COLLEGE STATION — Matt Austin doesn’t mind the boos.
Given his role as a Southeastern Conference referee, the baritone growl that often descends from some of the nation’s most passionate fans is something officials expect to hear.
It’s part of the territory that comes with the job, a price Austin is willing to pay even if he weren’t officiating games in one of college football’s most prestigious conferences.
“If I wasn’t doing it, I’d probably still be doing it at the high school level,” Austin said, hours before he and his crew worked Texas A&M’s home game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 16. “I just love football, and I like being an official.”
But in recent years, other people have felt differently. Various factors — chiefly the treatment of officials by fans, coaches and players — have made officiating a less lucrative venture.
According to Michael Fitch, the executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials, the number of football officials has grown in recent years, but there’s still a shortage in the state.
Fitch estimates 30 officials are needed for every new high school that opens. Officials still quit at a rate that exceeds the rate of the occupation’s growth. According to Fitch, TASO has more football officials older than 60 than under the age of 30.
“That’s the alarming number to me,” Fitch said.
It’s easy to see why people are quitting at high rates. For many, the payoff to be an official isn’t worth it. Some people just don’t want to spend their free time getting yelled at.
Those trying to ascend the ranks of officiating with hopes of one day making it to the NFL are in for a rough realization.
“So many guys come in with aspirations, but they see it’s a slow process in a lot of cases,” Austin said. “They don’t love it as much as they thought they did.”
So why do they sign up for this in the first place?
For some, it’s the ability to stay active and attached to a sport they loved. For others, it’s a way to pocket a small paycheck while experiencing what football is like in different places. And for a select few, it’s a chance to be a part of football on its biggest stage.
“You just sit there and look around and think, ‘Well, I’ve reached the pinnacle, and this is not a good day to have a bad day,'” said Larry Rose, an observer for the SEC, a retired NFL official and the side judge at Super Bowl XLII in 2008. “There’s 100 million people watching.”
Breaking in the business
The night before the A&M-ULL game, Austin and the members of his eight-man crew flew in to College Station and met at a hotel, armed with snacks and pizza as they started the preparation for the 11 a.m. kickoff.
Austin’s career didn’t start in 100,000-seat stadiums. In 1990, when his wife told him to pick one sport to officiate, he opted for football and started calling high school games in Kentucky. From there, he worked his way to the Mid-South Conference and then the Ohio Valley Conference. After a combined eight years at the mid-major level, he worked his way up to the SEC.
Entry-level officials across the country might call middle school and junior varsity games in the middle of the week before maybe working a varsity game on the weekend, all outside of a regular day job.
That workload can affect one’s personal life.
“The wives are the backbones of officiating,” Austin said. “You either have a wife who loves football and embraces what you do, or you’re probably divorced.”
The day of A&M’s game against UL-Lafayette, Austin and the officials meet at 7 a.m. to continue working through an exhaustive packet of notes for the game. Part of the preparation is a breakdown including where each coach is ranked by CoachesHotSeat.com, a blog that ranks the job stability of every college football coach.
It helps to know how much stress a coach might be under.
On this particular Saturday, Austin’s crew is dealing with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who has been under fire from university administration since the spring. Sumlin’s “hot seat” is ranked among the top five, Austin tells the crew.
“We’ve never had a problem with Coach Sumlin, but he is under pressure,” Austin said. “They need to do well.”
That sense of pressure isn’t lost on officials such as Rodney Lawary, the umpire on Austin’s crew, who meticulously preps for each game.
The night before, he reviews the portion of the officials’ manual detailing his specific responsibilities. He eats breakfast in the morning, irons his uniform, showers and then lies in bed for 15 minutes inside his hotel room, visualizing his important tasks for the day.
Even though he’s done this for years, he’s still dedicated to the routine for a big reason.
“It’s just that fear of messing up, the fear of failure,” Lawary said. “You just want to be prepared. One day the game will find you.”
In the high school game
While the SEC crew members watch film of their previous game and get critiqued by the league office the night before the A&M-ULL game, a local crew is less than 3 miles away calling a game.
The nucleus of this crew, led by referee Jerrod Jackson, started working together in 2007.
On this Friday, all of them are in a position to leave their jobs at decent times to head over to a local game at Bryan High between the Vikings and Magnolia West. Between the six-man crew and those operating the distance markers, there are three father-son duos.
Bill Van Eman, the president of College Station’s TASO chapter and the umpire on this crew, said the No. 1 reason officials quit is the treatment they get from coaches.
“You’ll have coaches that will lose control of themselves and yell and scream about something,” Van Eman said. “Sometimes when they’re really wrong, and sometimes when they’re only a little bit wrong.”
Despite that and even though there isn’t as much glamour as officiating on a bigger level, it’s still something officials such as Jackson and Van Eman enjoy, week after week.
“These are the people that I lean on for so much,” said Jackson, who had a crewmate recently install a sink in his home.
Van Eman said any flare-ups with coaches turn into stories to tell officials as they pass the time traveling to towns to calls games. Van Eman grew up in West Texas and remembers what it was like to drive into town when his school, Midland Lee, faced Odessa Permian during the glory days of Friday Night Lights.
There are a lot of reasons people sign up to be officials. There’s the fellowship that comes with getting screamed at, being an impartial participant in a football game and getting to see how the sport can impact so many, whether it be a multitude at a college game or thousands crammed into bleachers to watch the local high school team.
“Football is still a unifying force in a community,” Van Eman said. “It can also be a dividing force, but most of the time it’s a unifying force. It’s everybody on the same page, working together, ‘Let’s go support the kids.’
“Going forward, hopefully that will continue. As long as it continues, there’s going to be a need for officials.”
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