Still, Steratore is an officiating oddity. He is scheduled to officiate during this week’s N.C.A.A. tournament games in Pittsburgh and although he is not the first N.F.L. referee to work top college basketball games — the former referee Bill Vinovich did the double before retiring from football in 2007 — Steratore is the only current N.F.L. referee who also officiates Division I basketball.
The combination of an N.F.L. schedule and about 60 basketball games a year makes for a winter full of early-morning flights, endless stretching and tons of laundry — “I have a lot of black socks,” Steratore said — but so far, Steratore has never thrown a flag on a basketball court or said “false start” when he meant “traveling.” (The two calls have the same signal.)
That does not mean, however, that Steratore’s two jobs do not bump into each other. Basketball coaches frequently ask him about football, though generally in less-intense situations than Patsos chose, and football coaches occasionally mention basketball. The same is true of his fellow basketball officials, who quiz him on the intricacies of overseeing an N.F.L. game.
The subjects vary. Some want to talk about dealing with the television production aspect of officiating in the N.F.L. Others want to ask about the coaches. Steratore even gets questions about whether Ed Hochuli, an N.F.L. referee who has become well known for his rippling muscles, is really as strong as he looks.
“I’ve been working out a little more, but I still get people saying, ‘You look good, but you’ve got a long way to go to get to Ed,’ ” Steratore said with a sigh.
Despite the obvious similarities between the jobs — stripes, whistles and constant scrutiny by fans who have the luxury of watching plays in slow-motion that Steratore must call in real time — the lives of a football referee and a basketball referee are actually quite different.
With the N.F.L., Steratore, 49, spends 20 to 30 hours a week reviewing his crew’s performance in its last game. He pores over video clips. He participates in conference calls with the league office. He scouts the teams he will have in his next game so he is as prepared as possible for what he and his crew will see.
Then, on Friday or Saturday, he flies first class to the city where he is working, checks into an upscale hotel and has a series of meetings — with his crew, with the TV production team — before working the game Sunday.
“Working basketball is — different,” Steratore said with a smile. “Put it this way: I have a rule that if there’s an N.F.L. game within four hours of my house, I’ll drive it as a way to warm up for basketball season.”
Steratore was serious. During basketball season, he spends a lot of time in his car, books and pays for his own flights and hotels, and often works three or more games a week. His accommodations are less Renaissance and more Courtyard by Marriott, and officials commiserate over how many frequent-traveler points they are earning during any given stretch of games.
For Steratore, though, the grind — and the fraternity of officials — is part of what he enjoys most.
His family is full of officials, from his older brother, Tony, who is a back judge in the N.F.L. and has worked two Super Bowls, including the Giants’ victory over New England this year; to his younger brother, Michael, who is working lower-division college basketball games; to his cousin Frank, who officiates college football and basketball.
The family obsession began with their father, also named Gene, who refereed college football and basketball for 33 years.
“We were always getting into his bag, trying on uniforms, that sort of thing,” said Steratore, who also operates a sanitary supplies company with his brother Tony. “Every Halloween, somebody always went as a referee. It was guaranteed.”
Steratore began his officiating career when he was about 11, he said, working YMCA basketball games near Pittsburgh “for a quarter and a chocolate pop.” He played quarterback in high school and at Kent State before beginning his officiating career in earnest in 1983.
After working football in the Big East, he was hired by the N.F.L. as a field judge in 2003. In 2006, he was promoted to referee and has quickly risen in stature among coaches and players. Still, he has had his moments in the spotlight, most notably in 2010 when he ruled — correctly, according to the league — that Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson had not maintained possession of the ball all the way to the ground on a critical would-be touchdown catch against Chicago.
There is one moment in particular, though, that he would rather forget. In the third preseason game of his first season as a referee, Steratore had a video review of a play that his brother Tony, then working on his crew, and the umpire Carl Paganelli, ruled an interception. After going under the hood and looking at the replay, however, Steratore saw clearly that the play was an incomplete pass.
“I’d had a few replays already, and so I was confident I knew what I was going to say on the microphone,” Steratore said, “but every replay I’d had before had been upheld. This was my first reversal.”
He shook his head and continued: “So I turn on the mike and start talking. ‘The ruling on the field is ...’ but then I just totally lose it. I’ve got nothing. And finally I just say, ‘The ruling on the field is ... not good.’ And I look up and Tony and Carl are just going nuts. I mean, ‘The ruling on the field is ... not good’? What does that even mean? I thought my career was pretty much over right there.”
Fortunately, Steratore recovered and in January he received his fifth career postseason assignment when he refereed the New England-Denver divisional round game. Of course, the morning after that game, he woke up and flew to Ohio, where he worked the Ohio State-Indiana game that afternoon and then did three more college games that week.
