Fred Wyant, an all-American quarterback for the West Virginia University Mountaineers, and a NFL official from 1966 to 1992, died on March 20, at the age of 86.
In his 27-year career, Wyant worked five playoff games one the field, four at referee: four divisionals and one wild card round. He also worked the 1977 Pro Bowl. The scant amount of postseason appearances, however, does not tell a tale of poor officiating. His battles with the upper management were such legend that he filled a book with them, yet he was a well-respected crew chief on the field.
Wyant joined the NFL at the tender age of 31, after officiating for nine years. Wyant wore several numbers in his 27-year career. He first wore number 42, changing over to 75 after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. During the 1979-81 positional numbering system, he wore number 11, as did his side judge, Vince Jacob. After that system ended he returned to number 75 again for the 1982 season. Jacob died of a heart attack during the 1982 season, and the following year, Wyant returned to their shared number 11, the same number he wore at quarterback at West Virginia.
Star player before star official
Frederick Mount Wyant was born on April 26, 1934 in Weston, W. Va. He was a star football and baseball player in high school. He played both sports from 1952-55 for the West Virginia University Mountaineers and was an all-American quarterback. He was a third-round draft choice of the Washington Football Team in 1956, playing there one season before going to the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League for one season.
Fast rise to the NFL
Wyant started officiating in 1957 and worked his way up through the college ranks. He became a NFL line judge in 1966, the same year his good friend and colleague Jerry Bergman, Sr., joined the NFL. Wyant served on crews lead by Art McNally and Ben Dreith before being made a referee in 1971.
Here’s a clip of him working his very first game (number 42), in 1966. We also see some rare footage of Art McNally at work.
On to referee
McNally had moved into the front office, and in 1971 he promoted Wyant to referee. While many consider Wyant an exceptional referee, he rarely got a playoff reward. In fact, he earned a playoff assignment in 1970 as a line judge, but never took the field. Art McNally, the head of officiating, called Wyant with the news that he earned a playoff assignment, but he would be away on Christmas Day.
“I did what many considered unthinkable,” Wyant said in his autobiographical account of his career, Offsides!: Fred Wyant’s Provocative Look Inside the National Football League. “I told Art: ‘No.’ My contract with the league did not permit me to turn down an assignment. He could have fired me on the spot.”
Wyant received an alternate assignment to a 1972 Divisional Playoff game in Pittsburgh, at that time only the city’s second postseason ever and the first since 1947. A routine AFC playoff matchup soon thrust Wyant into the role as a principal player in one of the league’s most enduring conspiracy theories. After Franco Harris scooped a caromed pass in flight out of the air for the game-winning touchdown — the Immaculate Reception — the officiating crew convened for what seemed to be an eternity. They had to determine if it was a legal catch by Harris, because the rule at the time was two offensive players could not touch a pass in flight consecutively, but could if a defensive player touched the ball in between. An impatient McNally, in the press box, telephoned the sideline and asked for Fred Wyant, so Wyant could implore the crew to go with their instinct and make a decision. In error, referee Fred Swearingen was summoned to the phone, leading many to believe they just witnessed the first instant replay ruling in the NFL.
Former side judge and referee, Bill Carollo, remembered Wyant in an e-mail to Football Zebras.
Fred Wyant was my first NFL referee back in 1989, and I owe him everything as I learned to officiate on the NFL stage. Fred was an intelligent leader as a crew chief but his true skill was his use of common sense under pressure. He had a great feel for the game and as a former NFL quarterback he was a great leader and role model. Sometimes characterized as a bit different from his peers but will always be remembered as one you would want in the trenches in a tough game because he always had your back. He will be missed by all players, coaches and officials who had the opportunity be in a game led by Freddy.
One example of Wyant having his partner’s back was when he affirmed head linesman Ed Marion’s ejection of Walter Payton in 1980. Marion gave Payton the gate because he bumped Marion in arguing a fumble ruling — a shocking event since Payton was never one to argue with the officials.
Finally, after 15 seasons in the NFL, McNally assigned Wyant a playoff game which turned into a classic that people speak of in reverent tones even today: The Epic in Miami 1981 divisional playoff between the Dolphins and the Chargers. The game featured everything, including an overtime session, before the Chargers finally prevailed.
Back to line judge
For the 1990 season, McNally moved Wyant and Ben Dreith from referee to line judge and promoted Tom White and Gerald Austin to referee.
