Walt Coleman, “the dean of NFL officials” who served for 30 seasons, will be retiring from the league after the 2018 season. Coleman is one of seven officials who are part of an exclusive group of officials who devoted at least 30 years of on-field service in the NFL.
Not only is Coleman’s longevity a milestone, but it is the end of an era in officiating. Coleman was the last active official hired by the venerable head of officiating Art McNally, who ran the department from 1968 to 1990.
Coleman — number 65 on the officiating roster — was hired by the league in 1989 from the Southwest Conference as a line judge when some of the current NFL officials were in middle school. After the Southwest Conference allowed native Arkansans to officiate University of Arkansas games, Coleman did not want to jeopardize his family business, so he applied for work in the NFL.
His first regular season game was as a member of referee Jerry Seeman’s crew in Chicago. He was promoted to referee in the 1995 season, along with former referee Mike Carey, when the league expanded to 30 teams. Coleman did not work as a referee at the Division I-A or I-AA levels.
Coleman, 66, worked 17 postseason games, which included 6 Wild Card Playoffs, 9 Divisional Playoffs, and 2 Conference Championships. He was the alternate referee on John Parry’s crew for this season’s Divisional Playoff between the Cowboys and Rams. His last on-field playoff assignment was the chilly 2015 Wild Card Playoff between the Seahawks and Vikings; the kickoff temperature of -6° is the third coldest NFL game on record. Coleman was never assigned to a Super Bowl.
Perhaps the three most recognized incidents in Coleman’s career were examples of bad rules or quirks involving replay that were officiated correctly. In the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs — the Tuck Rule Game — Coleman reversed what would likely have been a game-sealing fumble recovery by the Raiders to an incomplete pass by the Patriots, which, by many, is referred to the start of the New England dynasty. He did not officiate a Raiders game in the remaining 261 games of his career, a streak that outlasted the tuck rule itself.
“The Tuck Rule Game.”
The ruling: an incomplete pass.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) January 9, 2019
Replay was once again a factor on Thanksgiving Day in 2012, when Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw a challenge flag on a Texans touchdown run. Despite the fact that running back Justin Forsett was clearly down by contact, Schwartz was penalized for challenging the play that he was unable to challenge, which included the inability to review the play according to the rules of the time. While the incorrect call was made by the covering officials, Coleman was correct that he unable to fix it in replay. That rule was removed from the rulebook a few months later, the same day the tuck rule was repealed.
In the final play of a 2017 game between the Falcons and Lions, Coleman, in replay, ended a game on a ten-second runoff when there were only eight seconds remaining in the game. Lions receiver Golden Tate was ruled to have broken the plane for the game winning touchdown, but in actuality, Tate was down by contact short of the goal line. Since the replay review changed the stopped clock ruling to a ruling that causes a running clock, a ten-second runoff needed to take place. Since Detroit had no timeouts, they could not avoid the runoff and the game was correctly declared over. Just like it the other two cases, the rule was slightly tweaked this year that might have allowed the Lions another snap.
In 2015, his son, Walt Coleman IV, joined the NFL from the Big 12 conference. His father, Buddy Coleman, was a referee in the Southwest Conference. Both Buddy (II) Walt Coleman (III) are in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Coleman lives in Mabelvale, Ark., and off the field, he is the manager of Coleman Dairy, the family business that has existed since the 1860s. In 2001, Family Business Magazine listed it as the 75th oldest family business in the U.S. Coleman Dairy became a division of Hiland Dairy in 2007.
Coleman will co-lead the Pro Bowl crew with other retiree Pete Morelli this weekend. Following Coleman in seniority among active officials is line judge Jeff Bergman, who is completing his 27th season at Super Bowl LIII. If an incoming official next season were to replicate Coleman’s feat, he or she would be working through the 2048 season and potentially work Super Bowl LXXXIII.