Ed Coukart has left his mark on the NFL with 17 years on the field as an umpire and another nine years in the front offices as a supervisor of officials. In addition to being part of officiating crews at Super Bowls 32 and 37, he trained the hottest name in officiating these days, Sarah Thomas, who made history as the first female Super Bowl official in this year’s Super Bowl.
“Sarah’s getting to be a real celebrity,” Ed Coukart chuckled as he relaxed poolside at his condominium at The Charter Club of Marco Beach, where he’s wintered for the past decade or so. “She’s on TV and everything else for crying out loud!”
Coukart is proud of Thomas, who he helped to break in to an exclusive fraternity of NFL officials. After all, there’s only 120 NFL officials at any given time.
“I helped train her when I was in the league office,” Coukart recalled. “I had her in training camps and in exhibition games. That kind of stuff. Just learning mechanics and all those things. What to look for, blah, blah, blah.”
It was a league priority to introduce women into the officiating fraternity.
“Yes, that was a goal,” Coukart said. “That was a goal to get a female in. She was a good athlete in college. Had a good family and all that. She had all the right things. She was doing college games. She worked in Conference USA. She had the ability. Nobody comes into the National Football League and becomes great immediately or even becomes good immediately; they struggle. She struggled for her first couple of years. We’ve all gone through struggles, but she learned. That’s what it’s all about. The whole training program. Learning to become better.”
Coukart entered the ranks of NFL officials in 1989 as an umpire—which was unusual at the time.
“They didn’t always do that—bring guys from college in as an umpire,” Coukart said. “They’d put ‘em out on a wing position, then after a couple of years they’d bring him inside. I came in as an umpire and stayed an umpire. Referee is the top job. The umpire watches stuff in the middle of the line, from tackle to tackle and beyond. Has his keys, depending on the development of the play. Calls things like holding, unnecessary roughness, clipping fouls, and that kind of thing. Mostly interior linemen, but also when the umpire was on the defensive side of the ball, and the ball was passed over the middle, you would turn and help rule on pass completions and incompletions and fumbles.”
His 17 years on the field were packed with thrills. He umpired some of the most famous games in NFL history, including The Monday Night Miracle in 2003, The Bounty Bowl on Thanksgiving Day 1989 in Dallas, and the NFC Championship Game in 1999 that spawned the famous Bert Emanuel Rule that prompted the NFL to clarify the rule regarding what constitutes a valid pass reception. Coukart actually made the call on that famous play that is indelibly etched in NFL history. Another famous Coukart call was a leaping call he made against Tampa Bay’s Simeon Rice that is purported to be the first time the call was made since 1938—though it’s a claim the Coukart finds dubious.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The thrills of Coukart’s NFL career actually started on Day One in Washington.
“Do I remember my first regular season NFL game?” Coukart said with a smile. “Well, it’s one that I’ll never forget. We had a rivalry game, my first game, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins. At Washington. That game was, I mean, just everything happened in that game. It started off real nice, then just got rougher, and rougher and rougher.
“The Redskins were way ahead in the first half, and the Eagles started coming back in the second half. It came right down to the end of the game. The Eagles didn’t have any timeouts left. All the Redskins had to do was hold onto the ball. The ball carrier was Gerald Riggs. He breaks through the line and gets hit by one of the linebackers and the ball comes out. And the Eagle defensive player picks it up. He’s a big tackle. Starts running to Washington’s goal line. He’s getting tackled and he laterals the ball out.” Coukart laughs. “And the question is whether it was forward or backward. I was right there. The head linesman was on the other side. Both of us ruled that it was backward. It was absolutely lateral—but that is still a backward pass. So that was the whole thing. They go down and two plays later, Randall Cunningham was the quarterback, and he throws a pass in the end zone. And Cris Carter jumps up and there’s about three defenders jumping up at the same time and all their feet come down at the end line at the same time,” Coukart says with a laugh. “Our back judge, he’s a veteran, he made the call of touchdown. It was the correct call.”
There was pandemonium as the game ended with Philadelphia on top, 42-37.
“We had reporters running out on the field,” Coukart said, “trying to get in the dressing room. I’m a rookie in my very first game and our referee, Gene Barth, looks at me, running off the field and said, ‘You will never, ever, have a tougher game than this one.’” Coukart laughed. “That was pretty true. I thought, ‘What am I getting into?’”
Coukart had his share of collisions while sharing the middle of the gridiron with some of the biggest, strongest and fastest athletes in the world. He had his nose broken in a Monday Night game between Green Bay and Pittsburgh in 1998. In 1997, Coukart was leveled by Jets running back Adrian Murrell. He still remembers that collision.
