Vital proving grounds for white hat candidates no longer exist
Commentary by Mark Schultz
The NFL could be having a white hat problem in the next few years. Several referees have put in 20 or more years of service, meaning that their retirement window is starting to open. There are at least four referees now that could be candidates to retire in the next one to three years. It may be a challenge to find referees to replace those and later candidates.
From the 1991 through 2007, the NFL was able to give potential NFL referees an audition in the now-defunct World League of American Football and NFL Europe. Ron Winter, Ed Hochuli, and Bill Carollo were among several who auditioned for an entire season at the referee position. The NFL was able to work with the referee candidate for the entire season and judge him not only on mechanics, accuracy of calls, and microphone work, but they were also able to observe him lead a crew week-in and week-out. The NFL officiating office was able to get a good read on what type of on-field and off-field leader the referee candidate would be. Unfortunately, the NFL pulled the plug on its European franchise, taking away a very fertile proving ground for several prospective NFL referees.
Today, the NFL auditions potential referees during preseason games. The candidate is a current NFL official who usually has prior referee experience at the college or Arena Football League level. The NFL might audition an official with no prior referee experience, but has expressed interest in the position and/or excelled in his current position on the field. One preseason game might give the NFL an idea on how the candidate performs mechanically and on the microphone, but does one game give the NFL officiating office a good idea on a candidate’s off-field crew leadership skills? You could make the argument that a one game tryout might not be a good barometer – good or bad. Unfortunately, it is all the NFL has to go on at this time.
Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, no official has been hired straight out of the NCAA ranks and joined the NFL as a referee. Even outstanding referees like Jerry Markbreit, Red Cashion, Jerry Seeman and Gerald Austin put in time at another position. It appears that the philosophy of the NFL is to hire a college referee and assign him to another position (usually line judge, head linesman, field judge, side judge or back judge) to learn the NFL game, its rules, and philosophy, and then consider that official for the white hat when a referee retires. But, what happens to a college referee who hasn’t worked at another position for several seasons? Imagine a referee working in the backfield for several years judging holding, chop blocks, and roughing the passer. Now, they are thrust into another position, possibly on the sideline amid a cacophony of screaming coaches, and having to learn the nuances of illegal contact, pass interference, and the process of the catch. Does this put a college referee in a position to succeed as a NFL official? Jon Bible was a NFL official for three years before being terminated by the league. He was a NCAA referee who was hired as a deep wing, and he said he never adjusted to the downfield game. Mr. Bible returned to the NCAA as a Big 12 referee and went on to officiate several high-profile games with great success. There are current NFL officials who have NCAA referee experience, and now occupy another on field position with varying degrees of success.
With the NFL having limited chances to audition current officials for the referee position and the NFL hiring a collegiate referee “out of position,” could it be time for the NFL to reverse over 40 years of tradition and hire a NCAA referee straight out of college and make him a NFL referee in his first year in the league? If college referees have been entrusted to officiate Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, USC-UCLA, and the BCS National Championship Game, don’t you think they have what it takes to call NFL games? If that philosophy is to succeed, a rookie referee straight out of college would have to have a crew of excellent veterans to help the new white hat along in rules knowledge and league philosophy, and the NFL would have to invest in the rookie referee for two to three years to help him spread his wings and fly before judging him on his competency. There are two big questions to this idea: Would the group of grizzled NFL veterans submit to a rookie referee’s leadership? And, can a referee really make the jump from Saturday to Sunday afternoons? It might be an experiment worth trying.
There will be two referee positions open for the 2014 season. Given the coming mass exodus of NFL white hats in the coming years, it might be time for the league to try some different methods to vet and appoint this most important officiating position.