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Navigating the process of leveling up in the football officiating ranks

How does an official get to Division I or the NFL? There isn’t one path to get there

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Football officials that are interested in advancing to work at higher levels, such as college and even the NFL, face an interesting dichotomy. Youth and high school football continue to face an officiating shortage, meaning it is relatively easy for new officials to break into the profession. However, the amount of time, effort, and scrutiny needed to make it to the NCAA and NFL is now greater than ever.

While not every high-level official follows the same path, many put in countless hours of study, training, and game work to not only be hired but maintain their positions within the NCAA and NFL. Some officials never make it for a variety of reasons.

An issue bubbling up

Many football officials are content to work their entire career at the high school level. For most officials, even at the collegiate and NFL ranks, this is a secondary job or career, and many cannot put in the time to advance beyond high school athletics. However, it is still extremely difficult for high school assignors to fill crews and games because new, young officials are not joining the ranks fast enough to replace retiring officials.

This year, the National Association of Sports Officials surveyed over 9,900 football officials in the U.S. The average age of a surveyed football official was 57 years old, with 75% of surveyed officials over the age of 50. Only 4% of the respondents were age 30 or less. This data shows a major issue for the future of high school football officiating, and it eventually will become a problem for the future of collegiate and NFL officiating.

If the trend continues, there will not be enough young officials to replace retiring officials at the high school level, let alone at the collegiate and professional levels. For those younger officials interested in advancing to the NCAA and NFL, what is the likely path they need to take? Young officials will have the opportunity to advance because of numbers, but how does that advancement occur?

While every official’s experience is different, what we can do is look at the pathway some current NCAA and NFL officials have taken and how the landscape has changed over time.

Two officials’ tracks to Division I

The path that one high-level collegiate official takes may differ significantly from another, and some show that patience and hard work pay off in the end. In a June interview with Referee, Big Ten and National Championship referee Mike Cannon stated that he was initially content with officiating high school games and having fun.

Cannon then moved into the collegiate ranks, working his way up through junior college, Division III, and eventually, when he was 28 years old, moving to the Division II-level North Central Conference. He worked Division II for 12 years, including 1994 Division II championship game between North Alabama and Texas A&M-Kingsville.

In 2000, Cannon was hired as a field judge in the Big Ten Conference by supervisor of officials and former side judge Dave Parry. During his first two seasons in the Big Ten, Cannon worked on Bill LeMonnier’s crew, which was regarded as one of the top crews in the conference. He also worked on crews led by referees Todd Geerlings and John O’Neill. Cannon was promoted to referee in 2012 and worked to establish his crew as one of the best in the Big Ten.

During his time in the Big Ten, Cannon officiated three Big Ten championship games and three National Championship games, capping his career with the 2019 National Championship Game between Clemson and Alabama. Cannon’s career was anything but fast-tracked and he utilized each of his 43 years of officiating to improve, gain knowledge and experience, and ultimately become a crew chief and leader that was desired by not only the Big Ten but also the NCAA playoff officiating committee.

In an interview with Football Zebras, Bill LeMonnier, retired Big Ten and National Championship referee, discussed his development pathway and how it differed from what officials go through today.

“It probably took me four to five years before I got a varsity high school game. You know you work the grammar school-age stuff. You work freshman ball, JV ball, and then hopefully somebody had a need on a crew.” LeMonnier said. “I probably worked about five years of varsity ball before I got a chance to work some Division III. You were doing high school on Friday night, Division III on Saturday and I probably did that for about eight years.

“Then I got a break to go to, at that time it was called the Gateway Conference, and now it’s the Missouri Valley Conference. I got four or five years in the Gateway and then had the opportunity to join the Big Ten. At that point, I was 42-43 years old, and that was pretty much the ballpark age that officials were getting the opportunity to go to Division I.”

However, even if LeMonnier had stayed in Division III for his entire career, he knew one thing was true: “If I would have stayed in Division III and I only got the opportunity to be in the Gateway Conference, I wanted to be the best Division III official I could be. I never had any aspirations for the NFL. If I’m in the Gateway for the rest of my career, a lot of people would trade places with me in a heartbeat. I always said that if you’re hung up on advancing and you don’t, then I guess it is time to get out. You’re supposed to be doing this because of the love of the game and for the players playing the game.”

When it comes to advancement and how officials are identified, is being discovered pure luck, or does the official need to do some pushing from their side?

“Probably a little bit of everything,” Lemonnier stated.

When LeMonnier was working for the Gateway Conference, he was asked to work a scrimmage at Wisconsin on one particular Saturday. However, LeMonnier was already scheduled to work at Western Illinois that day and declined the offer because he wanted to stay loyal to his assignment. Unbeknownst to him, two other officials who were working at Western Illinois turned back their assignments to work the Wisconsin scrimmage.

A week later, Dave Parry, the Big Ten coordinator, called LeMonnier to meet for lunch. LeMonnier was told there were three candidates, but that his loyalty to his assignment and conference was the tiebreaker and offered him a position as a Big Ten official. “You know, I don’t know if that always applies, but it sure paid off that time,” LeMonnier reflected.

Working year-round

While officiating is still a part-time job for most Division I officials, it turns into a full-time job with all the training that is required. Conferences start doing weekly quizzes with crews in January and have video meetings for positional groups; some have already started up in-person meetings. “It may be a 12-week season in the fall, but it’s probably a 40-week season for the whole year,” LeMonnier said.

With all the work and time involved in building both a professional and officiating career, LeMonnier is clear that one needs to include one’s family when one can. “Whenever I could, my kids went to the games. My oldest daughter, who’s now 40, she had three years in a row she went to every Big Ten game,” LeMonnier recalled. “You’ve got to give something back to them for all the time they let you officiate.”

