It takes years of dedication, experience and training to move up the ladder in officiating.
Dr. Bradley C. Petty and Dan Robertson are board members on the San Angelo Football Official’s Association (SAFOA) and members of the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO). They work tirelessly to ensure that the football officials from San Angelo to Ballinger, Winters to Eden and other schools in other Concho valley officiate the games with a high degree of professionalism and knowledge.
Petty and Robertson, like most of the officials in the chapter, have “day jobs.” They both work at Angelo State University. Dr. Petty is the Executive Director of Student Affairs and Robertson is Director of University Recreation. They oversee the 75 officials that make up the football chapter, “The thing about this chapter is that we have officials from all over the community, doctors, students, oilfield workers and teachers among others. TASO is our governing body.” Petty points out.
One thing you immediately realize when you talk to Petty and Robertson is that they have a true commitment to excellence. At many of the games you will find Robertson officiating on the crew and Petty in the stands observing. Officiating isn’t about just putting someone out there in a uniform to call fouls and penalties during the game. It’s about putting the most qualified, intelligent, quick-thinking officiating crew out there to manage the game and make the best calls possible.
It takes a lot to become a football official. It’s not just a haphazard selection process. When someone applies to TASO to become a referee they have to register with UIL. Then they go through a background check. After the background check is completed, if the individual is involved in anything more serious than a traffic ticket, they have 24 hours to report it. If they pass the background check, they are passed off to their local chapter. There is a chapter for each sport, basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, etc. After you select your local chapter the chapter officers are notified and then they contact the individual. There are weekly meetings for officials but there are also specific meetings for new officials. “Fundamentals are the key. You want a good flow to the game,” Robertson says.
TASO requires officials to take a 50 question exam. If they score a 70, they are allowed to officiate varsity games. To officiate playoffs they must score an 80 on the exam.
When the game clock hits 0:0, the job does not end, “We do a video breakdown of the game and we go over the calls and look for areas we can improve in,” Robertson says. When I walk into Robertson’s office for this interview on a Tuesday, I find him and Petty reviewing a specific play and the call made by the official the previous Friday. It’s an ongoing pursuit of perfection. There are also regional and state rules meetings every year to go over any new rules. “Knowing” is enlightening as Petty points out, “The more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know it all.”
When you’re dealing with 22 human beings running at break-neck speeds up and down a field or a mass of humanity meeting head-to-head on the line of scrimmage, mistakes will sometimes be made on those split-second calls. Petty says that the officials have specific areas of responsibility and not one official watches the entire play, “Sometimes officiating is about positioning and being in the right place at the right time. It increases the probability that you are going to make a correct call. Sometimes fans have a better view than the officials.”
Petty says that officials use the pre-season scrimmages just like the players and coaches do, “We go to scrimmages to get ready just as the players do. Officials don’t get paid to call scrimmages. The officials communicate with the players and coaches just as they do during the season. We don’t want to call avoidable fouls. So if there are 10 seconds left in the game and the ball is on the 8 yard line, we’ll communicate with the players and tell them, ‘The clock will start on my whistle,’ so that they don’t get an unnecessary foul.”
Much like the athletes on the field, today’s officials are required to be in great physical condition as Petty points out, “The evolution of officiating is that now they are younger and more athletic. Referee camps want officials that may have been athletes. The days of the 300 lbs official are gone. The better physical condition an official is in the better able they are to get in a position to make a correct call.”
Robertson, who is in excellent physical condition and looks like he could take off running a marathon at any moment, says that officials also have to be able to predict plays as well as keeping up with them, “You pay attention and have to read the play and situation. If you have a prolific passing team the back judge may need to start deeper down the field than if it was a running team. If you are officiating a Central High School game, you know that they’re going to throw the ball so you better be able to run and keep up with the play. For teams like Wall, you know that they rarely pass it so the official doesn’t have to start off as deep. Part of officiating is being ready for anything.”
Petty says that with the fluid, ever-changing game play on each down, each official has a specific area to watch, “The officials have zones. Every time the game changes, you may have to change your zone. Our philosophy is to focus on fouls at the point-of-attack. We focus on making quality calls. Safety is our main concern. If we see a grievous foul, we call it but we may not call a foul on the backside of the play that had no effect on the play itself.”
While the players and coaches are having pre-game meetings or arer warming up on the field, the officials are having their own pre-game meetings. Robertson says that planning is the key to good officiating, “For varsity games, we arrive two hours early. We look at the field, we discuss the game and the propensity of each team, go over the officials’ positions and other areas. We ask the coaches if there is anything that they want to bring to our attention. Some will tell us of another team’s tendency to commit holding fouls or maybe there is a tight end that has a tendency to push off on passing plays. We schedule everything in detail for the pre-game. I will schedule a 5:30 arrival and we (the officials) will go over everything about the game and discuss our positioning. At 6:30 we’ll talk to the coaches. At 7:20 we talk to the teams and captains. At 7:27 we’ll do the coin toss. 7:30 is kickoff.”
