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NewsHow the NFL grooms an official for the referee position

How the NFL grooms an official for the referee position

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In the past two seasons, we have seen seven NFL officials promoted to referee due to multiple white hat retirements. While we speculate on who will be the next referee promoted, the NFL actually has a Referee Training Program in place to identify, train, and mentor potential referees well before they don the white hat full-time.

Potential referees identified early

The officiating department hires officials with college referee experience. New NFL referees in 2019 — Brad Rogers, Adrian Hill and Scott Novak — all worked Division I college football at the referee position.

The NFL is not eager to hire a college referee directly into the NFL at the referee position, although a late vacancy in 2014 had Brad Allen taking the white hat as a rookie. The college referee prospect comes into the NFL at another of the six positions. This is usually the black-hat position they worked in college, but some are placed as an umpire with a strong crew chief, despite not having experience at the position. Sometimes, it is difficult for a college referee to work at another position after so many years in the backfield. Former Big 12 and NFL official Jon Bible noted this in a June 2005 article in Referee Magazine; he returned to the Big 12 conference as a referee after a few years “out of position” in the NFL.

According to NFL sources, the NFL wants the potential referee to put in 2 to 4 seasons at another position before they consider him or her for referee, although recent turnover has accelerated that in some cases. This gives the new official a chance to learn NFL rules, mechanics and procedures of the pro game. While it looks the same, college football and NFL football are very different from an officiating perspective.

A lot of scrutiny

Not only does the NFL consider previous referee position experience, but there are a separate set of factors that are evaluated to make sure the candidate is a good match to be an NFL crew chief. 

When the college referee gets on an NFL crew, the league comes alongside the new official and keeps a close eye on their progress. The officiating office checks with that official’s referee and other crew mates to see if the potential referee has the leadership skills, personality traits and other intangibles needed from a NFL referee.

A candidate might have an impressive résumé, but if he or she does not have the demeanor to be an NFL referee, there is a good chance that that candidate is not considered. 

Offseason training and mentoring

As part of the process for developing potential white hats, senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron has established a formal Referee Training Program.

In the offseason, NFL referee candidates get mentoring from former NFL referees Bill Leavy and Ed Hochuli, now an officiating supervisor and officiating consultant, respectively. New and future referees participate in a three-day workshop, lead by Leavy and Hochuli. The candidates get an enormous amount of video to view and literature to read to help train them for the white hat. The trainees also work offseason OTAs and training camp scrimmages.

This year, an unknown number of NFL officials attended a referee “miniclinic” in Salt Lake City as part of the Referee Training Program.

The big test

Finally, when the NFL is satisfied that the referee candidate is progressing, they get to work a preseason game as an audition. This gives the official a chance to work a game, get used running a game, and get valuable feedback from the league. The audition also gives the officiating office confidence that the trainee is ready to become a full-time referee.

During these test games, a mentor referee (the white hat usually assigned to that particular crew) will stay on the sidelines and provide feedback during stoppages.

The NFL has auditioned referee candidates this way since at least 2013. (Previously, potential referees worked a few games in NFL Europe, including current referee Clete Blakeman and Riveron.)

This process does not mean a candidate is guaranteed the white hat.  It could be a simple numbers game of mass retirements followed by several years of no referee turnover. An injury could sideline a referee, necessitating a quick replacement. Or, in the end, the official could be superior at his or her black hat position and the NFL decides keep him or her as an umpire, down judge, line judge, field judge, side judge or back judge and let them flourish.

There are only 17 referee positions in the NFL. It takes a special blend of officiating skill, leadership skill, teaching skill and speaking skill for a referee to excel. The NFL can’t afford to make a mistake when promoting an official to referee; so that’s why future referees go through a vigorous vetting process.

The following is a list of officials who, since 2013, have auditioned to be a referee or were apparently in the development pool for a potential white hat:

      Tryout years Appointed referee
U 122 Brad Allen * 2014
U 20 Barry Anderson 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018  
U 11 Fred Bryan 2015  
FJ 130 Land Clark 2019  
U 76 Alan Eck  
BJ 93 Scott Helverson 2014  
LJ-SJ 29 Adrian Hill 2013, 2017, 2018 2019
BJ 83 Shawn Hochuli 2016, 2017 2018
LJ 35 John Hussey 2014 2015
SJ 55 Alex Kemp 2015, 2016 2018
HL 106 Wayne Mackie 2014 [currently VP/officiating development]
U 19 Clay Martin 2017 2018
SJ 120 Jonah Monroe 2019  
SJ 1 Scott Novak 2018 2019
FJ 126 Brad Rogers 2018 2019
U 14 Shawn Smith 2016, 2017 2018
SJ 62 Ron Torbert 2013 2014
SJ 58 Don Willard 2019  
FJ 4 Craig Wrolstad 2013 2014

*Originally listed as umpire and promoted to referee prior to first season in NFL. †Placed as umpire and likely part of the Referee Training Program.

Referee Ronald Torbert (Saint Louis Rams)
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

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