Gerry Austin was a fixture for 26 years in the NFL as one of the league’s most respected referees. The longtime Greensboro resident worked three Super Bowls. Close observers of the league looked forward to his Southern drawl as he enunciated calls over the stadium microphone.
Austin, 74, retired from refereeing games after the 2007 NFL postseason but remains as busy as ever. He is the longtime supervisor of officials for Conference USA. But football fans know him best as the officiating expert in the booth at every “Monday Night Football” game, where he had a big role this past Monday night after the Seattle-Detroit controversy that involved a fumbled ball batted out of the end zone.
I asked Austin five questions this week in advance of his appearance in Charlotte – he will be alongside Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden when Carolina hosts Indianapolis on Nov. 2.
Q. This is your fourth year on “Monday Night Football.” How do you guys decide when it is time for you to insert some officiating expertise into the conversation?
A. I stand directly to the left of Mike Tirico in the booth. Whenever there is a questionable call, he looks at me. If I think it’s correct, I give him a thumbs up. If I don’t think it’s correct, I give him a thumbs-down. If I don’t know, I shrug.
Then, usually during a break, I will remind him what rule might have been applicable on that play. Sometimes they bring me on just for audio, and sometimes, like Monday night, they bring me on camera and have me talk extensively about a certain play.
Q. On Monday, did you immediately see that Seattle’s K.J. Wright had batted the ball out of bounds in the end zone and did you realize it should have been a flag with Detroit getting the ball at the 1?
A. Actually, our concentration at first was did Calvin Johnson score or not, or did he lose the ball before the goal line? And he lost it, for sure.
It wasn’t until slightly later, looking at the play, that we said, ‘Wright batted that ball.’ Mike Tirico and I were talking off-camera and I had the rulebook with me. I always carry one. And there it was, in black and white – neither team can bat the ball in any direction in the end zone.
We decided we’d talk about it when the game was over at length. It happened in the same end zone, in the same city, as the “Fail Mary.” That was in 2012, my first year on “Monday Night,” and that game became the first time I was on the air a lot. It seems like a lot of crazy things happen to us in Seattle.
Q. In all your years in the NFL, what are some of the differences between when you started officiating and now and who are some of the best players you have ever seen?
A. The players are so much bigger now, and so much quicker. They have more agility and more ability. Joe Montana was the best quarterback that I’ve ever seen. Jerry Rice was probably the greatest receiver. Of the ones playing right now, I’m amazed by Odell Beckham.
Q. How does what you do in the booth compare to officiating?
A. What I do now is probably more fun. But you still have to be alert on every play. It’s the same level of concentration as you have on the field. I enjoy the tremendous amount of preparation the whole production staff does. And then they all pack up and do it again the next week – it’s amazing.
Q. In your expert opinion, do you think the NFL will keep referee Ed Hochuli away from Carolina Panthers games for a long time because of the dispute about whether or not Hochuli told Cam Newton he wasn’t old enough to get a call?
A. That sort of thing has happened – a certain referee not assigned to a certain city after a controversy. But I believe Hochuli will continue to be assigned to Panthers’ games occasionally.
The play wasn’t that controversial – Cam was running sideways on the play, and you’re not going to get that call going sideways there. If you’re going forward, yes, you’ll get it. Maybe Ed didn’t say what Cam thought he heard. Ed said he didn’t, anyway.
For that one, I’d say it’s over with. Everyone should just let it go.