Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, as a diehard Georgia Tech fan, Tech was the only college ISyE alumnus Corey Rockwell (BSIE 98) applied to. Two weeks after his high school graduation, Rockwell began attending class during Tech’s summer semester.
In addition to being a lifelong fan of the Yellow Jackets, Rockwell also nurtured a passion for “the beautiful game” – soccer – eventually moving from player to refereeing while a student at Tech and now on the professional level for Major League Soccer (MLS) games. He has been a referee for MLS for 12 years and a total of over 230 games. He is also one of nine people on the FIFA Assistant Referee list in the U.S. – a list he’s been on for 10 years – and is hoping to be considered as a referee for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
In this Q-&-A, Rockwell discusses his lifetime love for soccer, his refereeing career, and even how he uses his ISyE skills as a ref.
Refereeing for MLS matches is your passionate hobby, but tell us about your day job. Do you use your ISyE skills in your current work?
I started off working in manufacturing in Cartersville, Georgia. I worked as a nightshift supervisor, then transitioned to the plant industrial engineer. I worked eight years in manufacturing, then decided to take a corporate position in Scottsdale, Arizona. I am now the head of corporate audit for North and South America for my company.
I use my ISyE skills extensively in my position. Most of my audits are manufacturing based, as we look to ensure our factories are working in a safe and efficient environment. The human-machine factors, the attention to ergonomics, and the statistical analysis are skills I continue to use as I visit each new factory.
One key aspect has been communication. I find ISyE graduates from Georgia Tech are better equipped to make presentations and communicate with top management in the business world than other fields. This ability to communicate has been a huge asset for my career progression.
You have played or refereed soccer for what seems like most of your life. How early in your life did the soccer bug bite you?
I have been playing since I was seven years old. I was too late to sign up for American football, so my parents enrolled me in soccer. The team aspect and my love for “the beautiful game” have continued to fuel my passion for the game.
You played soccer for a couple of years on the club level at Georgia Tech, then switched to refereeing, where you’ve been ever since. Why the transition?
I transitioned because I needed to pay my tuition. I knew I would never get paid as a player, but I was doing pretty good refereeing on the side. I graduated from Georgia Tech with almost no outstanding debt and was able to pay for most of my tuition, meals, and residence through the money I saved refereeing soccer. But it was not easy. As my friends will tell you, I missed weekend activities and Friday night parties because I was on the field somewhere refereeing soccer.
You recently came back to Atlanta and refereed the inaugural Atlanta United game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. What was that experience like?
I could not wipe the smile off my face. I had a ton of friends and family in the stands which made it special. I think the coolest thing about that game is I asked at least 20 friends if they could go, and their response was, “We already have tickets to the game.”
I thought I would be much more nervous during the game, but once the whistle blew to start the match, it was time to go to work. It was game mode for me. Our referee team got the big calls right, so this made for a good celebration after the game.
Do you ever find that you’re able to apply your ISyE skills to being a soccer ref?
My professors in ISyE always taught strict attention to detail. This is a huge asset to have as an MLS soccer referee. After games, I analyze the video and watch my performance frame-by-frame to see where I can improve. Another fundamental of ISyE is root cause analysis: If I made an error, what is the root cause of this error? For example, was I out of position? Was I focused on the player instead of the ball? Was I blocked from seeing the ball?
Another key aspect is time management. Georgia Tech taught me about time management. As a student, I was very involved in student government, my fraternity, and other organizations. All this was on top of attending class, my ISyE project work, studying for finals, and refereeing soccer at nights and weekends to pay my bills. As a working professional, I have used these time management skills to juggle my personal life, my career, and my soccer refereeing.
What has been your most thrilling soccer experience to date?
The game at Bobby Dodd was definitely up there, being at home – and in front of a sold-out crowd.
I also had a game last year in Toronto that I will never forget. It was a semi-final playoff game between Toronto and Montreal – a big rivalry – that was sold out with 36,000 people in attendance. Seven goals were scored during the game, which ended up going into extra time. As a referee team, we got all the big calls right, and after the game, there were no negative comments about the referees – only that it was one of the greatest playoff games in MLS history for all the right reasons.