What it takes to officiate high school football

Football referees prepare for games hours before kickoff to ensure accurate judgment and relieve nerves


RYAN PUGH | Daily Evergreen File

Referees come together for a flag in a game between the Pullman Greyhounds and Moscow Bears at Moscow High School on Friday.

JACOB MOORE, Former Evergreen sports editor

Fans go to football games to watch the athletes compete; rarely do they pay attention to the referees.

Officiating high school football games requires attentiveness, respectability and constant preparation, said Karl Johanson, assigning secretary of the Southeastern Washington Football Officials Association. He knows this well, as he’s been calling games for decades.

Students who referee at the high school varsity football level for the first time learn this quickly.

WSU student Kyle Kinney and University of Idaho student Tim Koglin were “thrown in the deep end,” as Johanson put it. Both Kinney and Koglin officiated their first varsity football game when Garfield-Palouse High School hosted the Troy Trojans on Sept. 1.

Officials typically carpool when heading to a game. Hours before kickoff, Johanson drove a group of four to Palouse. Johanson’s van suddenly stopped just inside of the small town. Three cars were halted for ten minutes as a mother skunk and her babies crossed the road.

“An old-fashioned Palouse traffic jam,” Johanson said, laughing.

Travelling to the field hours ahead of kickoff allowed for the 10-minute time constraint.

Johanson, Kinney, Koglin and Tim Lewis, intramural supervisor for University Recreation at WSU, unloaded from the van, each carrying a bag of essentials. The group walked through Gar-Pal’s hallways and basketball court to reach a locker room.

There, the referees were met by their fifth staff member of the evening, Jeff Gates, completing the game day crew.

Their duffle bags were stuffed with T-shirts, pants, hats, whistles, belts, socks, shoes, watches, beverages and flags. Gates then went over pre-game meeting notes of rules and penalties.

“For field goals, if for some odd reason somebody kicks,” Gates said, prompting laughter in the locker room, “we’ll adjust accordingly.”

One of the most important points of the meeting was not about the rules, though. It was about respect.

“Treat them like adults, even if they’re acting like kids,” Gates said.

After about an hour, the referees were almost prepared to take the field.

“Everybody’s got their whistles?” Gates asked.

The officials responded with a resounding “yes.”

“Everybody’s got their flags?” Gates asked.

“Yes,” the officials said again.

“Everybody’s got their judgement?” Gates asked.

“Uh,” the officials responded with a chuckle, knowing this is a common critique of referees.

As the crew walked outside together, “Smoke on the Water” played from a distance. Getting closer to the field, they could see where the music was coming from.

A fan backed his vehicle up to one of the field goal posts, opened his trunk and blasted the music. Coaches from both teams initiated their final drills before the game. The referees grouped together to talk to each coach and team captains.

Just before kickoff, Gates took control of the coin toss.

Lewis placed the ball properly and all five officials got into their starting positions. Two were on the sidelines to spot the ball placement for each play, two others were positioned to watch the defense, and one watched the offense.

After each play, the whole crew threw their arms up, waving to signal the play was over. They swarmed the pile of jerseys.

For the most part, the game was clean. The coaches hardly had any feedback for the refs, Johanson said, despite being slightly upset about a call or two that didn’t go their way.

The crew gathered again at halftime, some sweating more than others, to discuss what worked and what didn’t over a few bottles of water. For the first time in a while, the officials didn’t have to constantly hold a whistle in their mouth.

They trotted back out to finish calling the rest of the game and the communication and attentiveness continued. Trojans Head Coach Toby Foster asked about the number of his timeouts late in the third quarter. Not only did the officials respond right away, they recited the exact times of when the timeouts were taken.

Gar-Pal took its first game of the season and the referees went home feeling good about their experience, despite the fact that two members had never been involved in high school varsity football officiating. Kinney and Koglin said they were somewhat nervous, but that subsided after the first few plays.

At age 75, Johanson said he continues to participate in officiating not because of the money, but because of his love for the job.

The crew returned to Pullman later that evening with one game down, and many to go for the rest of the season.