Dr. Jerry E. McGee enjoyed one of the most decorated careers in the history of college football officiating. From 1972 to 2009, he worked 404 games at the FBS level, including a pair of Rose Bowls, a pair of Army-Navy games and three games that determined the national championship, including his final game between Florida and Oklahoma.
He also raised two boys, my brother, Sam, and I. Now the three McGees have coauthored a book, “Sidelines and Bloodlines: A Father, His Sons, and Our Life in College Football,” which is on sale now.
In the following excerpt, exclusive to ESPN.com and presented with permission from Triumph Books, the McGees provide insight into the question that they — and every sports officiating family — receive whenever football is played.
“Hey, what’s that coach yelling at that ref?”
After three decades of officiating football in the ACC and Big East, my father, Dr. Jerry E. McGee, has an incredible collection of photographs on display at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, images of him in action everywhere from the Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl to Death Valley and Notre Dame Stadium.
However, the best photos are of the angry coaches. I call it the Wall of Screaming.
There’s Joe Morrison, the man who built South Carolina into something other than an also-ran, who introduced the Gamecocks’ black jerseys and their “2001: A Space Odyssey” stadium entrance, on the sideline during the Clemson game of ’84. “Old Dependable” is screaming, his jaw unhinged, and appears to be pointing directly at Dad, who appears to be totally ignoring the coach.
The caption that accompanied that photo in the Sunday morning paper read: “Coach Joe Morrison explains his point of view to a less than interested official.”
My father, Dr. Jerry E. McGee, aka Dad:
I don’t think he’s even actually yelling at me, but the camera angle sure makes it look like he is, doesn’t it? I don’t know. Maybe he was. What I do remember about that game was that I had to get the South Carolina captains for the coin toss, but no one knew who the captains were because Morrison picked them game-by-game. They told me I needed to ask him, and they walked me down to a door under the stadium. I opened it, and there was Joe Morrison, sitting totally alone on a folding chair in the middle of an empty concrete room. There was one light bulb hanging right over him, like a spotlight, and the room was full of smoke. He was sitting there, basically in the dark, chain-smoking like crazy before the game.
“Uh … Coach, I need to know who your captains are …”
The most notable photo on the Wall of Screaming was taken in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Oct. 6, 2006, when Duke visited Alabama. Crimson Tide head coach Mike Shula is standing at most two feet off the back of Dad’s head, his mouth wide open and his hand extended to underline the point he’s so angrily exclaiming. Once again, Dad seems to be purposely ignoring it, looking toward the scoreboard clock as he fills out his penalty card with the details of the foul that Shula is so unhappy about.
Alabama won that game 30-14, the third from last win of Shula’s four-year Tuscaloosa tenure. Six weeks later, he was fired. The Tide replaced him with some guy named Nick Saban.
When I look at that picture, what I think about is the amount of pressure that these coaches are under. When Mike Shula was unloading on me that night, he probably already knew he was finished. It’s a reminder that you never truly know what’s going on with a coach behind closed doors.
The reality is that over 404 games of college football officiating, almost all of it on the sideline, I only remember a very few times when a coach truly just flipped out on me. And looking back, like Shula that night, there was almost always something else behind it.
Take, for instance, Jim Young. During Young’s 17 years as head coach at Arizona, Purdue and Army, he was universally considered one of the truly good guys of college football. So Dad was shocked on Sept. 27, 1986, when Wake Forest traveled to West Point, and his experience on Young’s sideline at Michie Stadium was a cacophony of cuss words. The Black Knights were favored in the game by a couple of touchdowns but instead were trailing the Demon Deacons early en route to a blowout upset loss.
There was bad call at the start of the game, a defensive pass interference flag on the other side of the field. Those officials were too far away to hear Young, so he aimed his anger at the field judge, the ref who was most easily at his disposal. He stalked Dad up and down the sideline, screaming over and over again, “You have already f—ed up this entire game!”
My brother, Sam McGee:
I think that football fans assume that an official is out there just looking for a reason to throw his penalty flag, but the good ones have the complete opposite approach. Typically, if a player draws an unsportsmanlike penalty, or even something like a holding, there’s a really good chance the official has already warned them about it at least once. “Keep that up, and we’re going to have to flag you.”
