Back in the late ’80s, spectators at Woodbury High School junior varsity girls’ basketball games became accustomed to an unusual sight: a 6-year-old kid standing in one corner of the gym, making hand signals and pretending to referee the game. Woodbury native Jason Nickleby, 36, son of longtime local coach and teacher Bob Nickleby, was getting an early start on a career path that has continued to this day: working as a professional referee.
Nickleby recently achieved another major milestone in his career. He was named one of the full-time, on-field officials for this year’s Big Ten football season. Nickleby previously did most of his football officiating in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). He finished the 2016 football season as a top-rated MAC official and worked the Western Michigan University-Ohio University MAC title game.
The referee remembers the excitement of working his first Big Ten game (Western Michigan at Purdue) in 2014. He’s looking to work many more Big Ten games, starting this fall. Nickleby’s rise to the Big Ten is another step toward his ultimate goal: becoming a full-time National Football League official.
A 2000 Woodbury High School graduate and three-sport letter winner, Nickleby also works as coordinator of officials for the Minnesota State High School League, a position he’s held since 2015. Dave Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, says Nickleby’s success as an official is no accident. “Jason is an extremely talented and hard-working man who continuously looks for ways to improve his officiating skills,” Stead says. “He studies game films, reviews specific plays that may have been questioned, attends officiating clinics, and is an excellent student of the game.”
Nickleby could be considered a “born referee.” As long as he can remember, he’s “had an interest in overseeing something. Not because I’m a control freak; but I am a firstborn, and a ‘rule follower.’” He started officiating for real as a 12-year-old, umpiring Woodbury Athletic Association baseball games, with kids as old as 17. He “did pretty well,” he recalls. “I didn’t take a lot from anybody.”
As a newbie, Nickleby compensated for his lack of his experience by “hustling and having a good attitude.” That means running to the base where the call will take place, rather than making a call from a distance. Players and coaches are less likely to dispute calls when you’re standing next to the base, rather than making a call from 60 feet away, he says. His supervisors told him he wouldn’t need to run down the baseline for every call, but he kept doing it, and that hustle has served him well, says Nickleby, who “retired” from baseball umpiring about five years ago after handling a state championship game.
During his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Nickleby began officiating high school and small college football games. He worked on sideline crews that handled varsity football, baseball and basketball games. In addition, he officiated high school football games each year, through the 2011 season, when he was hired by the MAC. He also worked Big Sky Conference Division 1 college games. Last season, he split his time between the MAC and the Big Ten.
What makes a good official? “One thing I’ve learned over the years—sometimes the hard way—is it’s important to try to have good working relationships with coaches,” he says. Emotions can lead to saying the wrong thing, “but you should learn from those situations and do better next time.”