He is the most hated man in college football, yet he commands the sidelines with absolute power. He wears a striking red hat, white shirt and pants resembling a cross between the Good Humor Ice Cream man and a participant in a Spanish fiesta. He prowls the sidelines and appears on the field with ultimate authority over the progress of the game, but very few know him.
He is the TV timeout referee, the Red Hat.
As we embark on a marathon of year-end bowl games culminating with the BCS National Championship, special attention will be given to the “Red Hat” who will play a pivotal role in victory or defeat. This TV timeout referee is rarely seen on television because it is his appearance that forces the networks to fade to commercial.
College football rules allow for generally 10 TV timeouts per half, with bowl games likely adding more based on individual contracts. Unlike the NFL, which has the two-minute warning timeout, colleges make up for it with more TV timeouts directed by the Red Hat.
Tim Feran of the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Red Hat is “known officially as the TV commercial timeout coordinator” and is either an official not working the game or former referee. And according to Feran, his identity, curiously, “is not announced until game time.”
As a practical matter, this timeout provides a period of respite, a chance for a cold beverage or a moment to relieve oneself from the non-stop gridiron. But in the stadium, right under the noses of the fans, the Red Hat appears to provide a recognizable yet momentary intermission that coaches know can either give them an extra edge when he leaves the field and the action resumes or kill that special momentum of an offensive drive.
Teams that routinely play games on national television frequently experience these TV timeouts while others do not understand their stealth use.
Oklahoma’s coach, Bob Stoops, has successfully used these TV timeouts as strategic interludes to gauge the opposing team's players and potential formations. He holds his team on the sideline, waits for the Red Hat to give the final 10- or 15-second warning, then releases his team to the field based on last-second adjustments.
In contrast, a dominant offense driving the field or a dramatic turnover, can quickly be extinguished by the gentle arrival of the Red Hat at the 20-yard line. This same interruption may also be a welcomed consequence where a team loses the ball.
In any of these examples though, it is unavoidable that the Red Hat makes an impact on the game, an impact that is driven neither from the sideline nor by the players. It is also indisputable that the Red Hat extends the length of the game.
While we enjoy the Super Bowl length of these New Year bowl games, we should recognize that some of these games may not be determined by the players on the field, but by the red-hatted man most fans will never see.