By Lee Davis
Ronnie Baynes has seen the Super Bowl from the best spot in the stadium.
And that doesn’t mean a luxury box.
Baynes – a former Auburn University football player and Mountain Brook baseball coach – was an NFL official from 1987-2000. During that period, he worked many preseason and regular season games, numerous playoffs and, as a reward for his good work, served as the line judge in Super Bowls XXIX and XXXIII.
“It was an honor to be a part of the Super Bowl,” Baynes said. “To work alongside great professionals, including players, coaches and officials, in the world championship of professional football has to be one of the highlights of my career.”
Baynes officiated legendary quarterbacks turning in great performances in both Super Bowls.
San Francisco’s Steve Young was brilliant as the 49ers crushed the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium in early 1995.
Four years later, Denver’s John Elway paced the Broncos to a 34-19 pasting of the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII on the same field – by then called Pro Players Stadium – where Baynes had called his first Super Bowl. The victory marked Elway’s final game.
While NFL officials undergo intense preparation for any game they call, the Super Bowl is always special, Baynes said.
“An official can try to tell himself that calling the Super Bowl is just like any another game, but of course it isn’t,” he said. “You know that probably 100 million people are watching. A good official will try to put that out of his mind, but of course he knows that this is football’s ultimate showcase.”
Baynes’ strongest memory of officiating a Super Bowl involved something he didn’t do.
“In Super Bowl XXXIII, the penalty flag never came out of my pocket,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something I’d done in all my years as an official. People say that the officials have a ‘let ’em play’ philosophy in the Super Bowl because the world championship should not be determined by a penalty. But I think it’s more likely that both teams are so focused on this particular game that they don’t make many little mistakes like jumping offside.”
The use of television instant replays to determine the final outcome of questionable calls is simply part of the modern game, Baynes said.
“We went a long time without instant replays, but now it’s part of the rules and regulations of NFL football today,” he said. “I don’t think having a call overturned is in the back of an official’s mind. They do the best they can to get the calls right. The public wants instant replay, and it will always be a part of modern college and professional football.”
Baynes retired as an official after the 2000 season and went to work in the NFL’s New York City office as a supervisor of officials.
“I was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “The NFL office is about 40 blocks from the World Trade Center, but I’ll never forget the sounds and the sights. That’s a day everyone will always remember.”
After eight years in New York, Baynes moved back to the Birmingham area to serve as a league director of scouting and training of incoming officials.
“My computer and telephone is all connected through New York, but I don’t have to live there anymore,” he said. “Getting to continue to work for the NFL and live in Alabama is the best of both worlds.”
The process of selecting game officials for the NFL is similar to how players are chosen. Baynes and his associates scour the collegiate ranks to find the best possible candidates to be professional officials. The cream of the crop go through an intense training process which includes work at mini-camps, college all-star games and exhibition games as part of the screening process.
“Some of the young officials move on to the NFL, others are told they need more experience at the college level, and some unfortunately are told it won’t work out,” he said. “There are plenty of fine college officials that won’t have a place in the NFL.”
Despite his position with the NFL, Baynes isn’t shy about expressing his opinions about issues facing the league. He admitted to being puzzled by the recent controversy over whether the New England Patriots intentionally used underinflated footballs in their 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game Jan. 11.
“The footballs are weighed by the officials in the dressing rooms before the game,” Baynes said. “They should weigh between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds. After that, the footballs go to the ball boys of each team, who are handling them in a stadium in front of thousands of people. So there might be a way someone could manipulate the weights of the footballs, but it would be very difficult.”
Baynes also questioned why the Patriots or any other team would knowingly deflate footballs.
“I’m not sure if it’s any easier to throw a football that weighs less,” he said.
Footballs designated strictly for kicking are constantly under the officials’ care, Baynes added. “We have one guy in charge of the kicking footballs all the time,” he said. “They are mailed directly to the officials at the stadium.”
Baynes said he intends to retire from the NFL soon, but he isn’t walking away from sports. He plans to work with Birmingham’s Cornerstone School in developing an athletic program.
“I have a passion for helping Cornerstone get started with athletics, especially football and baseball,” Baynes said. “With my experience, I hope I can make a contribution.”