With fewer and fewer game or high-intensity practice reps for officials to officiate, aspiring officials need to take opportunities where they can get them. One way to gain reps is by officiating new or fringe football leagues like the XFL, USFL, or in LeMonnier’s case, the Arena League. “I was a referee and, in the Arena League, I was looking at a quarterback for pass/fumble. I was looking at the holding, I was looking at hits on the quarterback, so I got repetitions, you know, 10-12 more games to get repetitions on my back,” he stated.

Many of the officials working in the XFL and USFL are on the NFL’s shortlist and are using those leagues to gain exposure as well as additional reps.

Michael VanderVelde, who officiated the 2023 XFL Championship Game, is one such official who embraced additional opportunities to work in new leagues such as the XFL. In 2013, VanderVelde was preparing to officiate his first high school football title game in Louisiana while also starting his journey as a collegiate referee in the Southland Conference. He eventually moved on to the Mountain West and now is a Big 12 referee.

When Greg Burks, the Big 12 coordinator of officials, asked if he would be interested in working for the XFL, VanderVelde readily volunteered. Jumping to work for a new league has risks, but it also gives exposure to officials looking to continue their development and perhaps make it to the NFL.

“We really felt like all of our crews did a really good job, but with Mike and his crew, they just stood out,” said XFL vice president of officiating and playing rules innovation Dean Blandino. “Things you look for, especially from a referee: How do they manage the game? How do they communicate? Do they look like they’re in control? Mike just has that command.”

VanderVelde’s jump to the XFL and his crew’s work to reach the XFL championship have surely put him and members of his crew on the radar of the NFL and their officiating department.

When the NFL calls you

While the pathways officials take during their careers are never the same, most NFL officials have followed a similar pathway. In general, officials need 10+ years of experience working high-level collegiate football or other professional football before they will be hired by the NFL.

Author Richard Lister documents the stories of some well-known NFL officials in his book The Third Team. Many officials, such as Jerry Markbreit, Bill Carollo, and Mike Pereira, started officiating either while or just after attending college. Markbreit and Pereira started out working Catholic League grade school and Pop Warner games respectively. All referenced the challenges of balancing their full-time career jobs with their officiating. Markbreit worked his way up to the high school level and was assigned to bigger and bigger games. He was soon hired to work for the Big Ten for 11 years, 9 as a referee. He joined the NFL in 1976 as a line judge and immediately made the jump to referee in 1977.

On the other hand, Carollo made it to the Big Ten quickly and was hired when he was just 28 years old. He continued to work high school games during the week to continue to gain experience and college games on Saturday. Like Markbreit, Carollo continued to excel and was assigned the 1988 Rose Bowl. He joined the NFL in 1989 as a side judge and became a referee in 1997.

Unlike Markbreit and Carollo, Pereira used his time and experience on the field to quickly move into a supervisory role — a path Carollo followed later in his career. After working his way up to the Division I level and gaining experience on the field in the Big West Conference and the WAC, he took a supervisory role with the WAC in 1996, while also being promoted to the NFL as a side judge.

Pereira worked as an on-field official for the NFL for just two seasons. He became a supervisor of officiating for the NFL in 1998, and then was promoted to head the NFL’s officiating as director in 2001. (He was bumped up to vice president of officiating in 2004). Pereira would hold that position until he retired in 2009. He also has held supervisory roles with the Pac-12 and the USFL.

In these, and many more, cases, officials started their officiating journeys early in life. Many fans see last names pop up over and over like Steratore, Hochuli, and Seeman. We asked LeMonnier about those names and if it helped that their family was in a way, “officiating royalty”?

“They grew up in an environment that even in grammar school, high school, they were around officiating, and all the officiating bodies and they were developing that football IQ. They weren’t getting reps on the field, but they were developing that football IQ for officiating long before I did,” he said. “Did they have a break in their personal mentor and that was paving the way? No question about it, but they do the job, and it was just phenomenal.”

Clearly, a multi-billion dollar industry like the NFL wouldn’t sacrifice its product to keep officiating family members in the league if they weren’t doing a good enough job.

In the past, officials “applied” for promotions to major conferences and the NFL. Today, the NFL evaluates and selects new officials through its Mackie Development Program. The program is designed to identify and train the best young officials in the country. Officials who are selected for the program participate in a rigorous training regimen that includes classroom instruction, on-field practice, and game evaluations. At the end of the program, the NFL selects a few officials to join the NFL officiating staff. Those who are not selected may be invited to return to the program the following year.

High school officials in their 30s may think they don’t have a chance to make it to Division I or the NFL, but with fewer young officials joining the youth and high school officiating ranks, major collegiate conferences and even the NFL are starting to hire older officials more than they may have in the past. We asked LeMonnier what his message is for younger officials starting out who want to move up into the collegiate and possibly the NFL ranks.

He says ideally, one needs to connect with a mentor with some clout. “Show them you can officiate. Do the things you have to do and again, just remember, if you get the opportunity, great! If you don’t, are you happy being the best official you can be at this level? Because that’s the guy I want to go out there and work with, right? Right!”

Pereira had additional advice for officials trying to get noticed: “Everybody says that you have to work every game as if it’s the most important game — every game as if the NFL is watching.”

In a new era of video and technology, this has never been truer.

Chris currently resides in Michigan and has been a sports official for over 30 years. By day, he works in research in the automotive industry. By night, when he isn't watching his kids play sports, he officiates high school football, softball, and basketball while nerding out on all things related to officiating.

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