Art McNally, the stalwart leader of the National Football League officiating department and preeminent advisor for six decades, has died on Jan. 1 of natural causes at the age of 97. McNally was the first and only official to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame last August. Since October, he was the oldest surviving member of the Hall of Fame.
McNally was an individual for whom our vocabulary of superlatives is inadequate to truly capture his leadership, his mentorship, and his unwavering integrity. He has been universally praised and respected by his peers, players, and coaches as being at the pinnacle of his profession.
Arthur Ignatius McNally was born July 1, 1925, in Philadelphia. He would be a fixture in that region for all of his life. He graduated from Roman Catholic High School and Temple University, both in the City of Brotherly Love.
McNally was a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. It was at this time that he first became involved in officiating. Returning to Philadelphia, he officiated football, basketball and baseball. McNally would referee “sandlot games in 1946 at American and Luzerne Streets for $5.” He later worked college and semipro football and basketball games.
He was a teacher and a coach at Central High School. While teaching, he first put on the pro stripes in the NBA for the 1957-58 season. A year later, and months after a sudden-death championship that would propel football’s popularity above that of baseball, he was hired by the NFL. He worked as a field judge his first season and was promoted to referee in 1960 as the league expanded to include the Cowboys and Vikings.
In 1966, the NFL and the upstart American Football League announced that they would merge in 1970. While the two leagues operated separately, the football operations started to combine for better efficiency. On April 17, 1968, McNally succeeded Mark Duncan as supervisor of officiating — the head of the department that is now a senior vice president, owing to the league’s growing recognition of the importance of the position. McNally was originally assigned to NFL duties, while retired NFL center Mel Hein would supervise the AFL, and both would be “under the direction” of Duncan in “the plan of organization for major pro football,” as originally announced. McNally left his teaching job and soon after the appointment, leveraging his skills as an educator, he emerged as the full-fledged leader of officiating.
“Art became supervisor in 1968, while the merger of the AFL into the NFL was being readied for full implementation with the 1970 season,” future NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Football Zebras. “I began working on NFL matters in mid-1969 as a young attorney. For 20 years I was fortunate to have worked closely with Art in the Competition Committee and other areas, and he was a terrific institutional asset when I became Commissioner in 1989.”
In the first 45 years of the league, officiating was an afterthought. In the 1920s and ’30s, NFL officials didn’t always work the same position and sometimes officiated more than one game a weekend. Through the 1950s, rules interpretations and complaints from coaches were filtered through the commissioner who consulted with Shorty Ray, the technical advisor. The position of supervisor of officials was created in 1956, beginning with former umpire Mike Wilson, and then held by Joe Kuharich and Duncan, who were out-of-work coaches when they were hired.
Do your job. Hopefully no one’s going to even know you’re around. Make the calls the proper way they should be with a heavy dose of common sense!
— Art McNally on officiating, 2012
McNally would pioneer the use of film as a training tool for officials. This was widely used for coaching players, but unheard of for coaching officials. There were strong-willed that felt their officiating mechanics were best, but McNally soon won them over to employ uniform mechanics. This was no longer an NFL that operated on a “this is how our crew does it” and quickly changed to “this is how Art wants us to do it.” It did not take long for McNally to place his stamp on officiating with an insistence on high standards and continued improvement.
“He put everything he had into producing the integrity of the game by setting the standard,” four-time Super Bowl referee Jerry Markbreit told us. “He was a great official in his own right and taught the officiating staff his very high standards.”
The word integrity is not one that semantically has an intensifier — one either has it or not — but if there is an exception, McNally certainly would be.
“He, quite frankly, set the standard of integrity — the most important characteristic of any official — for all NFL officials,” former referee Ed Hochuli told us in 2018. “Art was integrity personified, and spread that characteristic to every official who put on the NFL stripes for the next 22 years as supervisor of officials, and on to this day, as an assistant supervisor, consultant, and mentor. Every NFL official for the last 50 years has viewed Art McNally as the definition of integrity and the father of modern officiating in the NFL.”
I would play poker over the phone with Art McNally. That’s how much I trust him.
— Jim Tunney, referee 1960-1990
Tagliabue, as McNally’s eventual superior as commissioner, also saw key attributes in heading the officiating department. “Art’s integrity, thoroughness, candor and other qualities made him a respected and exceptional leader — with whomever he was dealing. He had an uncanny ability to have every game official, and everyone in his department, understand the need for both individual accountability and teamwork in performing their functions. The referees had to be leaders and first among equals, but also equals with all crew members in collaborating, so that the entire crew’s performance was always expected to be greater than the sum of the parts.”
McNally’s contributions are extensive, and too numerous to be listed here. By forging a die for high standards in officiating, his career navigated through rules changes that would promote offensive production and increased scoring and the groundbreaking use of instant replay to correct calls on the field. He “retired” as the head of officiating in March 1991, moving over to the NFL-run World League as the officiating supervisor, then an assistant supervisor of officiating and a trainer/observer in his final years in the league in 2015, at the age of 90.
More than half of the league’s history, Art McNally was an employee.
