There are plaques that adorn the walls of Cooperstown honoring 10 umpires. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame both have 16 officials enshrined.
The number of busts in Canton representing football officials is a bust. Zero. Zilch. Nil.
“I have always wondered why there are no game officials in the Hall of Fame,” says the recently retired, 28-year referee Ed Hochuli. “After all, they are the ‘face of the league’ on game days, and they are the ‘face of integrity’ for the game. Nevertheless, there are 45 non-players in the Hall.”
When one factors in the complexity of the game, the amount of preparation each week dedicated to a single game, and that all officials must be in excellent physical condition, it is baffling as to why such a level of excellence is not recognized. The closest the Hall has come to inducting anyone in officiating is college referee Hugh “Shorty” Ray, the league’s inimitable technical adviser of rules. However, Ray did not officiate nor supervise the officials at the pro level.
The league is entering its centennial season, and the time is now for an official to be inducted into the Hall. There are many qualified candidates that deserve the honor of being enshrined, but there is no doubt as to who should be the first one.
“I believe every NFL game official for the last 50 years would be unanimous in saying Art McNally epitomizes integrity, quality, and professionalism in officiating more than anyone who has ever worked in the game,” Hochuli said.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue agrees, saying, “In my four decades of NFL activity, Art was unmatched as a leader in shaping the gold standard for team sports officiating and in ensuring the absolute integrity of NFL officiating and of the game itself for more than two decades.”
“Art McNally in my opinion did more for the NFL than anyone,” says referee Jerry Markbreit, an official for 23 seasons, including a record 4 Super Bowls at the referee position. “He led a wonderful group of the best officials in the land and taught them how to be even better.”
Art McNally officiated football, basketball and baseball in the Philadelphia area. He first put on the pro stripes in 1959, months after the sudden-death championship that would propel the sport’s popularity above that of the National Pastime in just a few years. He worked as a field judge and then as a referee. McNally was an educator off the field, and his teaching experience helped him when he was called upon to bring officiating of this burgeoning sport into the modern age.
“Art became supervisor in 1968, while the merger of the AFL into the NFL was being readied for full implementation with the 1970 season,” Tagliabue said. “I began working on NFL matters in mid-1969 as a young attorney. For 20 years I was fortunate to have worked closely with Art in the Competition Committee and other areas, and he was a terrific institutional asset when I became Commissioner in 1989.”
The late referee Red Cashion began his 25-year NFL officiating career in 1972, and said that McNally’s knowledge was matched by his ability to be a mentor. “Art always was extremely honest and hard working. He knew the game of football very well, and loved to share that knowledge. Art had more understanding about football than anyone I ever met.”
Cashion added, “I never worked for anyone I respected as much as Art.”
“Art is an amazing teacher,” said Dean Blandino, who would accede to McNally’s position in 2013. “I always came away from a conversation with him having learned something new about the rules and history of the NFL. He would not only explain a rule, but explain the theory and history behind it.”
I would play poker over the phone with Art McNally. That’s how much I trust him.
— Jim Tunney, referee 1960-1990
In the first 45 years of the league, officiating was an afterthought. In the 1920s and ’30s, NFL officials didn’t always work the same position and sometimes officiated more than one game a weekend. Through the 1950s, rules interpretations and complaints from coaches were filtered through the commissioner who consulted with Shorty Ray, the technical advisor. The position of supervisor of officials was created in 1956, beginning with former umpire Mike Wilson, and then held by Joe Kuharich and Mark Duncan, who were out-of-work coaches when they were hired. Entering the Super Bowl era, pro football critically needed someone with integrity to lead the officiating department, someone who not only embodied integrity, but also could instill it in his officials.
“He put everything he had into producing the integrity of the game by setting the standard,” Markbreit told us. “He was a great official in his own right and taught the officiating staff his very high standards.”
The word integrity is not one that semantically has an intensifier — one either has it or not — but if there is an exception, McNally certainly would be.
“Art McNally belongs in the Hall of Fame,” says Hochuli, “because he quite frankly, set the standard of integrity — the most important characteristic of any official — for all NFL officials. Art was integrity personified, and spread that characteristic to every official who put on the NFL stripes for the next 22 years as supervisor of officials, and on to this day, as an assistant supervisor, consultant, and mentor. Every NFL official for the last 50 years has viewed Art McNally as the definition of integrity and the father of modern officiating in the NFL.”