Anyone who doesn’t believe that needs to do what we have always done and really watch how a good sideline official reacts to a coach who has spent a ridiculous amount of time in the game screaming, yelling and complaining. The official will walk away from a coach like that. They will warm him directly. They will even go to other people on the sideline and say, “Hey, someone needs to calm him down before he draws an unsportsmanlike.” If he keeps it up after that, there is going to be a penalty. Or if he breaks the golden rule.
Ah yes, the golden rule. When it comes to flagging a coach with a personal foul, the guideline is very simple. You unfurl the yellow napkin only when the rants have become personal. For example: “That’s was the stupidest god damn call I’ve ever seen!” is OK. But “You are the stupidest god damn human being I have ever seen!” is not. If you need a more detailed illustration, please watch the film “Bull Durham” and the scene in which Crash Davis calls the umpire the one name he knows you can never call an umpire because he’s trying to get thrown out of the game and perhaps get his teammates to finally become fired up and focused.
Jim Young kept railing, and it was getting worse. Dad went to the Army assistant coaches and asked them to tell their boss to cool off because he didn’t want to flag the supposed nicest man in football. They told Dad no way. He was on his own.
The clock is ticking down to the end of the first half, and he is just getting louder and louder. I’m watching the clock thinking, “OK, we’re going to be saved by the bell here.” Then, with about 38 seconds remaining, Young leaned right into my ear and screamed, “You guys are just a bunch of god damn sons of b—-es, aren’t you?!” I threw my flag. Personal foul, 15 yards.
I went to the white hat, Bob Cooper, and he said, “What in the hell have you done? That’s probably the nicest head coach in America.”
I said, “Well, I flagged him.”
Bob said, “Why? What did he say?”
“He called me a god damn son of a b—-.”
Bob said, “Well, you are a god damn son of a b—-.”
I told Bob, “Well, he said you were a god damn son of a b—-, too.”
Bob said, “Well, then give me that damn football …” and he marked off the 15-yard penalty.
Nearly a decade later, Dad was back at Michie Stadium for a Rutgers-Army matchup as part of a Big East officiating crew. As that crew held their pregame meeting, in walked Jim Young, now retired as a football coach but still omnipresent in West Point as a living legend. Young introduced himself to the room.
When I said my name, he said, “You know, there used to be a McGee who officiated in the ACC.” I told him, “Yeah, I know. It was me.” He said, “You are the only official who ever flagged me during a game.”
I asked him, “Well, did you deserve it?” And Coach Young said, “Oh, hell yes. The only mistake you made was that you didn’t flag me five minutes earlier. Sorry about that. I was just trying to do something to wake my team up.”
Just like Crash Davis.
For Dad, the most notorious case of “pressurized coach + dealing with problems no one knows about + losing a game you shouldn’t = sideline explosion” took place on Halloween 1996. Boston College was visiting Pitt for a coveted Thursday night national showcase game on ESPN. The 4-4 Eagles were 11-point favorites over the scuffling 2-6 Panthers. But BC never got into gear and lost an ugly contest 20-13.
In the middle of it all, Boston College head coach Dan Henning, a former NFL quarterback, two-time NFL head coach and two-time Super Bowl champion, totally and completely lost it.
Honestly, it escalated so quickly that it didn’t seem real.
The back judge had a penalty against Boston College for 12 men on the field. We actually had some disagreement on that. I had counted, like I always did, and had 11, but the back judge was adamant, and he was a good official, so the penalty stood. That triggered Henning, and as always, I was the guy who was right there next to him, so I was the one catching hell. At one point, I even tried to explain, “Coach, if you’ll notice, there’s a flag on the field out there, but my flag is in my pocket.” I was trying to let him know: Stop screaming. Certainly stop screaming at me.
For the next little while, he is following me up and down the sideline, just F-bomb after F-bomb, and finally he says, “My job is on the line, and you motherf—ers are out here half-assing the game …” and then he said something that ended up triggering me. “I don’t know where the f— they found you guys!”
