have a two-and-a-half-minute sequence of time there to get multiple angles of a play to look at what the official was viewing or reviewing. And then, when we would come back from commercial, I had two minutes to digest what I think happened and put my thoughts and my words into my opinion.”“Basketball, my goodness, they blow the whistle and the next thing you know, they’re walking to the table. We don’t get an announcement as to what they may be doing right away. We can have maybe two or three minutes of air time there.”
While fans may have been oblivious to Steratore’s grind as a working official, certain players saw Steratore as a multi-sport athlete. He notes he had the chance to referee stars like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger for much of their primes.
“I would have some talk on an NFL field from Aaron Rodgers about how well I was or how well I wasn’t working Wisconsin basketball games,” Steratore chuckles.
At the NFL level, the consistency of the players and teams made these relationships easier to form while college is more sporadic. Still, Steratore was able to develop a rapport with some future college basketball stars.
“I had a great affinity for Draymond Green, being the personality he was,” Steratore says. “He was always fun to officiate. He had a great personality, and I’m kind of a talker anyway, so, I think those kinds of personality guys, I enjoyed having a little back and forth. I had good relationships with the Wisconsin group that went through to the Final Four with [Frank] Kaminsky and [Sam] Decker.”Steratore’s road to the Final Four will end in Minneapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium, the same venue he officiated his final NFL game, when Tom Brady fumbled away the Patriots’ chances in Super Bowl LII. He was only 55 when he retired, right in the middle of the 51-to-59 range that he calls an official’s prime. But, for him, the timing felt right. He has the opportunity to take on a new endeavor with his “health in good standing.”
“I spent a lot of years on the road,” Steratore says. “I spent a lot of days away from my family. I have three children. I’ve been a single father for the last 15 years. I’m happily engaged at this point, but I also was away a long time.”
At least for this month, Steratore is traveling again. This time, thankfully, he won’t have coaches yelling at his face.
But through a TV Screen? Maybe.