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Phil Luckett was right

Vilified referee Phil Luckett was correct in seemingly botched coin flip



Officiating boss said, ‘What Phil did is correct’

For years, former NFL referee Phil Luckett was been mocked at best for the coin toss controversy on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. In the 1998 Thanksgiving Day game, the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers ended regulation in a tie, and Luckett called both team captains to the center of the field for the overtime coin toss. What followed was the most scrutinized coin toss in football history.

By rule, Steelers captain Jerome Bettis was to call “heads” or “tails” while Luckett tossed the coin in the air. Bettis started to call “heads” but changed his mind mid-toss to “tails.” Luckett said Bettis called “heads-tails” and took the captain’s first call of “heads” as the rules required him to do. The coin came up tails. The Lions won the toss, chose to receive the ball, marched down the field, and kicked a field goal to win the game. The Steelers never touched the ball in overtime.

Bettis and the Steelers protested that the call was “tails.” For a week members of the media raged at Luckett’s seeming incompetence; however, within a week, Luckett was proven right. Media outlets ran enhanced audio of the coin toss and the cleaned up audio proves that Bettis said “hea-TAILS.” As Luckett was explaining the situation to coach Bill Cowher, the sideline microphone also picks up Bettis’s partial admission of guilt, “I said ‘huh’! I said ‘huh’!”

By rule, Luckett was supposed to take Bettis’ first choice, thus he followed proper procedure.

Unfortunately for Luckett, the NFL was not very vigorous in defending his decision. Luckett, who joined the NFL in 1991 and had officiated Super Bowl XXXI as a back judge, was in his second year as a referee at the time of the coin toss. Luckett was eligible for a playoff assignment that year; however the NFL did not assign him a playoff game. Instead, at the end of the regular season, the NFL wrote Luckett a check for the amount of an onfield playoff assignment. Logic dictates that Luckett graded out well enough to be awarded a playoff game, but officiating supervisor Jerry Seeman chose to keep the controversial referee off of the field. An extensive article about this coin toss controversy ran in the May 1999 issue of Referee magazine.

Internally, within the NFL officiating ranks, the coin toss was examined and discussed on an NFL officiating training tape, a copy of which was sent to Referee. Training tapes are seen weekly by all NFL officials. As the coin toss is shown, [head of officiating Jerry] Seeman is heard to say in a voiceover, “The captain from Pittsburgh, Bettis, instead of calling directly ‘tails,’ which you will hear on here, he comes out and says, ‘hea-tails.’ And as you all know, whatever’s called first is what you deal with. You will hear this on the television and then Phil will properly go over to and explain to coach Cowher, and then Bettis also at that time will be saying, ‘Well I said “hea-tails” before it hit the ground.’ You can understand the interpretation and what Phil did is correct.”

After that game, the NFL made immediate changes to the coin toss procedures. Starting the next week, the referee was instructed to ask the captain to call “heads” or “tails” before he flipped the coin. NCAA and high school officials quickly followed suit.

(There was one other time of note that an NFL captain called heads/tails before the coin toss. In Super Bowl XIX, Dolphins captain Dwight Stephenson called heads at the Rose Bowl, then President Ronald Reagan flipped the coin from the White House.)

Luckett continued on as a referee for two more seasons before switching back to the back judge position in 2001 where he remained for the rest of his career. Luckett has stated in published articles that he wished to return to back judge so he could concentrate on leading missionary work projects in his church and being a referee demanded too much of his time. Luckett retired after officiating the 2007 playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and the Indianapolis Colts. He now works in the league office as an officiating supervisor.

It is very possible that Luckett’s name will be used in vain this year as fans and media remember Thanksgiving Day games of the past. Before you accept the media’s criticism of Luckett and laugh at snarky comments made about him, remember that the officiating supervisor, the audio evidence, and the NFL rule book back up the referee’s actions that day.

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?"