McNally was married to Rita Krout McNally until her passing in December 1981. They had four children, Rita O’Hara, Michael, Thomas, and Marybeth Fairchild. His eldest daughter, Rita, often would help around the home in Yardley, Pa., due to McNally’s long weekday hours and being away on weekends throughout the season. After college, she worked as an administrative assistant for her father for a few years, both taking the train to Manhattan early in the morning.
O’Hara took up the torch to have McNally recognized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having a firsthand perspective of the work he did and the respect he had from everyone in the league office. O’Hara passed away in 2019 at the age of 59 from melanoma. O’Hara’s children, Shannon and Connor, were McNally’s representatives in Canton, Ohio, in August 2022 for his enshrinement, as McNally was unable to travel.
McNally remarried to Sharon, who was present for his nomination phone call and the surprise visit from Tagliabue, now a Hall of Famer himself, to officially announce McNally’s upcoming enshrinement.
The road to his eventual enshrinement was full of disappointment. Passed over for several years, McNally was always on the cusp of nomination. Football Zebras took up the annual pitch for McNally in 2018, after realizing that teams had beat writers pushing their candidates over McNally, but there was no voice for the officiating community.
It was bittersweet that McNally was unable to attend the enshrinement ceremony, and that his daughter Rita did not survive to experience it.
In the end, the Hall of Fame was always shrugged off by McNally. He saw officiating as something that shouldn’t be noticed if done properly. That is correct, but his humility shadows the extraordinary contribution that has to the greatness of the game. It also stands to reason that among those who are “contributors” in the Hall of Fame — those who did not play or coach in the league — not a single individual contributed more to the sport of football than Art McNally.
Commissioner Tagliabue did institute an annual recognition for exemplary officiating careers. Fittingly, it is the Art McNally Award. The league’s command center on gameday, which includes the centralized replay operations, is named Art McNally Game Day Central. In 2012, McNally was given the Hall of Fame’s Ralph Hay Pioneer Award, an award that was handed out only 10 times on an irregular basis, and the second winner to have subsequently been enshrined.
Jim Tunney expressed his thoughts on McNally in 2018. “I would play poker over the phone with Art McNally. That’s how much I trust him. He is just an outstanding, outstanding human being. I can’t think of anyone, other than my father, who would come close to being an Art McNally.”
Mark Schultz and Cam Filipe contributed to this report.
Arthur I. “Art” McNally, 1925-2023
Arthur I. “Art” McNally, known fondly for revolutionizing sports officiating, passed away peacefully in the presence of his loving wife on Sunday, January 1, 2023. He was the beloved husband of 36 years to Sharon A. McNally. Art was 97.
Born in Philadelphia, Art attended Roman Catholic High School before serving in the United States Marines during World War II. Art was a graduate of Temple University as well as a teacher and coach in the Philadelphia Public School District until his appointment as the NFL’s Supervisor of Officials in 1968. Revered as the “Father of Modern-Day Officiating”, Art officiated over 3,000 football, baseball, and basketball games during a period of 22 years. He also worked one year in the NBA and served as a Field Judge and Referee in the National Football League for nine years. Art served as the alternate official in Super Bowl I.
In a career with the NFL that spanned over five decades, Art’s contributions to the game of football revolutionized officiating and influenced the way the game is played today. Art installed the first formal training program for officials in professional sports and eventually headed a department of five men who coordinated and directed a staff of 112 game officials. Art also oversaw the first implementation of instant replay as a way to review and verify calls in real-time. In 2002 Commissioner Paul Tagliabue created the Art McNally Award to annually honor an NFL game official who exhibits exemplary professionalism, leadership, and a commitment to sportsmanship on and off the field.
Art’s career has been commemorated in Hall of Fames across the country including the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame (Class of 1987), the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (Class of 2022), and The Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame (Class of 2022). Art was also the proud recipient of the first National Association of Sports Officials “Gold Whistle” Award (1988), the Reds Bagnell Award (2004), and the Daniel E. Reeves Pioneer Award (2012) amongst many others.
In his personal life Art loved to spend time on his boat, practice his faith, share stories of his life, and be with his family. Family, friends, and colleagues alike describe Art as the pinnacle of hard work, humility, and integrity.
Art is the loving father to Michael McNally, Thomas McNally (Lisa), and Marybeth Fairchild (Douglas). Grandfather of Shannon (Thomas), Connor, Erin, Alayna, Michael, Maryelizabeth, Mollie, and Madeline, great grandfather of Brexley.
Art will also be sadly missed by his son-in-law Brian O’Hara.
Art is preceded in death by his first wife, Rita K. McNally, his daughter Rita M. O’Hara, his parents James and Madge (Boyle) McNally and his siblings James McNally Jr., John Peter McNally, Joseph Patrick McNally, Marjorie Roddy.
Friends and Family may call on Monday, January 9, from 9:00-10:30am at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 752 Big Oak Road, Morrisville, PA where his funeral mass will be celebrated at 11:00 am with interment to follow. Arrangements are under the care of the FitzGerald-Sommer Funeral Home 17 S. Delaware Ave. Yardley, PA 19067.
Memorial contributions to the above church are appreciated.