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White hat was a perfect fit on Terry McAulay, whose officiating expertise still sparkles

Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association

Read Terry McAulay’s Twitter feed (@tjmcaulay) and you’ll discover that he is:

– A high-level foodie (he recently achieved what he called the “holy grail” after years of creating homemade rib rubs);
– A devoted animal rescuer (the mostly-chihuahua Bartok is constantly underfoot in the McAulay household and rules the roost among five rescue dogs); and
– A connoisseur of ‘70s music (“I’ve grown to like some ‘80s music,” he confessed, “but definitely nothing after 1990”).

Rarely on that Twitter feed are there mentions of football officiating, where McAulay reached the pinnacle of his chosen field, or his recent ventures as part of the on-air announce crew for the most popular show on television. Granted, there’s another feed under his name that is wall-to-wall officiating analysis and all things football, and that’s by design.

“I really get frustrated sometimes,” McAulay said of Twitter accounts. “I follow people for their expertise, and suddenly I get a lot of personal stuff in there. That’s not why I follow them. For my followers, I strictly use that (feed) for analysis, because that’s the reason they follow me. The other one is just for fun.”

The distinct separation provides an insight into McAulay, an indication that behind the maximum 240-character posts is an individual who is precise, highly motivated, has great communication skills and is a taskmaster with high expectations for those in his work environments.

“He’s demanding and he’s tough,” said Greg Gautreaux, a fellow Louisiana product and also a long-time NFL game official. “He expects a lot out of his crew, but he also gets the most out of officials he works with. He helped me really grow as an official.”

There’s a cliché that in sports officiating – especially on the NFL level in America’s most popular sport – you have to start out perfect and then you have to get better. It’s an impossible goal, but over a 20-year career in the NFL and in the years of college and high school officiating that came prior, McAulay came closer than anyone. For years, many of his peers singled him out as the best of the white-hats (which only the referee wears).

That’s the reason that the Hammond native and LSU alumnus is being honored with the 2021 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award, and will be enshrined into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame during its Aug. 28 ceremonies in Natchitoches. For information on the Aug. 26-28 Induction Celebration, visit or call 318-238-4255.

McAulay retired from on-field officiating in June of 2018 and is now in an even more challenging role as on-air rules expert and officiating evaluator for NBC Sports’ phenomenally-successful “Sunday Night Football” franchise and that network’s Saturday coverage of Notre Dame football. Ironically, this college season he’ll work with future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Drew Brees on the Irish broadcasts.

That jump to the booth, at the still-young age of 58, came as a surprise to many, especially those in NFL inner circles who were accustomed to the high level of performance that had become a symbol of McAulay’s on-field work. He had already earned selection as referee for eight conference championships and three Super Bowls – only one referee in NFL history has worked more – and the consensus was that more top assignments were on the way for the #77 referee jersey.

“It was difficult,” McAulay said. “I had to do a lot of thinking, but it was such an amazing opportunity. I had done about everything I could do on the field and there was nothing else I needed to prove. I knew if I turned it down, that opportunity wasn’t going to be available again.

“I have unbelievable respect for Sunday Night Football and (executive producer) Fred Gaudelli; he is just the best and the production is as good as it gets. To this day, it’s still the right decision. I miss officiating, but there’s a lot of wear and tear that goes with it and dealing with the NFL bureaucracy that I don’t miss.”

“Terry is one of the very best referees I have ever worked with in 32 years of producing NFL games,” said Gaudelli, who has been involved with NFL primetime games for 31 years and is in his 15th year with Sunday Night Football. “His games were run efficiently and he never lost command, no matter the situation. I thought those skills would translate to his television role.”

But don’t assume that McAulay wouldn’t have been happy heading up an NFL crew for many more years.

“There’s not enough stories out there about the good people in the game,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and it’s part of our society in general that the negative is focused on. But the players, almost to a man, were terrific to work with. They get emotional in emotional situations, but I thought they were wonderful to work with. There are very few people in the NFL that I wouldn’t love to have as neighbors.”

McAulay was raised by his mother in Hammond, the youngest of four children in what was not an easy upbringing. Officiating everything in sight – prep football, basketball, flag and pee-wee football – helped bring in income while he was still in high school at Valley Forge Academy in Amite, and that continued during his enrollment at both Southeastern Louisiana and LSU as one of three McAulay kids who put themselves through college.

