Forty years ago this fall, NFL officials had a radical new appearance. In 1979 the NFL put the referee in a different color cap, a new uniform design, and changed the way it issued officials’ shirt numbers. But, by the end of the 1981 season, that numbering system was gone.
What happened, why did it happen, and why didn’t it stick? Call it a good idea that had too many unintended consequences.
The NFL has issued numbers to its officiating staff since 1941. Under those early numbering systems, officials were grouped by position: referees received single-digit numbers, umpires were in the teens, field judges in the 20s, and head linesmen 30s. At the time, an officiating crew only had four members, and there were no more than five crews in any season. The back judge was introduced in 1947 with uniform numbers in the 40s, but by 1951 new officials were not assigned position-based numbers.
No official had a number over 60, even as the NFL went from five- to six-man crews, until the league merged with the AFL in 1970 — although the AFL did go as high as 78. Suddenly, the officials had numbers from 3 to 89. Then the NFL expanded to 28 franchises in 1976, and expanded to crews of seven in 1978, putting the NFL staff over 100 officials.
“The NFL was running out of numbers,” said Jerry Markbreit, the venerable referee who worked in the NFL from 1976 to 1998. What appears to be the case is that the NFL didn’t like the look of officials numbered over 100.
So, the NFL came up with a radical new plan in 1979. Rather than issue numbers by person, they decided to issue numbers by position. The NFL numbered each official 3–20 (skipping 13) by position. In other words, Fred Silva was referee number 7, Tony Veteri was head linesman number 7, Tom Kelleher was back judge number 7, and so on. Another change was that the NFL added the position name to the back of the jersey, almost like a name plate. The NFL also put the officials’ position abbreviation and number on the shirt pocket.
Another big change was made for television purposes. Up through 1978, the entire NFL officiating crew wore white hats. TV producers requested that the NFL put the referee in a different colored hat (like college referees) so they could find him easier for the penalty announcements. In 1979 the NFL agreed, and put the referee in a black hat and left the rest of the crew in white hats. Starting in 1988, the NFL put the referee in a white hat and the rest of the crew wore black hats, just like college officials.
But hat color was an easy change.
Some officials who already were numbered 3 through 20 — Markbreit was 9, referee Ben Dreith was 12, umpire Frank Sinkovitz was 20, for example — got to keep their original numbers. The rest were out of luck and had to change.
“When the NFL assigns you a number, that number becomes you,” Markbreit said. “For 23 years I was 9. I’m still called ‘Nine’ today long after I’ve retired,” he added.
Other nonreferees were readily known by their number: Fritz Graf was 34, Tom Kelleher was 25, Joe Connell was 57, Jerry Bergman Sr. was 17. These numbers regularly showed up each week on people’s TV sets or in the playoffs. While fans may not have readily known the official’s name, “that 25 guy” became a regular staple season to season. While Markbreit cannot speak for other officials, and he was fortunate to have kept his number, his comments about how seriously officials took their jersey numbers might indicate the 1979 season brought unhappy changes for the officials.
While the NFL made sure they made crews that had different numbers at each position, they forgot one thing.
“They didn’t figure the playoffs,” Markbreit explained. It happened the first year of this numbering system, in Super Bowl XIV. Referee Fred Silva and umpire Al Conway both wore number 7. But, both wore different-colored caps so there wasn’t a big problem telling the two apart.
Then came Super Bowl XV. Head linesman Tony Veteri Sr., line judge Tom Dooley, back judge Tom Kelleher and field judge Fritz Graf all wore number 7 and all wore white caps. The NFL issued special numbers for Graf (17), Dooley (10), and Veteri (8) for one game. Kelleher got to keep his number 7 due to his seniority.
Despite that inconvenience, the NFL kept with the numbering system for 1981, but they expanded the numbers from 3–25. New officials got a higher number; 1981 rookie Johnny Grier got number 24, for example. Or, an official took a new number if they switched to a new crew (side judge Vince Jacob was number 11, but switched to 25 when he went on Fred Wyant’s crew as Wyant was also 11). But following more playoff duplicate headaches the NFL finally threw in the towel after 1981.
Starting in 1982, the NFL returned to the traditional numbering system. Officials on the roster in 1978 got to return to their original numbers. Some kept their 1979 number — Silva kept number 7 as it was available instead of returning to number 81 — and others went to a brand new number — Dooley took available number 6 instead of returning to number 103.
As the number of franchises expanded, the number of crews expanded, and the maximum number for officials’ jerseys expanded. For many years 120 was the maximum. Then, with mid-1990s expansion, number 135 was, and still is, the maximum number for regular officials. Recently retired referee Pete Morelli is the only one to have 135, and one of the new referees to take his place was Scott Novak, who wears number 1. Officiating Development Program officials have numbers from 136 through 177, but if they are hired, they are assigned an available number from the pool of 1–135. (During the 2012 labor impasse, replacement officials had numbers through 139.)
“Officials can request a number when it is available,” Markbreit said. Several NFL second-generation officials take their dad’s number when it becomes available, or an official takes their mentor’s number; Gerald Austin went from 112 to 34 to honor his mentor Fritz Graf.
Since 1982 the officials’ numbers have changed in font style and size. But, no change matched what the NFL did 40 years ago. While a good idea on paper, the 1979–81 numbering system was just too unwieldy and didn’t provide flexibility for the league in assigning playoffs or crews from season to season.
So what’s in a number? A lot, if you’re a NFL official.