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Clasby on half-century of officiating: ‘I had a great time’

Kevin Mays • May 3, 2020 at 5:00 PM

WISE — James Clasby summed up his time officiating football and basketball in one sentence.

“I had a great time,” he said Thursday.

Clasby retired his white hat as the crew chief for high school football games a handful of years ago.

He officiated football for 52 years, primarily in Southwest Virginia with a couple of years in Germany thrown in. He also officiated basketball for 35 years.

Clasby worked as the referee or crew chief for football in his final 26 years of officiating.

THE LOVE OF THE GAME

“Football was my first love when it came to calling games,” Clasby said.

His journey into officiating, however, began on the basketball court while still in school.

“I was in high school in Appalachia and I officiated some intramural games. Then they came to me and asked me if I wanted to referee some games at the old Bland High School in Big Stone Gap,” Clasby recalled.

Bland was an all-African American school prior to desegregation.

“The first game I ever called there they played Elizabethton and I just remember it was a great game,” Clasby said.

Clasby officiated more basketball games at Bland and was also asked to officiate football at the school.

OFF TO EUROPE

After school, Clasby served at the American Postal Unit at Rhein-Main Air Force Base outside Frankfurt, Germany.

While serving his country, he also served the athletes at the base by officiating football.

“On Friday nights we had the American high school games and then on Saturdays and Sundays we had games on the bases,” Clasby said.

His officiating took him across Germany to places such as Nuremberg — his favorite spot in the country — and Berlin, where he officiated in a historic setting.

“I can remember being on the field in Berlin and looking across the field and seeing the Berlin Wall and Russian guards there,” Clasby said.

ON THE HOMEFRONT

Following his military service and furthering his education at Virginia Tech, Clasby returned to Wise County. He taught carpentry at the Wise County Vocational for over 30 years while continuing to officiate.

“A couple of gentlemen by the name of Gothard Bays and Bill Morgan came to me and convinced me to keep calling games,” Clasby said.

It did not take a lot of convincing. He loved officiating.

“You have to love the game and you have to love what you’re doing or you won’t stay in it,” Clasby said.

In the early days, he called basketball as part of the Lonesome Pine District Officials Association. But as the individual district officials associations went by the wayside, he joined the Appalachian Officials Association under commissioner Greever Crouse.

The AOA now provides officials for almost all of Southwest Virginia.

“We worked everything from Wytheville to Thomas Walker,” Clasby noted.

Clasby particularly liked working football games in Tazewell County, where he saw plenty of good games and teams like Richlands, Tazewell and Bluefield.

“Richlands had some great teams,” said Clasby, who added that Graham had some great teams and players as well.

“I talked to Ahmad Bradshaw one night during a timeout. He was having a great game and I told him he was doing well. He said he hoped so and that Coach (Glynn) Carlock has been working with (him).”

After a stellar career at Graham and then Marshall, Bradshaw played on two Super Bowl championship teams with the New York Giants.

Clasby also impressed by Bradshaw’s high school coach.

“Coach Carlock was the finest gentleman in the world,” said Clasby, who also thought highly of Clintwood’s Ralph Cummins and Gate City’s Harry Fry.

Clasby expected good things out of another coach he watched grow up on the field.

“I officiated games when Mark Palmer played at Ervinton and I remember him as a player there. Then I called games when he was a coach at Ervinton and St. Paul,” he said. “When he left and took the coaching job at Patrick Henry, I said that program was going to be turned around because he would turn it around.”

Palmer directed Patrick Henry to its first Region 1D championship this past season.

Clasby also recalls standout coaches on the basketball court. Those like Stan Wilson at J.I. Burton, Jeff Adkins at Coeburn, Preston Mitchell at Pound and Powell Valley, and Steve Collins at Pound and Appalachia were some of the high-strung coaches prowling the floor.

Clasby said he was all right with that because there was also a mutual respect.

“I always said, ‘Coach you do your job and coach and I’ll do mine and officiate,’ ” he said.

Clasby also didn’t have any problem with fans being fans.

“As long as they stayed off the field and the court and didn’t try to hurt anyone, let them scream and yell,” he noted. “It’s just part of it,” he said.

TEACHER AND STUDENT

Clasby trained many officials on his football crews over the years, including Stuart Mullins of Clintwood.

Mullins worked as a line judge on Clasby’s crew before moving onto the college ranks. He’s now a crew chief in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Longtime crew members Mike Strouth and David Harding always kept the white hat on his toes, Clasby said.

“Those guys know the rule book from front to back,” he said. “I learned early to surround myself with good people.”

NOT ALL ABOUT THE KIDS

While Clasby loved calling high school games, he’s called his share of games outside that arena.

He called two U.S. Job Corps national championship games as well as semi-pro football games involving men‘s and women’s teams.

In retirement, Clasby and his wife, Susie, stay busy in the sports world as supervisors of special activities at Tennessee. They oversee ticket gate operations at UT football, basketball, track and swimming, among other sports, as well as concerts, including the recent Garth Brooks concert at Neyland Stadium.

“Sometimes we spend 20 days out of a month in Knoxville,” he said.

“I love it. I’ve got to meet a lot of interesting people the last six or seven years doing that.”

One of the highlights is when former UT great Peyton Manning is in Knoxville for games.

“He always brings pizza to the event workers at halftime. He’s just a great guy,” Clasby said.

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