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Learning never stops at the top levels for officials

NFL officials need to take direction, no matter much they think they know.




One of the consistent qualities for top-notch officials is that they are coachable. Coaches love it when one of their star players is coachable, and officials need that same quality.

A master learns an early lesson

Midway through his Big 10 officiating career, referee Jerry Markbreit learned a lesson. A deep pass went for a touchdown — or so he thought. As soon as he saw an official go up with a touchdown, he turned to the press box and flashed the signal. When he looked again, he saw that another official over-ruled the calling official, and the play was incomplete.

In his book Last Call: Memoirs of a NFL Referee, Markbreit says he got irritated that he signaled touchdown and then had to take the score off the board. The crowd got on the officials, and Markbreit let his irritation show. He had bad body language for the rest of the half.

The crew went to the locker room at halftime, and Herm Rohrig, supervisor of officials for the Big 10, was there.  Rohrig rebuked Markbreit. He said when players and coaches see an official upset, they get upset because the official doesn’t have himself under control. 

A chastened Markbreit wrote that he applied that lesson several times for the rest of his career. When he or his crew made a mistake, he reminded himself, “Don’t pout.”

Super Bowl veteran takes direction

Bernie Kukar was in the last few years of his career. He had already officiated two Super Bowls. He was one of the senior referees in the league. Yet he still took direction.

Markbreit (by this time retired and a referee coach for the NFL) noted that Kukar needed to back up more before the snap. Markbreit said Kukar needed to take a wider angle to call the play. Kukar initially thought Markbreit was wrong, but after looking at the film, he discovered he was too close to the play and needed to back up.

Being coachable

What if Markbreit had dismissed Rohrig’s scolding as being a grouch and justified his attitude? What if Kukar had thought, “Markbreit had his day. He’s not on the field anymore. I’ve done two Super Bowls and I’m not going to change what I do.” Markbreit never would have made the NFL, and might have had a shortened college career. Kukar would have had an unpleasant final few years, and maybe a shortened career.

If officials aren’t coachable, they might soon be dropped from the roster. If they aren’t coachable on the amateur levels, they’ll never get past the peewee or JV level. No crew wants to take on a new official or a veteran official who doesn’t listen to direction and wants to things his or her own way. That makes for a very unpleasant situation — and word gets out quick.

The learning never stops, even for the best. Officials must never become complacent and think “I’ve arrived” because the next call is right around the corner.

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?"