“Yeah,” Coukart said with a chuckle. “New York Jets playing New England. Adrian Murrell from West Virginia hit me right in the chest. I got hit from behind from one of the defensive backs because he was pursuing on the play. He hit me from behind, so I couldn’t get out of the way. Murrell put his helmet down and caught me right in the chest. So, I went out for a couple plays and went right back in. I didn’t hit my head or anything, although one of the guys said I hit my head on the turf. I was okay… I think,” he said with a laugh. “Those guys are pretty big and they’re pretty fast.
Coukart was no stranger to contact. He played football at Northwestern during his college days. After college he entered the banking field, where he rose to the position of president at banks in Sandusky and East Liverpool, Ohio. While he was working his way up in the financial arena, he was doing the same in the football officiating ranks. He was a high school and college official before ascending to the NFL.
“There’s no short cuts,” Coukart said.
Like many officials, Coukart balanced the demands of his job as a bank president with his responsibilities as one of the NFL’s top umpires.
“A lot of people wonder how you do that. You have to really plan your day; I still do. I almost have my whole day planned out. It’s become my habit.” He lets out a laugh. “I know I’m going to work out today at nine o’clock. I basically know what I’m doing every hour of the day. And it doesn’t deviate much. I’m a real creature of habit.”
Coukart doesn’t think his 17-year career as an umpire was usually long.
“I think it’s about average. Maybe a little bit more than average. Some guys don’t make it. Some guys get tired of it. And some guys want to keep going as long as they can. I felt it was time for me to retire from the field. Then the league offered me a job as a supervisor. So I was able to stay with the game for another nine years. It was good.”
His career highlight was undoubtedly when he was selected as the umpire for Super Bowl 37.
“Aw, the Super Bowl is just something else,” Coukart said. “It’s Walt Disneyland—it’s everything. It’s quite spectacular. Oh, it was great. My wife and I were driving to the airport, matter of fact, and it came out in the media. I had found out by a phone call earlier, but it was out in the media by that time. It was on the radio. It was exciting. It was a good game. Tampa Bay played the Oakland Raiders. The offensive line coach with the Raiders was Aaron Kromer. He was a friend of ours from Sandusky. They were warming up on the field and I came up to him, and it was his rookie year in the NFL, I went up to him and he’s going through the cadence for the offensive linemen. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Aaron, it took me almost 10 years to get this game, and you come in the league and you’re in it in your first year. It’s going to be tough to get back!’ I don’t think he’s ever gotten back. I think that was his only one—so far anyways. He’s with the Rams now.”
Only the most outstanding officials are picked to officiate in the Super Bowl. The same is true for the playoffs, where Coukart was selected umpire in 15 of his 17 seasons. He only missed on his first and third seasons. He officiated five conference championship games and was chosen as an alternate official for Super Bowl 32—an honor in itself.
“It is an honor,” Coukart concurred. “At that time, they only had two alternates. Now they have four or five. You’re right on the sideline in uniform—you might have a jacket on. You’re right there in case somebody gets hurt or sick you’re able to go in right away. You’ve got to be ready.”
Coukart is wearing a ring from the Super Bowl he umpired. He said he usually only wears it around Super Bowl time. He prefers his 10-year ring that is given to officials who make it 10 years on the field. It’s a badge of pride. “It’s smaller. It has a diamond in the middle. I find the Super Bowl ring is a little too big.”
Coukart is perhaps most famous as the umpire who made the call on the play that led to the Bert Emanuel Rule.
“It was the 1999 NFC championship game with the Rams and Tampa Bay,” Coukart said. “This play created all kinds of argumentative information about whether it was a catch or incompletion.
“This receiver that Tampa Bay had, Bert Emanuel, dove out to catch a ball with both hands, and he’s parallel to the ground and he catches the ball, has possession of the ball, has the ball in his hands, and the ball hits the turf at the same time. So, the side judge and I ruled that it was a complete pass. It went to replay, and the replay said the ground helped make the catch. Well, I didn’t think that was correct. They eventually changed the rule and put in the rule book that that would be a completed catch, as we ruled it originally. So that’s where all the controversy started about what is a catch and what isn’t a catch. For years that went on. People always referred to it as The Bert Emanuel Rule. And that was the play they are talking about. But, you know, that argument is still going on. It’s still a controversy about what is a catch and what isn’t a catch. And that gets bounced back and forth every year. But that’s what started it, it seems,” Coukart remarked as he let out a heartily laugh.
Perhaps equally famous was Coukart’s call in a Monday Night Football game between the Colts and Tampa Bay that is known as the Monday Night Miracle.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning led a Colts comeback that featured three touchdowns in the final four minutes of regulation. In overtime, Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt came on to kick what would be the winning field goal. Vanderjagt, who later coached the Marco Island Charter Middle School football team, had not missed a field goal all season.