Tagliabue, as McNally’s eventual superior as commissioner, also saw key attributes in heading the officiating department. “Art’s integrity, thoroughness, candor and other qualities made him a respected and exceptional leader — with whomever he was dealing. He had an uncanny ability to have every game official, and everyone in his department, understand the need for both individual accountability and teamwork in performing their functions. The referees had to be leaders and first among equals, but also equals with all crew members in collaborating, so that the entire crew’s performance was always expected to be greater than the sum of the parts.”
“I would play poker over the phone with Art McNally. That’s how much I trust him,” said Jim Tunney, who was a highly accomplished referee in the NFL from 1960 to 1990, a mentor in his own right, and also has earned his place on Hall of Fame ballots. “He is just an outstanding, outstanding human being. I can’t think of anyone, other than my father, who would come close to being an Art McNally.”
Tunney recalls that McNally showed his skills early on in one particular area that has a ripple effect to this day. Tunney worked both college basketball and the NFL in the 1960s, but was let go from the Pacific Coast Conference. His college supervisor, Frank McCormick, said, “Your work is great. But, you have the Far West Classic, and then you have to go to the Ice Bowl, and you’d have to cancel a game. The NFL just takes too much of your time.” Rather than compete with the NCAA, McNally had a different tact.
“Art McNally brought the NFL and the NCAA together,” Tunney said. “He would go to the NCAA and help them with some of their rules. He’s an excellent rules man that way. … The NFL and the NCAA are working hand-in-hand now. And for the longest time, the presidents [of the college conferences] are ‘Well, the NFL is stealing our good officials from the colleges.’ And Art McNally broke that [barrier] down.”
Super Bowl LII referee Gene Steratore is a Division I college basketball referee, as is Bill Vinovich who had the Super Bowl 3 years previous. Neither one of them could do that if not for McNally’s détente with the college circuit.
Film review and grading
At the start of his tenure, McNally oversaw 8 crews, each with their own tendencies. There were general mechanics for each position, but many times, different officiating crews made up their own mechanics to cover the nuances of the game: Who takes the motion man? How deep does the line judge drift downfield on a pass play? Who cleans up on a sweep? Each referee set those mechanics for the crew.
McNally tried to instill uniform mechanics, but found that some officials balked at his direction. He would suggest a new mechanic and overhear the referees say, “That’s not how we do it on our crew.” The new supervisor needed a way to show the officials how the mechanics should work.
McNally partnered with NFL Films to send him the “all-22” of each game, plus other angles. He and his small staff would break down the film each week to see how the crews were doing and to use the film as a teaching tool.
His film experiment was a hit. In the book The Third Team by Richard Lister, McNally recalled showing officials a film about holding and how the NFL wants the foul called. During the film review, umpire Joe Connell, a decorated veteran who called several NFL Championship Games and three of the first 12 Super Bowls, spoke up. As a play was running, McNally remembered Connell said, “I called holding on this play and I shouldn’t have.” McNally knew then that if Connell publicly bought into film review, the rest of the officials would follow suit.
Today, film review for officials, even at the high school level, is commonplace.
Once he was regularly using film, McNally was the first to develop a strong rubric for grading officials on every call of every game. Again, his teaching experience helped advance officiating. While the corporate world at large might use such metrics for promotion and to exemplify the few, McNally used it to improve the entire staff.
Hochuli says this was a monumental step. “Art revolutionized officiating through his grading system that held everyone accountable, while at the same time, creating and supporting a system-wide teaching program that dramatically improved the quality of on-field officiating. His weekly training videos that all NFL officials watched were revolutionary in bringing all officials to the same page in what was and what was not a foul, the proper mechanics, and how to do a continually better job of officiating the game.”
Blandino says, other than a few small tweaks, the system of evaluating officials has largely been unchanged from McNally’s. “He created a structure within the officiating department that still exists today. He implemented the first evaluation system designed to teach and train game officials and also hold them accountable. He demanded that crews watch game film as part of that evaluation system and to prepare themselves for upcoming games.”
He also sent out weekly rules quizzes that officials completed and returned to McNally.
In the following years, many times one simply has to look at the roots that McNally set to help resolve officiating-related issues. Commissioner Tagliabue explained how he needed to convene an Officiating 2000 panel. He said, “At some point after Art’s retirement, some of us felt that this critical balance of individual accountability and crew collaboration had deteriorated, and we convened a special working group of former coaches and officials to review NFL officiating.” This group included retired coaches Don Shula and Chuck Noll, along with Tunney and others.
“After deep reviews and deliberation, the group concluded that Art’s emphasis on accountability and teamwork was critical and had to be recaptured.”
