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In the booth, ESPN’s Austin makes the final call

By Mark Washburn

Here’s how it works – and it works silently – when there’s a questionable call on the field during “Monday Night Football.”

Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden immediately turn to Gerry Austin, the former NFL referee who serves as rules analyst.

Austin gives a thumbs up for a good call, thumbs down for a bad one and open hands for an I-Don’t-Know.

“Sometimes I’ll give Jon a thumbs up on what I think is a good call, and he’ll mouth to me, ‘Are you kidding?’” says Austin, who will be in the ESPN broadcast booth for Monday’s night’s Panthers game against New England.

Austin, who retired from the NFL in 2007 after a 25-year career and was part of the officiating crew for three Super Bowls, is a fan of the 1999 rule change that allowed officials to use video replays to review close calls.

“Very few officials opposed replay,” he says. “Anything that can aid you and get the call correct, you want it.”

It put an end to days of talk about bad calls and reviews from the league, Austin says.

“A lot of times the camera gives a better view. On the field, you’re looking at 22 people and the movement of players doesn’t always give you a good look … We have 29 cameras on Monday nights, 25 dedicated to the field. There’s only seven officials, so they’re outnumbered 3-to-1 by cameras.”

And NFL rules are complex, growing more so all the time. When he was working for the NFL, officials had to complete a three-page take-home exam each week on some aspect of the regulations.

Started early with the whistle

Austin, 72, started officiating in the 10th grade when he lived in Asheville. He was an ACC official, basketball and football, before joining the NFL in 1982. His day job is supervisor of officials for Conference USA.

Chuck Knox, who coached the Seahawks, the Bills and the L.A. Rams, was one of the toughest on officials, Austin says.

“Most coaches, if they have a disagreement, they’ll say something to an official about it, then they let it go because they have a job to do.”

Knox would harp on the call the whole game, Austin recalls, while his assistants picked up the coaching slack.

Everyone makes mistakes

Make any bad calls yourself?

“You think I’m going to tell you that?” says Austin, then he goes on to confess.

He was a side judge for a game at Georgia Tech back in the ’70s when Duke was under coach Mike McGee.

A receiver was bound for the goal line when he was hit and started falling sideways. Austin ruled him out of bounds, but he’d actually managed to tiptoe down the sidelines into the end zone, and everyone else seemed to know it.

Duke fumbled on the next play and Tech recovered.

“I never felt as low as I did then. Thank goodness Duke won. I helped make it closer, maybe.”

A flag vs. a KTSO

When Austin coaches officials in Conference USA, he counsels them to not to be overly strict.

It’s like when you’re on the highway, doing 58 in a 55 mph zone. Yes, a trooper can give you a ticket, but that’s overkill.

“If you’re going down the highway at 68 miles an hour, you get a ticket and you deserve it and you know it,” he says. “Let the call make itself; that’s my overriding rule for officiating.”

Flags should be thrown for infractions that materially affect the play, he says. Otherwise offending players should get a KTSO.

A what?

“That means you tell them to ‘Knock That Stuff Off.’ It’s a KTSO,” Austin says, acknowledging letters in the acronym are sometimes translated differently.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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