As the Tampa Bay defense lined up for the kick, Coukart noticed something strange.
“I made a leaping call,” Coukart said. “According to the media, it was the first leaping call since 1938, which I think is incorrect, but it was something you don’t see much of. Or if you see it, you’re able to do something about it before it happens. The thing that alerted me to it was the Tampa player, Simeon Rice, was a big, tall guy. He was lining up in the defensive backfield with me. I was looking at him and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. What’s he doing back here?’ It alerted me that he might be running up. You can’t run towards the line of scrimmage, then jump up and come down on players. If you come down on players, it’s a foul. So that’s exactly what he did. He comes running up and jumps way up. Before that, when he was back there, I said to him, ‘Don’t leap.’ He looked at me with kind of a puzzled look. He didn’t know what it was. Because he didn’t play back there very often. I was telling him, ‘Don’t leap.’ He didn’t know what I was talking about and he still did it. It was a foul. There was a lot of controversy about that. But finally, they came out and said it was a correct call. I was sweating on that one.” Coukart laughed. “It was a Monday Night game, a big game.”
Rice’s personal foul for leaping erased the missed field goal—the first and only miss of the season for Vanderjagt, who ended up 37-37 for the season. Vanderjagt easily hit an easy 29-yard field goal after the infamous penalty on Rice.
Coukart was the umpire for another famous NFL game when the Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Buddy Ryan played Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys. It was rumored that Ryan put a bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman. The bounty on Zendejas was supposedly on the opening kickoff. Coukart said the officiating crew knew nothing of the bounty prior to the game.
“The opening kickoff,” Coukart said, “the Dallas players were complaining. And supposedly Buddy Ryan was offering a bounty to take somebody out on the opening kickoff. We never did find out much about it. Maybe NFL security did. We didn’t even know what was going on. We didn’t know about the bounty until after the game. It was a tough game.”
After retiring from his on-field career, Coukart was courted by the NFL front office to be a supervisor of officials. While he enjoyed his front office job, it was the on-field life that he really loved.
“Oh, being on the field,” Coukart recalled with zeal. “Oh, yeah. All that excitement. It’s kind of a thrill, really. As supervisor, you’re at the game, but you’re up in the press box. You’re so separated from it; you don’t even feel like you’re at a game. And you have to be so focused while you’re up there on the various things going on down on the field. As a supervisor, you’re doing a play-by-play up there. First and ten on the 25-yard line. Running play, right or left, whatever, you’re doing that all the time. And if there’s a foul called, or a no-call, you make note of it on your sheet. Then you review the video. The TV video and also the coaches’ tapes. The coaches’ tapes have both end zone and sideline views. So you’re getting the TV feed, you’re getting replays from TV, then you have the coaches’ tapes. If you have a play that you’re looking at possibly downgrading or giving a correct call—that is very, very close—you’re getting a pretty good look at that play. As a supervisor, you can run it back and forth, back and forth. Those guys down on the field can’t do that. They have to make a call like that—in the snap of a finger. It’s a lot easier in the booth.”
As a supervisor of officials, Coukart had to critique the very officials he used to work with.
“You don’t like it,” Coukart said, “because a lot of those guys were my friends; I worked with them. I didn’t like downgrading them, but that’s what you have to do. Because if one of the officials makes a mistake, the call was bad, and you don’t downgrade him—if you don’t give him a downgrade, you’re also penalizing the other officials that work his position, because maybe the other supervisor grading their game downgraded them and this guy didn’t get downgraded. So, you know, you try to be consistent. That’s the key. That’s what I tried to do. I was probably wrong on some of the downgrades I gave, too. You’re a part of the decision whether an official gets a playoff game, or a Super Bowl, because all of the grades that you have given out are going to be part of the accumulation of information that goes into seeing who gets the playoffs. But there’s like a committee that then does the selection process. So we didn’t really select, but we had a pretty good idea who’s going to get in.”
Coukart retired from the NFL in 2015. Now he says he can finally enjoy watching the game like any other fan.
“I watch ‘em,” Coukart said. “It’s something you never get away from. I can enjoy games now. I don’t go as a spectator to the stadium because I’d rather watch it on TV. You can see more. I’m enjoying games. I’m enjoying college games, because for a long time I couldn’t watch college games because we were in meetings all day on Saturdays. So I’m kind of enjoying it, really. I didn’t think that I would. I kind of thought I was going to miss it so much. What really helped was going into the office as a supervisor, so I wasn’t cut away from it right away.”