If you were a fan of the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, and when there was a marquee game on TV, there was a strong chance that Jim Tunney was the referee.
The “Dean of NFL Referees” and the first official to call consecutive Super Bowls, celebrates his 90th birthday today.
Tunney was born March 3, 1929, in Los Angeles. Officiating ran in his family as he father was a college football referee an official in the All America Football Conference (AAFC) and a horse racing steward.
In Tunney’s book, Impartial Judgement, he told a story of how his father taught him a lesson in integrity. Tunney would sometimes stop by the paddock at a horse track and say hello to his father. He father would say hello back and then return to his work without any further conversation, puzzling the younger Tunney. The elder Tunney later told his son that he only talked to jockeys, trainers and owners because the gamblers always watched him to see if he was being fair. He wanted to be above reproach, even when it came to talking to his son while on the job.
After Tunney graduated from Occidental College, he worked as an educator, eventually becoming a principal. Later, he became a professional speaker. He also started officiating football and basketball, eventually working in the Pacific Coast Conference (now the Pac-12).
In 1960, the American Football League recruited Tunney to be a referee in the new league. A few days later, the NFL came calling and invited Tunney to join as a field judge (now this position is the back judge). While Tunney wanted to be a referee, he chose the stability of the NFL. Tunney was a field judge in the NFL from 1960-67, when the NFL made him a referee.
During this time, the National Basketball Association approached Tunney to become a pro basketball referee, but he declined an offer to go to the pros. He did work college basketball with Major League Baseball umpire Doug Harvey, who is now in the baseball Hall of Fame. However, as Tunney recalled in a 2018 Football Zebras interview, PCC basketball supervisor, Frank McCormick, decided to release Tunney. “Your work is great,” McCormick said. “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.” Tunney’s NFL boss, Art McNally, eventually smoothed things over with the college conferences which allowed NFL officials to work college basketball.
31 years of great games
In his career, he called a total of 19 playoff games: eight divisional playoffs, eight conference championships and three Super Bowls (VI, XI, and XII). Tunney was the first official to work consecutive Super Bowls. Tom Sifferman is the only other official to work consecutive Super Bowls. That will most likely never happen again as the collective bargaining agreement now prohibits officials from working back-to-back big games.
Tunney’s first playoff game was the 1965 divisional contest between the Baltimore Colts and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers kicked a crucial field goal late in regulation for force overtime. The football appeared to sail directly over the upright. Tunney called the field goal good, sparking a big controversy. In his book, Tunney wrote that Don Shula never let him forget that kick.
While he wasn’t on the field, Tunney played a crucial role in the 1967 Ice Bowl. He was the alternate referee and during time outs, the officials tossed him whistles and gloves. He warmed the equipment up by holding it next to the sideline heaters.
When the league made him a referee for the 1968 season, the NFL paired him with experienced umpire Lou Palazzi. After three years with Palazzi, the league paired him with umpire Pat Harder and head linesman Burl Toler. Those three officials formed the backbone of a premiere crew for the next 11 years.
A model for calm and control
What made Tunney such a premiere referee was his disposition on the field. He rarely showed anger on the field, and when he did, coaches and players knew it was time to shape up. Tunney’s signals were so distinctive, proper and dignified that he was used as a model for a guide to the officials signals for over a decade.
Also, when things got difficult on the field, Tunney and his crew were masters in diffusing the trouble. In the 1970s, the Raiders and the Steelers were the main rivals in the AFC and the Super Bowl usually went through those two teams. Tunney and his crew were assigned to many of those contests. Tunney has many stories in his book about how to approached Raiders-Steelers games where both teams hated each other and both coaches worked the officials constantly.
Tunney’s background as an educator helped him teach young and struggling officials. The NFL routinely assigned a rookie official or struggling official to Tunney’s crew almost every year and many times those officials went on to successful careers.
Tunney retired after the 1990 AFC Championship Game. He spent his retirement years continuing to speak professionally and writing a blog The Tunny Side of Sports and a column in the Monterrey Herald.
There has never been a NFL official in the Hall of Fame. Tunney has been nominated several times, but never made it to the finalist round. It is high time for the NFL to enshrine officials and we think Tunney should be one of the first ones considered.
As Tunney enjoys his special day, we salute one of the best referees in NFL history who helped usher NFL officiating into the TV age.
Happy birthday, Jim Tunney!