Best Seat In the House, Part 2: Nomenclature

The men with whistles and funny-looking shirts prepare to officiate the Pinstripe Bowl. - Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I originally thought I wanted to write this column with a focus on one of the most misunderestimated rules in college football, pass interference. However after reading a recent write-up the other day and noticing a very small mistake in the area of referring to the position of one of the game officials I decided to break from that train of thought and instead focus on a mechanics-focused piece.

While the vast majority of football officiating revolves around the rules, what really makes the best of us stand out from the rest of the pack is clear, crisp, and confident officiating mechanics. Like throwing mechanics for a quarterback, our mechanics have to be repeatable, consistent, and correct every single time. This is what allows officials to move with the game and almost appear to disappear at times. Ever heard the phrase ‘the best offensive lineman is the one you never see in a game?' The exact same can be said for us officials. Contrary to what some may believe, we do not want to affect the game at all and the best ones for us are the contests where we throw 0 flags and never make a sound. This means that the players are directing the flow and no intervention is necessary by us.

And now with a flourish, I begin our dive into OFFICIATING MECHANICS!!!

The Team

In the world of football, there are 4.5 different ways that the game can be officiated. The four main methods are 3-man, 4-man, 5-man, and 7-man mechanics. The other half I attribute to the experimental set that the Big XII used last year for their in-conference games. Basically, they had two officials deep in the defensive backfield.

3, 4, and 5-man are used primarily for pee-wee/middle school, high school freshman/JV, and high school varsity football. If anyone is interested in discussing the finer points of those forms, shoot me an email and I'll give you and in-depth on those( In this post, I will be talking only about the college game and 7-man mechanics. It is first critical to understand who each person on the stripes crew is, what they are called, and where they are positioned.

Referee - The big honcho. He's the guy EVERYONE knows and if you can name me a football official, I almost guarantee it is a referee. He's the guy responsible for the officiating acrobatics(signals), has the final say in penalty enforcement, makes the call on all rules questions, and in general runs the game. He is commonly referred to in officiating circles as the ‘white hat' because he wears...a white hat.


Umpire - The crew lieutenant. He is second in command and assists the referee with penalty enforcement and keeps control of the game on the field through the use of his voice, presence, authority. Typically he is ‘the big guy' on the crew and in past years if there was a fat official, he would be an umpire. This is, of course, changing and all umpires are slimming down, becoming more athletic, while maintaining their strong presence in the defensive backfield. This person attends the pregame coaches meeting with the referee and is responsible for the legality of balls, pads, and other equipment worn by the players.

Head Linesman- Master of the Chain Gang. This is the official responsible for the original LOS, all measurements, and the down box.


Line Judge- Basically a mirror image of the H but without the responsibilities of the chain gang. He has more dead ball responsibilities than the H and is generally the primary official who watches the defense during times when the ball is not in play. The H and L both get an ample chance to talk to these guys:

"Oh boy! CBK is talking to me!"

Back Judge- A soft spot in my heart. This is my position, so I have great affinity for all Bs. Sometimes those of us who work here joke that this is where the real athletes of the officiating crew live because the B runs and covers the most field area of any official during the game. Responsible for the game and play clock, deep middle of the field, and secondarily responsible for the defense in dead ball periods.


Side Judge/Field Judge - Both of these guys are mirror images of each other and have the exact same responsibilities on opposite sides of the field. The F is on the Line Judge side of the field and the S is on the Head Linesman. On field goals and point after tries, the S will move to the middle of the field with the Umpire to watch for infractions on the line while the F will join the B at the goal posts and watch the kick go through the upright.

"Cant hear ya,'re too far away! *snicker*"

Basic Officiating Positioning

Who is responsible, for what, when?

These will all be very basic descriptions of what we are watching on normal scrimmage plays. These keys, responsibilities, and areas of responsibility will change on situations like kicks, change of possessions, etc.

Referee - A.K.A. ‘The Pretty One.' Kidding...but not really. These are the guys who everyone knows their names. The head honcho who gets the camera time and everyone hears his voice on the mic during the game to inform us of what the penalty call has been and what will be the enforcement. On the snap, he has responsibility for the backs and can help the umpire with false starts by the offensive linemen. After the snap, he has primary ball responsibility and watches all play by the quarterback. Favorite penalty call- Roughing the QB.

Umpire - Typically the biggest and strongest man on the field and he has to be. Umpires are typically right in the middle of a play and have a tendency to get run over every now and then by the players. He is primarily responsible for the play of the line so anything that happens ‘in the trenches' is his call. After the play, the umpire spots the ball for the next snap. Favorite call - Holding.

Head Linesman/Line Judge - Wingman. Anything and everything that happens down the line will be a responsibility of one of these two. From the center and to the sidelines will be their responsibility, so alignment of receivers, pre-snap penalties, forward progress and inbounds/out of bounds is within their purview. Favorite Call - False Start/Offsides.

Back Judge - The Athlete. Easily, the largest area of responsibility but also is the official who typically has the fewest calls during a game. During clinics I was always told, "You might get ONE play a game where you get to make a call so don't blow it." As such, the B's success rate can either be stellar or repulsive depending on how he handles that one play a game. He has the entire deep middle of the field from the positioning of the umpire all the way to the goal line. His initial key is the slot receiver and he also has responsibility for the operation of the 25/40 second clock. Favorite Call - Pass interference

Side Judge/Field Judge - Invisible Man. Luckily, the officials who work this position have no ambition to be television stars because they are almost NEVER on camera. They are positioned as deep as the back judge and on the sideline with the H/L. So when the ball is snapped, they are way downfield. During the play, they will keep backing up further and further until they get to the goal line where they make their biggest impact. Their primary area of responsibility is the furthest outside receiver on their side of the field and when there is a play from the 2 yard line and in towards the goal line, they have forward progress responsibility. These positions are basically a hybrid of the Back Judge and the H/L. Favorite Call - Pass interference

Say My Name!

So now you have a bit further clarity on who everyone is and the correct name for each of the officials. Hopefully when you watch a game in the future you will have a better understanding of who made a call, why they made a call, and what they were watching when they made it. I understand that this is a gross oversimplification of the process, and that with all the numerous situations that arise in a football game these change.

As this series progresses to cover the kicking game and other very specific situations, you will get a better understanding of the philosophy of officiating a game. With the lessons you are learning, you will see why we, as officials, believe that "if you see a penalty, you call it" and we always strive to "get the big one." Every official is responsible for something on every play and if nothing happens in that area of responsibility then he is responsible for watching everything away from the ball and has clean-up duties. Until next time, have fun, make the call!


If you have any questions, observations, or recommendations, then go light up that comment section!

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