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Concentration is key for the most viewed coin toss of the year

How does a referee conduct a Super Bowl coin toss with dozens of cameras blazing away while the world watches?



The first act of the actual Super Bowl game is the coin toss to see who gets the ball first. Believe it or not, there are set mechanics for regular season coin tosses. But in the Super Bowl, the NFL layers extra features with honorary captains, former players, former presidents and other celebrities attending the toss. The celebrity then tosses the coin instead of the referee.

In the first Super Bowl, there were five people at the coin toss — two captains for each team and referee Norm Schachter. But as the Super Bowl has grown, so has the coin toss. Things started to change in the late 1970s, when George Halas tossed the Super Bowl XIII coin from an antique car at the 50-yard line. Things began to build with more honorary coin tossers. With the growth of the coin toss came more media scrutiny of the ceremony. Now several media members, photographers, security people and others attend the coin toss. It creates a crush of people.

So, how does the referee concentrate, control his emotions and conduct a proper coin toss?

One high profile mistake institutes changes

Jerry Markbreit worked as a NFL line judge and referee for 23 seasons. He still holds the record for most Super Bowls called from the referee position (four). In the 1980s and 1990s, he was one of the most recognized referees in the world. But when he called his first Super Bowl (XVII), Markbreit got confused about what side of the ceremonial coin was heads and what side was tails.

Super Bowl organizers handed Markbreit the coin just before the toss and told him that the side with the faces was heads and the side with the helmets was tails. The coin hit the ground and Markbreit miscalled the toss, resulting in confusion and protests until he got it straightened out. “It was the most embarrassing moment of my career,” Markbreit said, in an interview with Football Zebras. Markbreit remembers Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, who played games in college when Markbreit was the referee told him, “How the hell did you get this game?”

Practice and study

For the past 20 or so years, the NFL has the officiating crew rehearse the coin toss the day before the Super Bowl. Retired referee Bernie Kukar told Football Zebras that all participants except the team captains are at the dress rehearsal. So, the referee and everyone else gets a feel about how the ceremony should go.

Four years after what Markbreit termed the “coss of the toin,” he was assigned to his second Super Bowl (XXI). In light of his misadventure in his first game, the NFL gave the referee the coin before the game and allowed the official to study it. Markbreit said that made all the difference.

“It is most important to get the coin in advance and study it,” Markbreit said. He added, “The coin toss is so important. The referee must study the coin.”


After rehearsal and study are over, Markbreit says on game day referee must concentrate on the coin toss. “It’s the same as [officiating] a play. Concentrate only on the toss. Focus, don’t wander,” Markbreit advised.

I asked him how can the official concentrate when there is a crush of TV cameras and photographers crowding in, almost pushing into the referee and captains. Markbreit said the referee has to block everything out. “Don’t look around at the celebrities. Don’t look for the person who sang the National Anthem. Concentrate and focus. It’s just you, the captains and the coin,” Markbreit said.

Since 1998, the referee asks the visiting captain to call heads or tails before the toss. Markbreit says Ed Hochuli developed the mechanic of clearly repeating the captain’s call. “Hochuli said something like, ‘You call heads. You call heads.’ Then he flipped the coin. That way everyone knew the call,” Markbreit commented.

Once the referee declares the winner, Markbreit says the referee isn’t home free yet. By that time, the players are bursting with excitement and just want to get to the kickoff. The referee still has to give proper instructions and get the answers from the captains. The coin toss winner gets to choose whether to kick, receive, defend a goal or defer. The loser of the toss gets the remaining options. “Give careful instructions and go slow,” Markbreit advised. “Practice before the game what you will say to the captains.”

By his fourth Super Bowl assignment, Markbreit was the picture of concentration and gave a well-practiced and well-rehearsed coin toss in Super Bowl XXIX.

Be prepared to ad-lib

Bernie Kukar had to depart from the script by presidential order when he officiated his second Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XXXVI featured Hall of Famer Roger Staubach and former President George H. W. Bush as the celebrity guests at the coin toss. But that was news to Kukar.

However, because this was the first big event after 9/11 there was a lot of security involved and we were not informed who was going to show up for the toss, it was top secret stuff. Once you are standing on the sidelines waiting to go out for the toss, your mind keeps telling you to pay attention to all the stuff we practiced the day before. My only thought was “do not screw up the coin toss.”

Things went well until President Bush refused to toss the coin, as called for by the script. Bush wanted Staubach to flip the coin. Kukar tried to stick with the script, but then realized he couldn’t argue with a former president.

I kept insisting that he do it but he refused. Finally I said to myself that here is a kid from the swamps of Northern Minnesota trying to tell the President of the United States what to do. So then I decided I would back off what the NFL wanted and let Roger do it, which he did. All things went well with Roger, thank God.

And roll with any mishaps

In Super Bowl XLVIII, Joe Namath was the celebrity that tossed the coin. Referee Terry McAulay, perhaps briefly caught in the flamboyance of Namath, forgot to ask the Seahawks captain to call the side of the coin. In the video above, McAulay handled it smoothly, even got a bit of a chuckle out of the moment and got the coin toss back on track.

In Super Bowl XX, Red Cashion was the referee. The Chicago Bears were the visiting team. Back then, the captain called the toss while the coin was in the air (that changed in 1998). The coin sailed in the air, landed on the Superdome carpet — and Payton forgot to call heads or tails. Cashion shut off his microphone and straightened things out. While a tricky situation, Cashion called upon his common sense instincts and everyone went back to the sidelines satisfied and ready to play the game.

Every Super Bowl officiating crew wants the game to get off to a good, proper and smooth start. That start begins with the coin toss. That’s why every official studies, rehearses, visualizes and concentrates on the coin toss to get the most-viewed game in the world off on a positive note.

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?"