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NFL100: A century of determining who gets the ball first

Next in our NFL100 series, a look back at 100 years of coin tosses.



Bill Vinovich conducts the Packers-Vikings coin toss (Green Bay Packers)

It is a simple procedure. The game can’t begin without it. Before any football game starts the referee has to decide who gets the ball first. That question has been decided by the coin toss for the past 100 years. The coin toss determines who gets the first choice of receiving the kickoff, what goal to defend, or deferring the first choice until the second half kickoff.

The process has changed since Woodrow Wilson was president:

  • 1921: The referee tossed the coin in front of the captains. Before that, the captains conducted their own coin toss and reported the results to the referee.
  • 1946: The referee conducted the coin toss before teams left the field after pre-game warmups.
  • 1976: Coin toss ceremony changes from 30-minutes before kickoff to three-minutes before kickoff.
  • 1977: Coin toss ceremony can happen any time under three-minutes before kickoff.
  • 1992: In an effort to prevent gamesmanship, rules specified that the number of team captains at the coin toss is limited to six per team, and failure to present captains for the coin toss will be the loss of coin toss option for both halves and loss of 15 yards from the spot of the kickoff.
  • 2008: The winner of the pregame coin toss can defer its choice until the second half.

Nothing can really go wrong during the coin toss – until it does. For many years, referees at all levels asked the visiting captain to call the toss as the referee tossed the coin in the air. That protocol changed forever on Thanksgiving Day in 1998, when there was confusion over what Steelers captain Jerome Bettis called out during the toss.

Although referee Phil Luckett was exonerated in that incident, the NFL adopted an immediate change in mechanics where the captain announced his choice of heads or tails before the referee flips the coin; which resonated though the football officiating world, as amateur-level football officials adopted that new procedure as well.

But the 1998 controversy wasn’t the only coin toss choice gaffe. Abner Haynes of the Dallas Texans (later the Kansas City Chiefs) thanks his lucky stars that the Texans won the 1962 AFL Championship game after he told referee Harold Bourne that the Texans would “kick to the clock” after winning the sudden-death overtime coin toss.

Even when the referee gets through the heads or tails choice without incident, sometimes the actual act of tossing the coin in the air goes a little wonky.

Sometimes the coin lands sideways in the mud or snow, or the coin can even bounce off of a player. The key is the coin landing on the ground indicating a clear winner. If the coin lands on an angle in the snow or mud, the referee will re-flip it. Ed Hochuli did this during a heavy snow game in Philadelphia a few years ago.

If the wind catches the coin in the air and it bounces off a player, there is no re-flip as long as the coin lands on the ground indicating a clear winner. Once, the coin landed on a captain’s shoe. We think the referee was Red Cashion and he tossed the coin again. If the coin fails to rotate in the air, the referee can toss the coin again, as what happened to Clete Blakeman a few years ago.

The referee needs to concentrate and not get confused. The most infamous coin toss brain fade happened in Super Bowl XVII, when Jerry Markbreit blanked out on what side of the commemorative coin was heads and what side was tails.

In the Super Bowl, the coin toss layers on several bells and whistles. The first Super Bowl coin toss featured five people — two captains from each team and referee Norm Schachter. Now, the coin toss features several celebrities, an honorary person to toss the coin, and dozens of camera people all vying for about three feet of prime space to get the best shot. The crush of people has, in my opinion, gotten ridiculous. The day before the Super Bowl, there is a rehearsal for the coin toss, where the referee and others get to practice the most-viewed coin toss of the season.

Even then, something can go wrong. In Super Bowl XLVIII, referee Terry McAulay handed the coin to Joe Namath to toss. Before McAulay could ask Seattle’s captain for their heads/tails option, Namath had “a quick release” and tossed the coin instantly. McAulay caught the coin out of the air, smiled and then got the call. Everyone had a laugh about it and the rest of the toss went off without a hitch.

Over the last 100 years, the coin toss has been proven to be an efficient and easy system to choose who goes on offense first. Usually…


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?"