Veteran IHSAA, Big Ten and NFL Official Mark Baltz Talks Love of the Game
Photographer / Robby Berry
You never know how dreams will be born. In the case of Mark Baltz, it happened in his high school physical education class.
“Our athletic director, Dick England, would throw me a whistle in gym class and tell me to ref the games while he read the paper,” says Baltz, who grew up in Lancaster, Ohio.
England noticed his student had a knack for officiating, so towards the end of Baltz’s senior year, England encouraged him to take an officiating class to get licensed.
In 1966 Baltz received his officiating license and started refereeing high school football and basketball games soon thereafter. After college he took a corporate sales job with a glassware manufacturer. Though he was transferred around and later changed jobs, refereeing remained consistent in his life. When he moved from Ohio to Indiana in 1971, however, it was a bit of an adjustment from a sports perspective.
“Crossing the state line where football is king to come to a state where basketball is king was different as night and day,” Baltz says. “Indiana had this history and traditions, huge crowds and everything that goes along with it. I mean, 15 of the 16 largest gymnasiums in the world are in Indiana. I had to prove myself all over again.”
And that he did. When Baltz lived in Fort Wayne, he joined a local association and started networking with referees. After a couple of years he became well-established, working varsity ball. In 1973 he put together a small high school crew. Then in 1980 he relocated to Noblesville with his wife Nicki and their two sons, Brett and Brandon.
He got on with a small college football crew. At the time he was also on a scouting list, trying to work his way up to the collegiate level. That went on for several years until he got on the scouting list for the Big Ten and was finally hired in 1984 by the Big Ten for football, where he worked for five years.
“Big Ten college football was so enjoyable,” Baltz says. “There’s nothing better than a Big Ten stadium on a Saturday afternoon.”
In 1986 the NFL started to scout Baltz. They hired him in 1989 and that’s where he stayed for 25 years. He notes that the big difference between Big Ten and NFL games are the massive crowds that accompany Big Ten games. The other difference was his consistent seven-person crew with the NFL. They did everything together from August through January including eating out and worshipping on Sundays.
“Those of us that went to church prayed that all the tough calls would be in front of those who didn’t go to church,” Baltz says with a chuckle. “That amazingly improved our church attendance as the season progressed.”
In 1992 Baltz moved to Zionsville.
Baltz, who estimates that throughout his career he has officiated between 4,500 and 5,000 games, was elected president of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.
“To be selected to oversee that operation is neat because that place is for the enshrinement of players and coaches who have excelled in high school basketball,” Baltz says. “It’s not about referees.”
This month he’ll be awarded the Indiana Pacers Silver Medal award, which honors an individual’s contribution to Indiana high school basketball. In addition, later this year he’ll be inducted into the NFL Officials Hall of Fame. Though the accolades are nice, Baltz feels blessed to have had so many wonderful experiences during his officiating career.
“I got to referee for some of the greatest people who ever played or coached basketball in the state of Indiana,” he says.
After 47 years of officiating, he’s witnessed great players, great coaches and great camaraderie. Many have gone on to do bigger and better things such as Brad Stevens, a Zionsville native who coached at Butler before going on to the Boston Celtics where he’s now the team’s general manager.
“I reffed his games here at Zionsville High School,” says Baltz, who also recalls the tragic story of John Stewart, a 7’4”, talented athlete who played for Lawrence North and had plans to play at the University of Kentucky. In 1999, during the regional championship game against Bloomington South, Stewart suffered a fatal heart attack. Baltz was reffing that game.
“That sticks with me,” Baltz says. “There we were in a gym of 6,000 to 8,000 screaming kids. It was Hoosier hysteria at its best and then John collapses. I don’t ever want to experience a catastrophe like that again.”
People have often asked Baltz what he said to the captains prior to games. Besides insisting on displaying good sportsmanship, he would say, “I’ll make one promise to you. You don’t miss any shots and I won’t miss any calls.”
During his career, Baltz enjoyed officiating both football and basketball.
“They’re both physically demanding, though more so with basketball where you may sprint up and down the floor 20 or 30 times before there’s a stoppage of play,” Baltz says. “In football you run a play for seven seconds and then you get a rest for 35 seconds.”
Since retiring from officiating eight years ago, Baltz has been the announcer of the Polo Club in Boone County. He’s also staying busy working with Kyle Armstrong to develop curriculum materials that will train new young officials, because currently there’s a shortage of officials across the country. The curriculum was recently approved by the Indiana Department of Education, so next year sports officiating will be taught as an elective in Indiana schools.
“We hope this will get more people involved in officiating,” Baltz says. “We want them to learn the right way. We also want them to get involved for the right reasons – not for the money or to stroke their ego.”
What Makes a Good Referee?
- Good eyesight
- Sharp concentration
- Good judgment
- A thick skin
- Sound physical condition
- Respect for the game
- Good rapport with the players