Dan Wooldridge: Commissioner, Referee, Sports Ambassador

Dan Wooldridge (left) with current ODAC Commissioner Brad Bangston at the NCAA Division-III Basketball Final-Four held at the Salem Civic Center in March.
Dan Wooldridge (left) with current ODAC Commissioner Brad Bangston at the NCAA
Division-III Basketball Final-Four held at the Salem Civic Center in March.

To say Dan Wooldridge has been at the grass roots of area sports may be an exceptional understatement.

Football and basketball referee, 21-year Commissioner of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference and the brainchild of Salem’s Stagg Bowl, the Division III football championship played in the City of Champions each December since 1993, Wooldridge has been a centerpiece of sporting events for decades.

Sitting down with Wooldridge, now 80, is a delight. He can rattle off stories of games and well-known sports figures he has encountered over those years like the game had been played yesterday.

Certainly, no shortage of memory or memories. And, many stories few people have heard about even to this day.

Wooldridge’s early childhood also came with unexpected surprises.

Orphaned at an early age in Lynchburg, Wooldridge grew up in a foster home in Rustburg,Va. where he took his foster mother’s last name.

He got his first job at age 11 as a paper boy, and drove a school bus in Rustburg when he was only 15, at a time when it was legal to drive a school bus at that age.

At Rustburg High School Wooldridge’s sport of choice was baseball where he was a very talented player. He was drafted right out of high school by the St. Louis Cardinals, but his professional baseball career was sidetracked when his foster mother refused to sign the papers to allow him to play professionally.

Disappointed at losing that opportunity, Wooldridge decided his goal was to become a state trooper. But, a twist of fate presented him the unexpected chance to attend college.

Despite Wooldridge having no money for tuition, Dr. Joseph Hunter, a professor of religion at Lynchburg College who was a friend of President Dwight Eisenhower and baseball executive Branch Rickey, made arrangements for Wooldridge to attend the college, where Wooldridge lived in the Lynchburg gym while pursuing his education. While at Lynchburg, Dan met his wife Nancy, to whom he has now been married for 60 years.

Upon graduation in 1956, Wooldridge moved to Roanoke where he became a physical education and drivers ed teacher at William Fleming High School, as well as an assistant football coach under legendary Colonel coach Fred Smith.

“I got $3,100 for teaching, plus an extra $500 for coaching three sports,” Wooldridge noted during a recent interview.

While at Fleming, Wooldridge began officiating, and calling rec basketball games at the old Roanoke City Market Building.

“I’d call three games a night for $2 per game,” Wooldridge said of that early start in officiating.

Eventually, he began calling high school games for $ 17.50. Then, in 1963, Wooldridge officiated his first Division-I college game in Lexington after an unusual set of circumstances put him on the court in a striped shirt.

“I had called a ‘rat’ game at VMI along with a professor from VMI,” Wooldridge remembered. “The VMI-Davidson game followed and one of the assigned refs got stranded in a snow storm on his way to Lexington. So they came up to us and said one of us would have be the second ref in the varsity game. When Davidson coach Lefty Driesell was asked which one of us he wanted, knowing the other guy was a VMI professor, he said, ‘I’ll take the guy from Roanoke’.  It was my first job officiating a Division-I college game.”

That night in Lexington started a long career for Wooldridge that would include refereeing college basketball and football in a number of major conferences.

Wooldridge went on to become a supervisor of football and basketball officials in several conferences including The Big East, a scout for NFL officials and a consultant for ACC football, including 6 years in the replay booth.

He also was chosen to be one of two referees from the United States to officiate the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and was set to call the 1980 games in Moscow until the U.S. pulled out of those games for political reasons.

In the 1970s, Wooldridge also became a key figure in the formation of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. He even came up with the name and logo for the conference.

He first became associated with the conference as the person who assigned officials for football, basketball and baseball.

“The conference realized they needed to hire a neutral person to address problems, facilities and eligibility issues,” Wooldridge said. He became the first commissioner in 1976 with a salary of $ 1,200 and held that position until 1997. “In 21 years the most I made as commissioner was $ 10,000.”

The ODAC also had growing pains.

“The first three years, the top basketball team hosted the postseason tournament,” Wooldridge noted. “Each of those three years the host team lost in the first round, so we ended up playing the tournament in front of a couple hundred people and it wasn’t a tournament atmosphere.”

In 1981, the annual ODAC tournament was moved to the Salem Civic Center where it has remained since. He also points to his vision of finding his successor, Brad Bankston as a key to making sure the ODAC remained one of the finest D-III conferences. Bankston remains as the ODAC commissioner today and Wooldridge says without reservation that Bangston has taken the ODAC to a new level.

One of Wooldridge’s greatest achievements came from his role in bringing the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl to Salem. He first went to the game in the late 1980s and knew the Roanoke Valley could do better.

“It was played at a high school field in Phoenix City, Alabama with port-a-johns and no sense of a championship atmosphere in the air,” Wooldridge noted. He came back and pitched the game to Salem, but a prior college game at Salem Stadium had resulted in $40,000 damage to the field, so the reception there was cool at best. Wooldridge tried to convince Roanoke to offer Victory Stadium as a site, but despite some enthusiasm, a half-hearted presentation failed to convince the Division III Football Committee to move the game.

Years later, Wooldridge was talking to fellow members of the Salem Rotary Club about the game. He found a willing advocate and with the help of the Rotary Club, Salem officials were convinced to pitch the NCAA an offer to serve as host, along with the ODAC.

“Carey Harveycutter and Forest Jones made a very professional and persuasive presentation,” Wooldridge said. The NCAA moved the game to Salem in 1993 where it has been played ever since. Wooldridge says the genesis of the Stagg Bowl move was enhanced by good officiating.

“Until 1988, the Stagg Bowl was officiated by Division I officials, most of whom didn’t act as if they wanted to be there,” Wooldride pointed out. “We took a ODAC crew comprised of James Robertson, Rick Schilling, Garland Berry, Jack Sarver, Doug Beatty  and Hal Preas. The Division-III NCAA Football Committee was so impressed by that first crew, D-III officials have called the game ever since. That was the key to the Stagg Bowl coming to Salem.”

Encouraged by his family, Wooldridge is currently in the process of writing a book about his long career in sports. He hopes to have it completed by early-2016.

Hundreds of interesting stories from the ref, the supervisor, the commissioner and the ambassador . . .  and certainly, no shortage of memories.

Bill Turner

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