Talking to coaches as a football official

Interacting with Coaches: Discussing the Four P’s

When does a coach cross the line with words or actions?

Early in a game, one of the sidelines became belligerent after they perceived we missed an illegal block in the back foul. The wing reported at halftime the coaches continued to complain about holding and other fouls. Later in the game, the wing had to throw a sideline warning flag and then followed that with two consecutive USC flags. The head coach had sarcastically stated, “You can’t help us with flags, but you can throw this,” (USC flag #1). As the wing picked up his flag, an assistant coach commented, “I guess you don’t have it sewn in your pants after all” (USC #2).

This led to a post-game conversation about coach behavior and sideline management.

The next day, while reading the October 2022 issue of Referee Magazine, I found an interview with Castle Rock, CO resident Randy McCall, an NCAA D-1 men’s basketball official. He mentioned:

“Three P’s” as guiding principles when addressing coach and player behavior: Personal, Public, or Persistent.”

For this article, I’d like to add a fourth P: Profane.

Before discussing the “Four P’s,” I want to add a few observations from an “Emotional Intelligence” article I wrote multiple years ago.

Emotional Intelligence

Sports officials must acknowledge most sports are designed to be emotional, stressful, and high-energy. For many officials, this is what compels us to connect to the game. Candidly, games lacking energy and emotion are not very fun to officiate.

By the very nature of a high-energy, competitive game; there will be numerous instances for volatile situations to surface. Officials must approach each contest with “eyes wide open,” anticipating significant conflict, instead of becoming indignant when controversy and disputes arise.

It’s irrational to assume a stress-free officiating experience.

Coaches and Officials Have Different Priorities

Randy Campbell, Division I football and basketball official, provides a reasonable premise for coach-initiated conflict.

It’s an indisputable fact, officials view the game differently than coaches and have different priorities and goals. Our goal and focus as officials is to safeguard players and to make sure one team does not gain an advantage over the other team within the rules of the game. A coach’s goal and focus are winning the game. So, right off the bat, there’s a disconnect. We’re not approaching the game the same way and we’re not talking the same language. That disconnect is the basis for conflict.

A Coach’s Livelihood May Be at Stake

The outcome of a sporting event will seldom impact an official’s future. We step on the playing surface as impartial arbiters. This is not true for coaches. Depending on the age group, a coach’s livelihood could be at stake.

Also, like parents, their sense of personal identity is often directly tied to the performance of their teams. Younger coaches, especially at the youth sports level, are trying to make a name for themselves, and don’t have the emotional intelligence to handle adversity and stress.

They may observe college and professional coaches, who have a longer “leash” than youth and high school coaches, scream at officials; and they copy what they see. Coaches often set the tone for players, parents, and fans alike.

The Four P’s Provide Principles for Game Management

With those words as a backdrop, let’s explore the “Four P’s” which may help create a few principles for game management. Note, we all have our own thresholds.

“Dealing with human emotions is kind of a gray area. If you feel that it’s causing a distraction to the game or a distraction to what is the intent of the game, it needs to be addressed. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a [flag].”

Randy McCall – Referee Magazine


When a coach uses “You” in a sentence, it may cross the line. “That’s a hold” is different than “I guess you don’t have it sewn in your pants after all.”

Randy Campbell advises an official to ask a coach to repeat what he just said. Maybe that will cause the coach to reconsider personal attacks.


A comment muttered while standing beside an official is different than the same comment yelled at full volume. “That was a horrible call” at a normal tone of voice is much different than the same words yelled for everyone to hear.

Physical action like slamming a clipboard to the ground or wildly gesturing during a coach/official conversation may cross the line. Bottom line: are the words or physical actions causing a distraction?


Some may be familiar with the “Montel Rule,” named after Colorado Springs basketball official Gary Montel. This is also called the “compilation” or “accumulation” rule. A copy of the Montel Rule is in the resources section on this website. Here’s an excerpt:

“The rules specifically prohibit criticism of the officials and the use of foul language. The vast majority of coaches steer clear of those transgressions. However, some coaches have developed the skill to push the envelope to the limit through repeated and voluminous commentary. Each comment is seemingly innocuous and within the limit of the rules, but the incessant barrage eventually creates a distraction. The Montel rule allows each official to privately establish his own threshold of tolerance and when the limit is reached, an USC for for “excessive commentary” is assessed.”


We all have our own profanity tolerance level. Profanity directed at officials is different than profanity directed at players. Profanity directed at officials is a “clean kill.” However, do we flag coaches for directing profanity at their players?

I spoke with our state rules interpreter and he stated CFOA does not have a written profanity policy. He said CFOA wants us to ignore profanity directed at players and allow school administrators to address it. (Candidly, it makes my heart hurt when I hear coaches scream the “F” word or other profane words at players. I don’t know why we tolerate that behavior.)