Forty years earlier this fall, NFL officials had actually a radical new appearance. In 1979 the NFL put the referee in a different color cap, a new uniform design, and readjusted the means it approve officials’ shirt numbers. But, through the finish of the 1981 season, the numbering system was gone.

You are watching: Why do nfl referees have numbers

What happened, why did the happen, and also why didn’t that stick? contact it a great idea that had actually too plenty of unintended consequences.

The NFL has actually issued numbers to its officiating staff due to the fact that 1941. Under those early numbering systems, officials to be grouped by position: referees got single-digit numbers, umpires were in the teens, ar judges in the 20s, and also head linesmen 30s. In ~ the time, one officiating crew just had 4 members, and also there to be no more than 5 crews in any season. The ago judge was introduced in 1947 through uniform number in the 40s, but by 1951 brand-new officials were not assigned position-based numbers.

No official had a number end 60, also as the NFL went from five- come six-man crews, until the league an unified with the AFL in 1970 — return the AFL walk go as high together 78. Suddenly, the officials had numbers from 3 to 89. Climate the NFL expanded to 28 franchises in 1976, and also expanded come crews of 7 in 1978, putting the NFL employee over 100 officials.

“The NFL was running out of numbers,” claimed Jerry Markbreit, the venerable referee who operated in the NFL native 1976 to 1998. What appears to be the situation is that the NFL didn’t prefer the look of officials numbered end 100.

So, the NFL come up with a radical brand-new plan in 1979. Fairly than worry numbers by person, they made decision to concern numbers through position. The NFL numbered each official 3–20 (skipping 13) by position. In other words, Fred Silva was referee number 7, Tony Veteri to be head linesman number 7, Tom Kelleher was earlier judge number 7, and so on. Another adjust was the the NFL added the position name come the back of the jersey, practically like a surname plate. The NFL additionally put the officials’ position abbreviation and also number ~ above the shirts pocket.

Embed native Getty Images

*

Another big change was created television purposes. Up with 1978, the whole NFL officiating crew wore white hats. TV producers requested that the NFL placed the referee in a various colored cap (like college referees) for this reason they can find him less complicated for the punish announcements. In 1979 the NFL agreed, and put the referee in a black color hat and left the remainder of the crew in white hats. Beginning in 1988, the NFL placed the referee in a white hat and the rest of the crew wore black color hats, just like college officials.

But hat shade was straightforward change.

Some public representative who already were numbered 3 v 20 — Markbreit to be 9, referee Ben Dreith to be 12, umpire frank Sinkovitz to be 20, for instance — gained to save their original numbers. The rest were out of luck and also had to change.

“When the NFL assigns girlfriend a number, that number becomes you,” Markbreit said. “For 23 years i was 9. I’m still called ‘Nine’ today lengthy after I’ve retired,” he added.

Other nonreferees were readily recognized by your number: Fritz Graf to be 34, Tom Kelleher to be 25, Joe Connell to be 57, Jerry Bergman Sr. To be 17. This numbers regularly proved up each week top top people’s TV set or in the playoffs. While fans might not have readily well-known the official’s name, “that 25 guy” ended up being a regular staple season to season. While Markbreit cannot speak for other officials, and he was fortunate to have actually kept his number, his comments about how seriously officials took your jersey numbers might indicate the 1979 season brought unhappy changes for the officials.

While the NFL made certain they make crews that had different numbers at each position, they forgot one thing.

“They didn’t figure the playoffs,” Markbreit explained. It taken place the first year of this number is numbered system, in Super key XIV. Referee Fred Silva and umpire Al Conway both wore number 7. But, both wore different-colored hat so over there wasn’t a large problem informing the two apart.

Then come Super key XV. Head linesman Tony Veteri Sr., heat judge Tom Dooley, back judge Tom Kelleher and field referee Fritz Graf all wore number 7 and all wore white caps. The NFL issued special numbers because that Graf (17), Dooley (10), and also Veteri (8) because that one game. Kelleher got to store his number 7 because of his seniority.

Despite the inconvenience, the NFL kept with the numbering mechanism for 1981, however they broadened the number from 3–25. Brand-new officials got a higher number; 1981 rookie Johnny Grier gained number 24, for example. Or, an main took a new number if lock switched to a new crew (side judge Vince Jacob was number 11, but switched come 25 when he walk on Fred Wyant’s crew as Wyant was likewise 11). But following much more playoff duplicate headaches the NFL lastly threw in the bath towel after 1981.

Starting in 1982, the NFL returned to the traditional numbering system. Public official on the roster in 1978 obtained to go back to their initial numbers. Some retained their 1979 number — Silva kept number 7 as it was obtainable instead of returning to number 81 — and also others visited a brand new number — Dooley took accessible number 6 rather of returning to number 103.

As the variety of franchises expanded, the number of crews expanded, and the maximum number for officials’ jerseys expanded. For numerous years 120 was the maximum. Then, with mid-1990s expansion, number 135 was, and also still is, the preferably number for consistent officials. Recently retired referee Pete Morelli is the just one to have actually 135, and also one that the brand-new referees to take his ar was Scott Novak, that wears number 1. Officiating advance Program officials have numbers native 136 with 177, however if they space hired, they are assigned an accessible number from the swimming pool of 1–135. (During the 2012 job impasse, replacement officials had numbers through 139.)

“Officials have the right to request a number when it is available,” Markbreit said. Number of NFL second-generation public official take your dad’s number when it i do not care available, or an main takes your mentor’s number; Gerald Austin walk from 112 come 34 to respect his mentor Fritz Graf.

See more: When Is A Sea Breeze Most Intense ? When Is A Sea Breeze The Most Intense

Since 1982 the officials’ number have changed in font style and also size. But, no adjust matched what the NFL go 40 year ago. If a good idea ~ above paper, the 1979–81 numbering system was simply too unwieldy and didn’t carry out flexibility for the organization in assigning playoffs or crews native season come season.