Connect with us


Who will train the next generation of NFL referees?

The passing of Bill Leavy creates a hole in training future NFL referees



Embed from Getty Images

The sudden passing of Bill Leavy this spring was a loss to NFL officiating on a personal level, but also on a professional level. Upon retiring from the NFL, Leavy was a supervisor of officials with a specific duty of training potential officials to become a referee. He also supervised the 17 active white hats.

When Leavy took over as supervisor, he was already editing and updating the referee training manual, which was 20 pages when he started working on it. It now spans 130 pages, according to several current and former officials. The manual is more than mechanics, reading keys and proper penalty enforcement. The manual teaches the official to be a proper leader, mentor, advocate, sometime confessor and administrator for a group of highly skilled, strong-willed officials.

There is much more to the referee position than knowing where to stand and making proper signals. The referee has to mold the crew into a unit, organize crew meetings, liaise with the NFL front office, work with TV producers, NFL stadium security, game day staff and finally officiate the game.

After that, there are other nuances that officials must master. For instance, the microphone picks up the referee’s normal speaking voice, thus the official need not shout penalty announcements, even when the crowd is booing. When the referee is inside the 30-yard line, the referee should angle toward the announcer’s booth, and look up at the press box when making announcements. It would look bad on TV to have a referee standing at the five-yard line, staring at the chain crew while the cameras get a nice profile.

Embed from Getty Images

There are even more nuances — when greeting the head coach or players, many referees take off their cap when shaking hands as a sign of respect. Also, before heading out to the field, it is a good idea for the referee to brush their teeth or rinse with mouthwash. (Referees don’t want to knock over Bill Belichick with onion breath!)

Over the decades, these tips and nuances were passed on to the rookies from the veterans. Now, thanks to Levy’s manual, there is a uniform training program for officials who are candidates to move to the referee position.

Leavy trained all the new NFL referees from 2014 to today

That 130-page manual is great, but Leavy took it a step further. He and the NFL front office identified potential officials who could be promoted from their current black hat position to the referee’s white hat. Those officials then went to a mini-clinic with Leavy during the off-season to learn the requirements of a NFL referee. Referee candidates then worked scrimmages as a referee. They used to audition in the preseason for referee (a practice that I hope returns). Most recently, referee candidates worked the white hat during the XFL and USFL seasons.

So now what happens?

Embed from Getty Images

Leavy’s program is too valuable to go away. But, in order for the program to continue and grow, it needs a new leader who is just as dedicated to the craft as Leavy was.

But who?

First of all, the person must be acceptable to the Walt Anderson, senior vice president of officiating. The referee trainer’s curriculum must conform to NFL requirements and desires. The trainer will almost have to be retired from the field, and must have a good reputation as a NFL referee (I don’t know if a Super Bowl assignment is a requirement but it would help).

Should the new referee trainer come directly off the field, or should it be a referee who has been retired for several years? How much should age factor into the decision? Legally, it can’t factor into the hire, but it would be good for the trainer to commit to at least five years to the program. The retired referees who are TV rules analysts would be good candidates, but they’d have to take a big pay cut to work for the NFL.

There are several referees who are in their late 50s and early 60s who could take over the program. But, do they want to leave the field? Would the pay be worth it? Would the candidate agree with what the NFL wants to teach future referees? Does an active referee step in and attempt to partially fill the void?

There are several officials at the six other positions who are excellent teachers. But, would a black hat put in charge of teaching the white hats have the gravitas to move the program forward?

Embed from Getty Images

Too many questions to make a prediction

Usually when a referee retires, we like to predict who we think will be the next referee. But, right now we don’t even know the future of the referee training program. So predicting who will be the next referee trainer (if the program continues) is a fruitless exercise.

But one thing is certain. Bill Leavy provided an invaluable service to the NFL by training referee candidates. This program needs to continue. Hopefully, there is an official out there ready, willing and able to pick up the torch and take the white hat training program forward.

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?"