One of our philosophies is, ‘Don’t blow the whistle until you see the ball.’ We concentrate on making correct calls and not stopping a play before it is actually over. We don’t want to blow an inadvertent whistle. We’re not looking to call fouls, we’re officiating the play, not looking just for fouls. There are many people out there who believe that we’re just looking for those fouls, but we aren’t. During the kickoff this season, the kicking team took a while to get set up. The play call clock had run down and I was counting off the seconds in my head after the clock had run to 0. The kicker kicked off the ball at least 7 seconds late. I could have called a delay of game play but that was the first play of the season. It didn’t harm anyone or affect the game so why start off the season with a penalty?”
Robertson says that professionalism is one key to being a good official, “We want to teach our membership that whether they’re calling a junior high school game or varsity game, we need to give the game our full attention and use common sense. We want to put our best foot forward whether it is a 1A or 6A game.” One point-of-view that Petty says they go by is, “We realize that officiating is our avocation while it’s the vocation for the coaches. We understand that, we get it.” Petty says that some coaches are more verbal and animated than others and that can indicate whether or not the officials may have made an incorrect call, “There are some coaches that are going to holler and scream on every penalty or non-call but there are some out there that will rarely say anything. If you’re calling a game with Bronte and the head coach, Rocky, starts yelling at you, then you should probably pay attention because you might have missed something since Rocky rarely yells at officials.”
Another similarity between the teams and the officials is how they use halftime. Robertson and his group of officials review everything that they can at the half, “We talk non-stop about the first half. We talk about what happened, what we might want to change and other stuff.” Robertson says there is also what they call preventive officiating, “Kids get out there and the energy is flowing. It’s exciting. We practice ‘preventive officiating’ such as when players start taunting each other or jawing back and forth. We might step in and tell them to settle down or they could be called for a foul. We don’t want to call fouls that can be avoided.”
Robertson says that officials also keep up with technology to better manage the flow of the game, “We have radios so that during the game we can communicate without having to waste time running up and down the field to huddle up and discuss a foul. If the back judge is thirty yards down the field and calls a pass interference call, he can just tell me over the radio and I don’t have to wait for him to run thirty yards up the field, tell me what he saw and discuss it and then run back down field to get in position for the next play. Radios help save a lot of time. In college games and the NFL, some officials wear cameras on their caps to review games later and critique themselves.”
Every season there are rule changes and Petty and the officials have meetings to discuss them, “The issue is that the rules change every year and we have to stay updated.” The professionalism translates as Robertson points out that many of the officials call multiple sports, “If you have an official good in one sport, he or she is typically good in other sports. The reason that some officials work multiple sports is because you can translate what you learn in one sport to the next sport.” Each sport is a different chapter and is structured just as the football chapter is.
Moving up in officiating is a lengthy task that requires commitment. The officials are rated in Divisions, 1 – 5. The D5 officials are the new officials, just starting out, and D1 officials are the most experienced. As they gain experience, they move up but that takes time as Petty points out, “To be a D1 official, you have to have 660 points and have called 60 varsity games. Now, here is how that is broken down: you get ½ point for calling sub-varsity and 2 points for calling varsity. It takes years to call 660 points worth of games, at ½ and 2 points each and 60 varsity games.” It took Robertson 15 years to move up to the D1 level while it took another official in the chapter almost 25 years to move up to D1 level. Calling all of those games while managing their “day job” and family life is a challenge that only the most dedicated individuals are willing to take on.
One point that Robertson makes is that there is always quality control in officiating, “If I’m not calling a game, I’ll be up in the stands with a radio listening to the officials communicate while I watch the game to critique it later.” Petty adds that sending people to the game specifically to watch the officials is a common practice, “The person will talk to the crew of officials before the game, go watch the game, talk to the crew at halftime and then after each game.”
One thing is for certain; referees are not in it for the money. Petty points out that the UIL and TASO set the fee structure for all of the officials, “Currently an official is paid $45 or $50 for a sub-varsity game and a minimum of $85 for a varsity game.” They are compensated for travel as well. An official who lives in Ballinger might be assigned a San Angelo game or a game somewhere else in the Concho Valley.
Refereeing is a professional endeavor and one that is done purely for a love and appreciation of the game. On every play, they make split-second decisions while watching out for player safety and the flow of the game. There will be good calls, bad calls and no-calls, but they continually work to improve and they remain professional at all times. Facing their performance professionally and objectively is a constant in their roles on and off the field. They have to run to keep up with the players and then stop on a dime to watch every aspect of the play. The officials listen to yelling from coaches, players and fans alike, yet they step out there on the field every game and every play, just like the players. Petty and Robertson are part of, and continue to build, a solid chapter of competent officials. While the officials may never call that “perfect game”, they will always work towards that goal and improve each time they step on the field.