Now I turned around and walked toward him. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you where they found me! In a university president’s office, where I work Monday to Friday …”
Dad was in his fifth year as president of Wingate University, a job he would hold for two decades. He continued to respond to Henning.
“The question is where they found you. You’re losing to Pittsburgh. On national television on Thursday night, with everyone in the country watching. If I was president at Boston College, you’d be looking for a job!”
I shouldn’t have said that. And I wish that had been all that I said. I tried to walk away, but he followed me. He said something, and when he walked away, I followed him. It was the only time I just lost the handle. But I was a university president now, and there was a lot of stress in my job, too. Football was supposed to be my stress release, but on a Thursday night, getting screamed at by this guy, who was supposedly known as a good guy, I just couldn’t take it anymore gracefully.
Once it finally started to calm down, I looked over, and I saw a kid holding a sideline microphone for ESPN. I said to him, “You didn’t get all of that, did you?”
He didn’t get all of it, but he absolutely got some of it. Most of the exchange had taken place during a TV timeout, so the nation didn’t hear it. But I was two years into my entry-level career at ESPN, and at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, we don’t see commercial breaks during games on our air. The satellite feed that is beamed back to our offices is what we call the backhaul, a clean feed that includes everything at the stadium during those breaks when the viewing audience is watching ads or SportsCenter score updates. In the booth that night was play-by-play man Mike Patrick, a man with deep ACC roots, who called many of Dad’s earliest TV games on Jefferson-Pilot back in the ’80s. The sideline reporter was Dr. Jerry Punch, a coworker I knew very well.
This particular night, I was in the ESPN Charlotte office. The only sound in the building was from BC at Pittsburgh, echoing throughout every room. But then, during this one commercial break, I heard a familiar sound that made me look up from my paperwork. Was that … Dad? And did he just drop an F-bomb?
I heard Doc Punch reporting to the production truck, not to be aired, but just in case it became a bigger problem once they returned from the commercials: “Guys, Coach Henning is really going at it with an official down here. That’s the field judge, Dr. Jerry McGee, Ryan McGee’s father.”
In the closing moments of the game, Henning walked over to Dad. This time he didn’t scream. “Jerry, if I offended you, I apologize.”
“Me, too, Coach. We both lost our cool, didn’t we?”
After the game, when cornered by a very nervous Big East officiating coordinator, Dad refused to divulge the content of his conversation with Henning, saying only that they were having a disagreement over where to get the best steak in Pittsburgh after the game. In fact, he never fully explained what happened until now, not even to Sam or me.
I’ve never gotten into that much because I’m not proud of it. It was not my finest moment. Nor was it Dan Henning’s finest moment. He didn’t know the kind of stress I was under at my job. And, as we know now, that night we had no clue what a total and complete mess he was in the middle of at Boston College.
The following week, the entire nation knew. That’s when Henning announced that he was suspending 13 Boston College football players for gambling. The game before Pitt, the Eagles had been crushed by Syracuse 45-17, and rumors were rampant in the Boston College locker room that some of the players on the team had placed bets on the game — against their own team. In the days leading up to the Pitt game, Henning held a team meeting to address those rumors and asked anyone who had bet on the Syracuse game to come forward. No one did. But as the night at Pitt turned ugly, so did Henning’s mood. In the locker room after the loss, before leaving for the airport, he exploded on his team, promising that he would get the bottom of the gambling chatter. By the end of November, the county district attorney had become a regular in the BC football office, a campus gambling ring had indeed been exposed, eight Eagles were off the team permanently, and Henning would never coach college football again.
In the early 2000s, he lived in Charlotte, not far from us. He was offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. I used to wonder what would happen if we ran into each other at the grocery store. We never did.
I think, looking back, we understand why Dan Henning was in the frame of mind that he was that night at Pitt. But when he was calling the offense for the Panthers, if they had a bad day, I don’t think any of us went out of our way to cut him much slack when it came to criticism.
By the way, there is no photograph of the Dan Henning vs. Jerry McGee exchange on the Wall of Screaming. But there is videotape in the ESPN library. I know — I checked. Maybe I should have erased it.