For the first 22 years of his life, sports, particularly football, was a big part of Ted Pitts’ world.
When he played his final game for Presbyterian College in 1993, he wasn’t ready to be relegated to the bleachers.
So 24 years later, Pitts still spends fall Saturdays on a football field. But now his uniform has stripes, and it comes with a whistle instead of pads.
“With other sports, you can keep playing – you can play church league basketball, tennis you can keep playing, there are recreational softball teams,” Pitts said. “But football? When I walked off the field after my last college game at PC, I was never going to play football again.”
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So while many football fans in South Carolina will be heading to Charlotte Sept. 2 to see the Gamecocks play N.C. State, or to Clemson to watch the Tigers play Kent State, Pitts will travel to Idaho to referee the Troy vs. Boise State game.
“I enjoy it,” Pitts said. “It keeps me close to the game.”
Pitts referees in the Sun Belt Conference, which collaborates with SEC officials. Teams in the Sun Belt include Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
When he’s not throwing yellow flags, Pitts, 45, works as the president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. He serves as a major in the S.C. Army National Guard and is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan.
Pitts was deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley during her first term in office and prior to that, Pitts served in the state House of Representatives from 2003-10 representing Lexington County.
In addition to all of that, he is a “great-up-and-coming referee,” said Steve Shaw, SEC’s head of officiating, who also coordinates Sun Belt officials.
“He is knowledgeable on the rules of the game and always maintains control when he is officiating.
“Above all, the quality that makes him a great referee is his integrity,” Shaw said. “He demonstrates great character, is an excellent leader, and is a good person. He is the type of referee we want.”
It’s not like Pitts was looking for something to fill free time. He and his wife, Christina, have three children. His family and career keep him busy.
But sitting in the bleachers and watching games didn’t quench his football thirst.
“I missed it,” Pitts said. “I would watch football, but I wanted to be closer to the game.”
A buddy suggested refereeing. He began as a high school ref in 1999, then refereed in the South Atlantic Conference, followed by the Southern Conference before moving up to the Sun Belt Conference.
His goal is to become an official in a Power 5 Conference, like the SEC.
“This allows me to stay involved with the sport I love,” Pitts said.
When he was younger, he thought perhaps he would go into coaching. But his career path took him from real estate to politics, to the S.C. State Chamber of Commerce.
Haley, his former boss who is now U.N. Ambassador, isn’t surprised by Pitts’ success as an official.
“Ted is a successful college referee, not just because he loves football, but because of the traits at the core of his character,” Haley said. “He has always believed in following rules, being fair, and supporting both sides. It goes to the heart of his loyalty and commitment towards everything he does.
“In every role he takes on he puts his passion and spirit into the challenge,” Haley said. “These are some of the best qualities he learned from his dad.”
Pitts’ dad, Ed Pitts, was an All-American tackle at the University of South Carolina who played some professional football for the Boston Patriots before taking the helm of the Gamecock Club in 1962.
Ted Pitts remembers his dad, who passed away in 2014, yelling at officials in whatever sport he was watching. “He was that guy,” Ted Pitts recalled with a smile.
And when Ted became a ref?
“He was one of the guys who encouraged me.”
Ted Pitts didn’t give officials much thought during his playing days. “I knew they were an integral in the game of football. But I never thought about being an official. I always thought about playing the game.”
One of the things he enjoys about being a college football referee is the team aspect of officiating.
“You get that camaraderie and sense of accomplishment,” Pitts said. “You travel around with the same eight guys. They become your teammates.”
And when they become the “bad guys” at a game and fans start yelling?
“You don’t really hear them,” Pitts said. “You do try to listen to the sidelines. You want to listen to make sure if a coach had an issue or problem, you know. You want to make sure no one has an unfair advantage.”
Officials know which coaches yell to let off steam, and which ones yell only when there is something to yell about.
“We interact with the coaches,” Pitts said. “Most coaches respect what officials do. ... If there is a coach who hasn’t complained all day, and he said to look for something … you’re probably going to look.”
Wofford College head coach Mike Ayers said Pitts is an official to be respected.
“One of the key things is that he is always consistent in his calls,” Ayers said. “He is very well-versed in the rules book and you could count on him to head off a problem before it became a bigger issue on the field.”