While Wyant’s playoff record may have been an outward reason for the change, his colleagues’ comments and his 20-years at the referee position leave several puzzle pieces missing.
Wyant’s book, illustrates a philosophical and partial personality clash with his boss, Art McNally. McNally wanted his referees to conform to the same teaching methods, preparation, meeting agendas, crew mechanics and outlook on officiating. While this was needed post AFL-NFL merger and as pro football became America’s game, Wyant chafed under such rigid conformity.
According to Wyant, he and McNally never seemed to mesh well. One example in Wyant’s book happened during a pre-season clinic. The officials were taking a league-mandated eye exam. As the officials were filing into the exam room, Wyant did the face-hitting-the-door-post pratfall. While a silly joke, Wyant wrote that McNally didn’t find the humor in his shenanigans.
“While we had our differences,” Wyant said in his book, “especially in styles and approach to management, we are friends and there is no animosity at all between us. Some people may find that hard to believe. However, I did have fun pushing his buttons!”
Wyant’s move back to line judge paid dividends, as McNally assigned Wyant a divisional playoff game after the 1990 season. Wyant was told he could stay at line judge for another five years, but in reality his career was almost over.
For the 1991 season, Jerry Seeman was the new officiating boss, and Wyant said Seeman had less tolerance for him. After no playoff assignment in the 1991 season, Seeman told Wyant he had to be assigned a playoff game after the 1992 season or he was fired. Wyant said in those days the supervisor’s subjective season grade could count for 10 percent of an officials’ overall season ranking. Wyant said that the subjective grade from the boss could put an official into the playoffs or at the bottom of the list, leading to termination. Seeman didn’t assign Wyant a playoff game after the 1992 season, and Wyant left the league at age 59. If he had stayed on those five years at line judge, he could have joined the short list of 30-year officials.
In 2001, Rene A. Henry authored Wyant’s insider look into the NFL, a mix of first-person narrative and observations from the people he worked with, including McNally. On the cover, a babyfaced Wyant is captured in a zenlike state of concentration while Packers coach Vince Lombardi hails down his contempt for a call.
Wyant says in the book he had no qualms about his style, despite the fact that it was against the grain.
Should I ever regret never refereeing a Super Bowl? Probably. But would I compromise my happiness to make it happen? Or change my personality? Resist that practical joke? Or change my management style? No! Would I do things any differently if I were given another chance? Absolutely not.
Off the field, Wyant was a successful insurance salesman, business entrepreneur, and booster of West Virginia University athletics.
He leaves behind his wife of 68 years, Dolores, three children, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Our condolences to all who knew him and loved him. The text of his obituary appears below.
Ben Austro contributed to this report.
Frederick Mount Wyant, 1934 – 2021
Frederick “Fred” Mount Wyant, 86, of Star City, W. Va., died Saturday, March 20, 2021. Born April 26, 1934 in Weston, W. Va., he was the son of the late John Fred and Evelyn Wyant.
Fred was an author, all-American quarterback, National Football League player and referee, West Virginia University Sports Hall of Famer, and an inaugural member of the WVU Mountaineer Legends Society.
Fred was a quarterback for the Mountaineers from 1952-1955, where he cemented his legacy on the field as one of the greatest signal callers in Mountaineer history. In addition to his Hall of Fame football tenure at WVU, Fred was a three-time academic All-American. Fred was drafted by the Washington Football Team in the 1956 NFL Draft. Following his playing career, Fred spent 27 years in the NFL — first, as a line judge and then as a referee. After his days on the field, Fred went on to manage several businesses and author numerous books.
Fred is survived by his beloved wife of 68 years, Dolores Wyant, and his three children Kim Wyant Rizzo and spouse John Rizzo, Fred Wyant II, and E. Scott “Augie” Wyant and spouse Beth Wyant. Fred is also survived by three grandchildren, Adam Burrows, Eric Wyant, II, and Julian Wyant and one great-grandchild, Adriana Burrows, as well as his siblings Joseph Wyant and William Wyant.
In addition to his parents, Fred was predeceased by his brother Michael Wyant.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.
At Fred’s request, his body will be donated to West Virginia University for the advancement of science and medicine.
Donations may be made in Fred’s name to Amedisys Hospice, 5007 Mid Atlantic Dr., Morgantown, WV 26508.
Smith Funeral & Cremation Care of Westover / Morgantown is honored to provide care and guidance to the Wyant family.
Personal condolences and other symbolic gestures may be offered to the family by visiting www.smithfcc.com.