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40 years ago, the USFL had officials the NFL recruited and those cast aside as too old

The original USFL used former and future NFL officials

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The United Football League roster of officials consists of current college football officials and many members of the Mackie Development Program, but it was not always that easy for spring football to staff up their officials.

In 1983, the first iteration of the United States Football League (USFL) began play. It was a spring/summer football league that was viewed as a competitor to the NFL. Former NFL players made up several rosters. More threatening to the NFL, some franchises, like the New Jersey Generals, paid top dollar for college stars like Herschell Walker.

While there were no bidding wars for game officials, the new league had a challenge to field a roster to call the games.

Former NFL officials helped anchor crews of six

The USFL hired recently retired NFL referee Cal Lepore as supervisor of officials. Lepore found it difficult to hire officials as many college conferences forbade its officials from working the USFL. The Pac-10 later relented, and several of its officials called USFL games in the spring and summer, then worked college football in the fall.

So, Lepore looked to several veteran officials. Back then, the NFL had an unofficial retirement age and many college conferences forced its officials to retire before age 60. So, Lepore reached out to recently retired NFL officials in order to help anchor the crews.

  • Tommy Miller
  • Tony Kramer
  • Gerry Hart
  • Willie Spencer
  • Bill Wright
  • Rich Eichhorst
  • Hunter Jackson
  • Grover Klemmer
  • Tom Meyers

When the Pac-10 finally allowed its officials to participate, it really helped Lepore out. He was able to hire several officials like Bill Parkinson and Dave Kamanski. Recently retired college officials like Horton Nestra (Southwest Conference) came out of mandatory college retirement and officiated a few more years. Lepore called at least one game in 1983, but did not continue on the field and concentrated on his supervisor duties.

In 1983 the USFL had crews of six; there was no side judge. Beginning in 1984, the league had crews of seven officials.

It should also be noted that Lepore instituted instant replay to help officials get the calls right. Coaches were able to — stop me if you’ve heard of this before — challenge a call, after which an instant replay official would review footage.

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Future NFL officials started at the USFL

Lepore reached down the ranks of college officials and plucked some talented people who were early in their NCAA officiating careers, and the USFL would not be their only pro football stop. Future NFL officials Jeff Bergman, Tony Veteri Jr., Tom White and Bill Schmitz called USFL games. When the USFL folded, their pro careers didn’t fold. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were hired by the NFL.

The USFL was a fantastic proving ground for these four young officials, but there were reports that Lepore was a harsh taskmaster.

No future leagues competed with the NFL

When the USFL folded in 1986, all future pro leagues (like the Arena Football League) chose to complement the NFL instead of compete with the NFL. The NFL got into the spring football business when it created the World League of American Football, which was later known as NFL Europe. Upon retiring as the head of officiating in the NFL, Art McNally built the World League officiating staff from scratch.

McNally worked closely with those college conferences who supplied college officials that were NFL prospects. He also sent current NFL officials to Europe to hone skills and audition for the referee position. Some of those future white hats included Bernie Kukar, Phil Luckett, Ed Hochuli and Gene Steratore.

“Art hired me into the NFL as a back judge,” Hochuli said to Football Zebras in 2018. “Two years later, [he] taught me to be a crew chief in the World League … in 1992. It was then that I was moved to head referee in the NFL. On a personal level, I owe my career to Art McNally.”

Here’s a look at some footage from 40 years ago as Cal Lepore and his staff worked USFL games, including former and future NFL officials. Tony Veteri is number 36, and Jeff Bergman is number 32 — their future NFL numbers. Bergman was the last on-field participant from the original USFL to retire after the 2022 season.

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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