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Happy 95th birthday to the Dean of Referees Jim Tunney

Tunney is the 3rd oldest living former NFL official

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Today, we wish a happy 95th birthday to Jim Tunney, born March 3, 1929. If you were a fan of the NFL in the 1970s and 1980s, and when there was a marquee game on TV, there was a strong chance that Jim Tunney was the referee.

Officiating ran in Tunney’s family. His father was a college football official and a horse racing steward. One day, Tunney was in the Rose Bowl watching a Pasadena Junior College football game, and his dad was the referee. The elder Tunney told Jim to keep an eye on the running back for Pasadena. His name was Jackie Robinson.

Jim graduated from Occidential College and worked in the education field, becoming an principal. Later, he became a professional speaker. Tunney began officiating basketball and football, working his way up to the Pacific Coast Conference. The PCC later evolved into the Pac-8.

The pros come calling

In 1960, the American Football League recruited Tunney to be a referee in the new league. A few days later, the NFL came calling and invited Tunney to join as a field judge (now this position is the back judge). While Tunney wanted to be a referee, he chose the stability of the NFL. Tunney was a field judge in the NFL from 1960-67, when the NFL made him a referee.

Tunney came into the NFL at the tender age of 31 — something unheard of today. His 31 years as a NFL official tie him for first place all-time with Ben Dreith. (Former head linesman Dan Tehan has been listed as the record holder, however our investigations with our partner site Quirky Research have brought his total into question.)

In his career, he called a total of 19 playoff games: eight divisional playoffs, eight conference championships and three Super Bowls (VI, XI, and XII). Tunney was the first official to work consecutive Super Bowls. Tom Sifferman is the only other official to work consecutive Super Bowls. That will most likely never happen again as the collective bargaining agreement now prohibits officials from working back-to-back big games.

Early in his NFL career, the National Basketball Association approached Tunney to become a pro basketball referee, but he declined an offer to go to the pros. He did work college basketball with Major League Baseball umpire Doug Harvey, who is now in the baseball Hall of Fame.

From field judge to referee

Tunney worked as a field judge through the 1967 season, and the NFL then made him a referee and paired him with experienced umpire Lou Palazzi. After three years with Palazzi, the league paired him with umpire Pat Harder and head linesman Burl Toler. Those three officials formed the backbone of a premiere crew for the next 11 years.

Tunney was in so many classic games, it is hard to narrow the list down. But, some of the games that he worked that fans will remember include, The Catch, The Fumble and The Fog Bowl.

“The Dean of NFL Referees”

All through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Tunney earned the moniker “Dean of NFL Referees.” What made Tunney such a premiere referee was his disposition on the field. He rarely showed anger on the field, and when he did, coaches and players knew it was time to shape up. Tunney’s signals were so distinctive, proper and dignified that he was used as a model for a guide to the officials signals for over a decade.

Here’s an example of Tunney in action, taking control of a rare and complicated ruling against the Philadelphia Eagles in front of a hostile crowd and a hostile Eagles bench.

Still active in retirement

Tunney retired from the field after the 1990 AFC Championship game between the Bills and Raiders. He worked over 425 games in his career, including 9 Divisional Playoffs, 8 Conference Championship games, and 3 Super Bowls. Oddly, he never worked a Wild Card Playoff game, although that playoff round was introduced in the final one-third of his career. He also worked 7 Pro Bowls.

He has been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame several times, and Football Zebras nominated him in our first class of officials worthy of enshrinement in Canton. He was the recipient of the Art McNally Award in 2017.

He had a prolific “retirement” as he continued public speaking, authored five books, and was a mentor to new NFL referees, including Brad Allen, Ron Torbert and Craig Wrolstad. His weekly column “The Tunney Side of Sports,” recently came to an end after a run of 930 insightful articles.

He is currently finishing his memoirs which are slated to publish later this year.

Tunney is the third oldest living former official after Bill Kingzett, who was a field judge from 1975-80, and Jack Nix, a former 49ers player who was also a back judge from 1958 to 1967 and worked on the same crew as Tunney.

As we look forward to spring, we pause today to wish Jim Tunney a happy 95th birthday, and wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations!

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?"

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