His love of officiating continued when he moved north to Maryland, computer science degree in hand, and what became a 26-year position as a computer programmer and software engineer with the National Security Agency (NSA). The expected veil of secrecy there – he once told a writer that he “monitored foreign intelligence and kept them from doing that to us” – became a benefit to his increasingly-successful avocation. It’s not like you can take NSA work home with you, and government work did provide solid vacation time and benefits.

By then, McAulay had worked his way into college football officiating in NCAA Division III leagues, before he took the unheard-of direct leap into Division I referee duties in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1994.

In his first ACC game, Maryland-Florida State, the stars aligned.

“There was a scout there from the NFL that was watching somebody else on that crew, someone that ended up getting in the league,” McAulay said. “After that game, I got a phone call that told me I needed to send in an application (to the NFL) because they were impressed. Certainly it was a goal to get to the NFL, but that was probably the first indication that it could come true.”

McAulay refereed the 1998 Tennessee-Nebraska BCS title game in the Orange Bowl before he was tabbed by the NFL for the 1998 season. After three years of working on game crews, the NFL promoted him to a referee position in 2001, and only one year later he was assigned to his first conference championship game, in his second year under the white hat.

Four years later he was the crew chief for Super Bowl XXXIX matching New England and Philadelphia in 2005, becoming the first to draw a Super Bowl assignment with fewer than five seasons as a referee.

“The Super Bowl’s the pinnacle of every official’s career,” he said. “Not a lot of people have done it. It’s not necessarily the final goal but it’s the ultimate goal. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get there, but it’s quite an experience. It’s unbelievably satisfying that somebody felt I earned the right to be in that position.”

Those spots aren’t just handed out. Game officials are critiqued on every game, every call, in excruciating detail for an entire season, and only those who numerically grade the highest are given postseason assignments. McAulay was always among the highest rated referees, earning those “big-game” spots.

Gautreaux joined McAulay’s crew three years after his 2002 NFL officiating debut as a field judge, and gave that crew a distinct Louisiana flavor in the three years they worked together. Ironically, their first game together was the 2005 Hall of Fame game in the debut of another future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer, Miami Dolphins rookie coach Nick Saban.

“I thought it was great, to be on the crew with another Cajun,” said Gautreaux, who is still an active NFL official. “After three years of working with Terry, I really understood how he was as an official. He had great football knowledge and understanding, and his rules knowledge and more important the philosophy he shared with his crew was amazing. Officiating in the NFL is tough and it takes a while to adjust, but I give him a lot of credit for any success I’ve had.”

Gautreaux moved on to other crews, but the two were reunited in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay in 2009 when each graded at the top of the league in their positions and worked one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, Pittsburgh driving late and scoring with 35 seconds left to beat Arizona 27-23.

“Working the Super Bowl with Terry as the referee, that was really a fantastic opportunity,” Gautreaux said.

McAulay also worked the 2014 Super Bowl XLVIII between Denver and Seattle and was a fixture in postseason games before moving to the broadcast booth, where his knowledge and expertise – and his reputation for being honest and straightforward — is on display on what has been television’s top-rated primetime show for 10 straight years.

Being critical of officials when the rare mistake happens is part of the job now … not that McAulay has ever hesitated to voice an opinion when he thinks he’s right. In 2015 when the NFL Referees Association gave public criticism of McAulay’s crew for not ejecting more players during a volatile New York Giants-Carolina Panthers game, he promptly resigned from the officials union.

“I have spoken out about things,” he said, “which is another reason I love what I’m doing now. I get to say the hard things that need to be said. A lot of people don’t like it and it does piss off a lot of people. But I’ve always felt that it’s better to know what someone’s thinking, what they truly believe, instead of being behind their backs. Everybody knows what I’m thinking and I don’t mince words.”

In a way, his Sunday Night Football gig is even more of a challenge.

“The rules are complicated and get tweaked every year,” Gaudelli said. “Terry is an expert in the rules and how the game is supposed to be officiated. He provides that expertise for the viewer and that enhances our coverage. It also provides Al (Michaels) and Cris (Collinsworth) with the confidence that they can ask him a question in any situation, and know they will get the correct response. In an era where people want definitive and accurate answers now, Terry is able to provide that on Sunday nights.”

“Fred said to me you can’t ever be wrong,” McAulay said. “I get that. During a broadcast, I have to be right every time, and I don’t have the luxury of time to figure out what the right thing is. When you’re calling games, you have six or seven other people to help you through complex situations. Here, it’s all on me. Speaking succinctly about complex rules in a very short time window is difficult.

“But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I absolutely love what I’m doing.”

LSWAWhite hat was a perfect fit on Terry McAulay, whose officiating expertise still sparkles