Coleman famous/notorious - even at Boys State

Published Wednesday, June 08, 2005

NFL official Walt Coleman had barely gotten the words out of his mouth, "Playoff game, Oakland and New England, three years ago."

"Oh, you're the guy who did that one!," shouted a teenager in the back of the UCA's Old Main auditorium during an evening session of Boys State. "You blew it!"

Laughter, some applause, followed by a few more delegates shouting, "Yeh, yeh."

Coleman chuckled, "You Raider fans in the back have some idea of what they think about me in Oakland. They did a survey in Oakland about who was the most hated person in the world. I'm happy to tell you I finished second to bin Laden."

Because of a couple of high-profile calls, Coleman, who officiated his first game in Mount Ida and worked his way to the NFL by way of the old Southwest Conference, has become an icon in some circles for bad officiating.

"Type in Walt Coleman sometime on a search engine on a computer and see what happens," said Coleman, noting that one of the options is a site titled "NFLofficials ... (followed by an unflattering name). He noted he is the only NFL referee on the We site with a separate link by name. He said the link contains a 10-page list of calls on that site that various fans think he blew.

He said one blog on the site read, "It's playoff time and we all know what that means. It's time for Walt Coleman to step in and mess up some team's chances for a championship." He said another blog reads, "Walt Coleman is perhaps the worst referee in the NFL with a history of blown calls."

During his talk before about 750 delegates in different colored T-shirts that represent mythical counties for Boys State, Coleman used his experience to drive home lessons in leadership acquired the hard way.

His most famous decision occurred in the first NFL playoff game ever televised at night, the snowy contest between the Raiders and the Patriots (on the way to their first Super Bowl win) that Nielsen ratings showed attracted 27 million viewers.

Stationed at the back of New England quarterback Tom Brady during the final seconds of the game, Coleman saw the quarterback blindsided by the Raiders' Charles Woodson and ruled a fumble recovery that would likely have given Oakland the victory.

Then, he got the replay signal from an official in the press box that the play ought to be reviewed.

"Don't let anybody tell you it's great to be on the cutting edge of technology," he said.

The replay angle was from the front of the quarterback (where Coleman's view was blocked). It showed the ball was dislodged from Brady after his throwing hand and the ball had dropped waist-high on the pass attempt. Under the "tuck rule," Coleman said, the quarterback must first tuck the ball against his body after a pass attempt for it to be ruled a fumble.

"In front of 27 million viewers, I had to reverse a call and admit I had made a mistake," Coleman said. "But I changed a ruling to exactly what the rule book said. I did what the rules said I should do. And how does it feel to make a mistake in front of 27 million people? You don't want to do it on a regular basis."

New England eventually won the game in overtime then defeated Pittsburgh and St. Louis to win the Super Bowl and Coleman has been blamed ever since for costing Oakland the championship.

"But I also have enough guts and intestinal fortitude to be out there," he said. "The only way you cannot make a mistake is not to be involved."

Then he cited a regular-season game a few years ago in Foxboro when New England and Buffalo met for a playoff berth - when there was no replay. As head referee, Coleman said he is supposed to be stationed behind the quarterback. He relies on his crew to make calls downfield.

Two times in the final 35 seconds, Coleman had to consult with fellow officials about calls that were out of his vision - one gave New England a first down on a reception that the television replay showed the receiver and the ball were clearly out of bounds. The game should have been over with Buffalo winning. "My view was completely blocked on the play but the television announcers, with the game being beamed back to Buffalo, are saying, 'What the heck was he looking at? That was a terrible call by Walt Coleman.'"

The second call was defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary pass into the end zone that gave New England the ball at the 1, where it scored the winning touchdown after time had technically run out. Coleman's fellow official had called the pass interference. Coleman, the only official with a microphone, had to announce it.

"The television announcers are saying, 'That has to be the worst call in the history of the NFL,' Coleman related. 'You don't call defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary pass.'"

When Coleman returned to his office at a Little Rock dairy, he was besieged with voice messages and e-mails from Buffalo, where a disc jockey had given fans his address.

Coleman's tone was like an evangelist when he told the young boys, "There will be times that people won't agree with what you do and will talk about you and criticize you. Should I take it for gospel and let that have an impact on what I think about myself?

There will always be pressure in life, coming from people who like to sit back and tell you how you ought to be and what you ought to do.

" ... I've been cussed out by the best. Several words I've heard before but never in sentences like that."

He noted, with his distinctive Southern drawl, that fans in some NFL cities think he talks funny.

"Well, they're the ones who talk funny," Coleman said.

"Yeh, yeh," shouted the crowd of boys, normally laid-back for most of the evening.

Coleman left to a boisterous standing ovation.

A leadership lesson had sailed through the uprights.

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