There have been a lot of changes in the Northeast Arkansas Tournament held at Arkansas State University over the years, but there is one tradition that has been constant for the last 19 years. That tradition is Mike Willyerd who officiated his 19th tournament this year. Willyerd has been officiating games for 25 years and has seen a lot of changes in the game throughout the years.
Mr. Willyerd gave credit to people like George Cagle and A.J. Bandy for guiding him when he first started officiating. Willyerd couldn't actually remember the first game he officiated but recalled a few of his most memorable. One of those came this year when Riverside and Marmaduke faced each other in the quarterfinals. Riverside played much of the fourth quarter and the two overtimes with four players.
He stated that his first time officiating finals of the state tournament in 1994 or 1995 was very memorable because it was played in the Barton Coliseum.
Changes in the NEA tournament have been numerous since Willyerd started officiating the tourney. He started calling games in the old field house when the girls played their games before Christmas and the boys would play after the holiday.
Willyerd said that games are more physical now; athletes are stronger and quicker which allows for a more physical game.
Willyerd believes that consistency is the key to a good official. "If it's a foul on one end then it's a foul on the other end," Willyerd said. He went on to say that in the past officials worked as teams and coaches would contract their own officials, but now 4A and 5A schools have their officials assigned out of Memphis and Carl Williams of Jonesboro assigns the officials for local schools. "The one thing Williams tries to do is to put an experienced official with an inexperienced official," Willyerd said.
Willyerd remembers many good games in the NEA and some that stand out are the rivalry games between Jonesboro and Blytheville and the rivalry games between the smaller schools.
When talking with some of the area coaches all had good things to say and the most common comment made about Willyerd was that he is consistent and the top official around. Former BIC coach Gaylon Taylor, who is now at Valley View, said, "Mike is the best, he is consistent and fair." "He is also approachable - you could talk to Mike about a call and he was willing to listen to what you had to say as a coach."
Mike Bridges said that Willyerd was the most conscientious and ethical referee he knew.
Coach Bill Taylor of BIC said that he was at a disadvantage because Willyerd is from Leachville so he doesn't officiate their games. "That works against us since Mike is the top official around this area," Taylor stated.
In concluding my interview with Mr. Willyerd I asked him what advice would he give any new official or officials in general. His response was "go out and do your job, concentrate on the game not on the fans, make your calls, know the rules, and hustle." He went on to say that he hopes to make it 20 years in the NEA next year.