Interview with Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Judgment days were special to Tunney

I don’t think anyone actually aspires to become a National Football League game official. It might just happen, much the same way someone becomes a black jack dealer in Las Vegas.

One day you’re watching a football game at the stadium. The next day you’re telling a livid, screaming, swearing behemoth “That’s 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.”

In essence, NFL officials get paid to call ‘em as they see ‘em. But who ever said, “Boy that crew really called a great game?” In what other line of work are people booed the minute they make a controversial judgment?

Coaches and players regard NFL officials as an occupational hazard. Officials often return to the scene of the crime. If they made a bad call, they must have the nerve to show up at the same stadium as if nothing happened.

Officiating in the NFL isn’t meant for the meek. You have to develop an immune system in dealing with some of the highest paid egomaniacs in professional sports.

As you might expect, football players and game officials endure an odd coexistence. It’s sort of like the Middle East countries. They need each other, but they are not that crazy about the arrangement.

Officiating is not a popular line of work. You don’t see Fantasy-type officiating camps. You don’t see kids playing football at the park, and one saying, “I want to be the referee.”

The strange thing about NFL officials is this: Nobody really knows what they do for a living the six days they don’t work a game.

Strangely, Jim Tunney was addicted to the occupation. He was called the dean of NFL officials, one of the best ever. He officiated NFL games for 31 years before retiring in 1991.

“I grew up wanting to be a superstar,” Tunney said with a laugh before participating as a celebrity golfer in the Vince Lombardi Memorial Classic at North Hills Country Club. “I wanted to pitch for the New York Yankees.”

A big-league pitcher with the Bronx Bombers he was not.

He was the son of Jim Tunney Sr., who officiated football games in the old Pacific Coast Conference and All-American Conference. Officiating was in his blood.

After graduating from Occidental College in 1951, Tunney became a high school teacher and coach. To supplement his income, he started officiating prep and junior college football games on Fridays and then moved up to the PCC where he continued to excel as a football official.

He never called the NFL. The NFL, which expanded with the Dallas franchise in 1960, called him.

Tunney’s first game was between the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a place he virtually had grown up in. Instead of feeling right at home, Tunney had to deal with George Halas.

“I was the field judge that day and my job was to get the visiting captain,” Tunney recalled. “I went up to Halas and said, ‘Mr. Halas, I need your captain.’ Halas looked at me and said, ‘Tunney, Tunney, yeah. Occidental College. Athlete of the Year. Worked the Pacific Coast Conference, SC and UCLA.’ He knew me cold. He said, ‘Jim, if there is anything I can do just ask me. I’ve been in the league a long time.’ Obviously, he was setting me up. I knew that.

“I think he believed if he could intimidate an official and get under your skin, the official would calls things his way. He called me every name in the book and told me he was going to have me fired. He thought that was the way to talk to officials. I was convinced Halas would die in the middle of the third quarter on the sideline with his veins popping out of his neck, yelling at an official.”

George Allen, who was on Halas’ staff at Chicago before being named coach of the Rams, did just the opposite. He tried the sweet approach on Tunney.

Allen would look at Tunney and say, “Boy I’m sure glad to see you here. You’re the greatest official in the league. We really like it when you work our games.”

And then there was dealing with Vince Lombardi, the greatest of the coaches and well-known for his skin-bursting eruptions. Tunney found out that Lombardi, underneath his volcanic veneer, was pure football coach.

“He yelled at officials if two things happened,” Tunney said about Lombardi. “One, if you weren’t in position to make the call and, two, if you were not decisive in making the call. He’d say something, and it was over right away. But if he knew you were guessing out there, he would be furious.”

Tunney said Halas and Lombardi were concerned with winning, and he was concerned about fairness. “I wanted them to know that we were on the field together trying to get our jobs done to the best of our abilities,” Tunney said.

One of the basic premises about officiating pro football games is that you never apologize to a coach after a bad call. Tunney, however, said that’s not always true.

The Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Cowboys in Dallas, and Tunney’s fast whistle nullified a Dallas fumble that was picked up by the Eagles and returned for a touchdown – a real game breaker. Philadelphia coach Ed Khayat went ballistic on the sideline, and Tunney apologized to him, saying, “I should not have blown the whistle, and you should have had a touchdown, but I can’t do anything about it now. I’m sorry.”

Months later, Khayat accepted Tunney’s apology. “You could have alibied, you could have made an excuse,” Khayat told the referee. “There was nothing you could have told me that would have disarmed me more than what you said. You made a mistake. Heck, I make mistakes. Players make mistakes. You admitted it.”

The NFL has been accused more than ever with poor officiating over the last couple years. Why is that?

“We used to have stability in the referee, who is in charge of the crew,” Tunney said. “But a lot of them retired in the early ’90s and those who replaced them didn’t have the experience and training that most of the veterans had. It takes four to five years after major college officiating to understand the philosophy and the intensity of the NFL. The players are so much better in the NFL. The officiating will get better in the next couple years.”

Tunney sits in his Pebble Beach, Calif., home and watches NFL games. Some of the things he see disgusts him.

“I call it terminator football,” he said. “You never saw anybody run through Bart Starr like a truck running over him. They’d tackle him; they’d hit him hard. But nowadays they’re teaching linebackers and defensive ends and tackles to just run through the quarterback. They are trying to not only intimidate the quarterback but to take him out of the game.”

Tunney is in favor of instant replay as an aide to officials. “But stay away from judgment calls,” he said. “Whether it was pass interference, defensive holding – you can look at that over and over and you couldn’t make a case for it either way. Officials are going to get those things right most of the time.”

But surely, there is holding on every play in the NFL. Right, Jim?

“Probably,” Tunney said. “The rule says you don’t call holding if it doesn’t place a player at a disadvantage. If the left tackle is locked up with a defensive end, and the play is away from the holding, it’s probably not important. But I wouldn’t let that go. I’d tell the left tackle if the play comes your way, we have a holding.”

The summer after the Oakland Raiders won the NFL championship, Tunney worked a pre-season game and noticed coach John Madden’s glittering Super Bowl ring. Tunney had worked that Super Bowl.

“I don’t understand. What’s the difference?” Tunney asked Madden. “You get a ring with all those diamonds and I get a crummy watch.”

Madden replied: “Because you don’t care who wins.”

Tunney understood perfectly. And that’s been his credo: Coaching is a business of winning and losing. The business of an official is impartial judgment.

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