As television technology became advanced and film gave way to video tape, McNally began to consider using instant replay to fix obvious mistakes. After two high-profile officiating mistakes in the late 1970s, which instant replay clearly showed the error, McNally began to work with NFL and TV networks to see how instant replay could help correct mistakes.
McNally worked with Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, who was the longtime chairman of the Competition Committee and a big proponent of replay. Schramm was aware of the technical limitations of the televised replays as a former executive for CBS, who coincidentally hired Tony Verna, the director who invented instant replay in 1963. McNally tested the replay process in preseason games and worked on it for several years before he was satisfied with the result.
“I remember his interest in replay,” Cashion said. “Any rule that would help the game of football, Art worked hard [to improve it].”
The NFL launched the first version of instant replay in 1986. While it looked good on paper, and several critical calls were affirmed or corrected, the technology soon became more of a hindrance than help. There were no time limits to replay. Some replay officials took as long as five minutes to make a decision. Others took their job a little too seriously and stopped play to, for example, reverse 0-yard completed pass to incomplete in a blowout game (video).
McNally was the replay official for the first review in a Super Bowl. The call stood, but a decisive angle that showed a reversal came from the television truck after play resumed, too late to change the call.
McNally continued to refine the replay process, but owners were more concerned about pace of game, and instant replay was abolished in 1991. There was always a large support for replay to be brought back, which meant reexamining the system further. During the interregnum, Blandino entered the officiating department as an intern, and then was involved in creating the second-generation replay which was instituted in 1999. Blandino said that McNally was an asset to the development and redeployment. “He was a big part of the process to implement the current system and, due to his prior experience, he was able to provide valuable input on what to avoid.”
A working retirement
McNally had an extraordinary run as the head of officiating for 23 years, retiring in 1990. Typically, this would be the end of an accomplished résumé of a potential enshrinee who is a shoo-in.
McNally “retired” to become the supervisor of officials for the upstart World League, the NFL’s first attempt to create a European circuit as a desperately needed farm system. While the intention was to create a development league for the players, McNally used this to develop NFL officials.
“Art hired me into the NFL as a back judge,” said Hochuli. “Two years later, [he] taught me to be a crew chief in the World League … in 1992. It was then that I was moved to head referee in the NFL. On a personal level, I owe my career to Art McNally.”
Walt Coleman was the last active official hired by McNally, and closed out an era in officiating upon his retirement in 2019. However, Coleman’s retirement did not signify the end of McNally’s direct involvement with the officials that are still on the field.
McNally continued to work in the league office through his retirement as an observer and a trainer, and continued to mentor new officials as well as the veterans. Eventually the rigors of travel would be too much for McNally, 94, who just recently entered true retirement. Football Zebras reached out to McNally previously, but he said, “I no longer give interviews.”
Art McNally tirelessly gave to the NFL officiating community for 58 of the league’s 99 years. An arc of more than half of NFL history has the indelible imprint of McNally. The breadth of his contribution is obscured by the fact that it is part of the furniture of the National Football League. His humility keeps him in the shadows, which is where officials prefer to be. To be known can be a curse in the profession.
Blandino sums McNally’s contribution, thusly: “His integrity is second to none and there isn’t a person alive who has contributed more to the NFL over a longer period of time than Art.”
“He is loved by all those that worked for him,” said Markbreit. “Working with him was an honor and a privilege. He made everyone feel special. The finest director of officiating by far.”
This has been an oversight for far too long to exclude officiating from the Hall of Fame. Of course, pro football owes its success to the Ed Debartolos and the Jerry Joneses as owners, and the Bobby Beathards and the Bill Polians of the executive suites. But their contributions would be empty if the game does not have the best arbiters of the rules on the field, if it does not have the accuracy and precision of the officials that far exceeds the metrics of any athlete that occupies the field with them, if every official — every official — doesn’t embody the highest levels of integrity.
A special blue-ribbon panel will discuss who will be placed on the ballot to be enshrined on the 100th anniversary of the league’s founding in 2020. In this special centennial class, the Hall will expand the field to include 3 contributors on the final ballot after a few rounds of reduction. The panel’s selection then is placed on the full ballot in February — a ballot that has never contained the name of an official, even for an up-or-down vote.
If the panel begins their deliberative process with Art McNally, it would be impossible to find another candidate who could take his place on the ballot.
[Updated post to reflect the recent retirement of Ed Hochuli. Additional updates made in July 2019 and August 2019.]