It may seem overwhelming to some, Steratore said, but it is his life. It always has been.
“I do wear stripes a lot,” he said, chuckling. “When I’m not working, I guess I try to wear solids, if I can.”Continue reading the main story
The methodology of how officials are assigned to postseason games has had an air of mystery, but the league and the officials’ union have established a basic framework for determining which officials get playoff assignments.
Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino determines the assignments by first taking the cumulative accuracy percentage of every official into consideration. It’s not a straight 1-to-17 grade ranking, instead Blandino places the officials at each position into one of three tiers. Tier 1 is, for the lack of a better term, the championship level; Tier 2 is a qualified level; and Tier 3 are officials that do not get assignments.
Although the placement into a tier is largely based on grades, it has the subjectivity to allow Blandino to consider intangibles, such as leadership, decisiveness, and managing the pace of game. The top tier is generally limited to 4 to 6 officials at each position.
There are no all-star crews in the first two rounds of the playoffs; mixed crews is a more accurate term. The crews are assigned by individual merit, rather than a crew score, to prevent lower-graded officials from getting unearned assignments or negatively affecting superior crewmates. This provision is included in the collective bargaining agreement with the officials union signed in 2012.
At the Conference Championship and Super Bowl level, those officials are pulled from Tier 1, and that is when the all-star label is applicable.
Playoff assignment procedure
First, to qualify for any postseason assignment, an official may not be in the first season or the first season as referee. (This excludes 3 new members on the officiating staff.) This season, 10 officials became eligible, as well as referee John Hussey, in his second season as referee.
Injuries can also be a factor, particularly for late-season injuries or prolonged absences earlier in the season.
An official will only get one on-field assignment in the postseason or the Pro Bowl, except that the Super Bowl crew also works the Divisional Playoffs.
The Super Bowl assignment would be selected from the Tier 1 officials, but these minimum qualifications apply:
The official selected at each position for the Super Bowl is not necessarily the top ranked official. An official at each position in that tier that has not previously worked a Super Bowl will get first preference. However, if an official was graded at the top in the previous postseason, and skipped over to award a first preference, that official will not be skipped again if he or she ranks first in the current season. The first preference must also meet other qualification factors.
Also, an official cannot work consecutive Super Bowls, which excludes Clete Blakeman and the Super Bowl 50 crew. Hussey is also not qualified, nor is third-year referee Brad Allen; this leaves 14 of the 17 referees qualified for the Super Bowl.
The remaining Tier 1 officials are distributed to the Conference Championship round and, if necessary, to the Divisional Playoffs. Conference Championship officials, including the referee, must have 3 years of seniority and a prior playoff assignment.
Divisional and Wild Card Playoffs
First, the Super Bowl crew will get Divisional Playoff assignments, although they won’t all be on the same crew.
The remaining three positions for the Divisional Playoffs will go first to Tier 1 officials not in the Conference Championship. The Tier 2 officials fill in the remaining divisionals and then the wild cards. An official working the Wild Card round will be ranked as low as 10th out of 17, and ranked lower depending on the number of officials at the position that are not playoff eligible.
Tier 3 officials do not get a playoff assignment. Multiple officiating sources have indicated that three years in the low tier can cause an official to be dismissed.
The Pro Bowl is assigned to the most senior member at each position not working a playoff game who also has not worked a Pro Bowl. On last check, the league did not count Pro Bowls prior to 2001 nor those not played in Honolulu in determining the assignment; this was to offer the free Hawaii vacation to those who had not been assigned previously. Since the Pro Bowl will be played in Orlando this season, this might be factored differently than in the past.
There are exceptions to award this assignment to a retiring official, even if they qualify for a playoff game in Green Bay. This would remove them from on-field assignments, and moving up the next qualified official in the postseason assignments.
Alternate officials and replay
Alternate officials have been assigned differently than in past years. First-year officials can qualify for alternate assignments. It seems that Tier 3 officials do not even get alternate assignments, as the past two seasons had some officials getting two alternates and some getting an on-field and an alternate assignment. Super Bowl alternates typically have an on-field playoff assignment earlier in the playoffs. Conference Championship officials last season were assigned to alternate positions in the first two rounds, presumably to close the gap from the last regular season game.
In the playoff and championship games, there are three alternate officials, which usually fall into one of these three groups: referee/umpire, line officials, and deep officials. The Super Bowl has five alternates: a referee, a umpire, a short wing (head linesman or line judge), a deep wing (side judge or field judge), and a back judge.
Replay officials are graded separately, but, as long as there are no other disqualifying factors or adverse performance marks, they are generally paired with their regular season referee.