James “Coach” Wilson settled into his head linesman position along the Colorado Buffaloes sideline that January night, straddling the 47-yard line and patrolling the scrimmage line as the CU punter asked for the snap.
It was the 1991 Orange Bowl in Miami, and Wilson was about to make the officiating call of a lifetime.
Notre Dame’s star, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail waited about 45 yards away. The NBC announcers said that surely the kick, with just 1:05 left in what amounted to a national championship game, and Colorado leading 10-9, would be directed purposely out of bounds. No way you kick it to Ismail, a darter who had just missed out on the Heisman Trophy a few weeks earlier.
But the Colorado punter sent the ball straight to Ismail, who caught it at his own 9 and threaded up the middle of the field. He was breaking clear about the 30 when a Colorado player bore down from his rear right side.
Wilson, a half century and 1,350 miles from his East Austin roots at 1308 Concho St., was at the near 40-yard line now, doing his job, glaring at the action.
A black-and-white matter
The Orange Bowl, with 80,000 fans on hand and a national television audience in the multi-millions, would have been impossible for him to imagine when Wilson, then a Huston-Tillotson College student, officiated his first game. Wilson, who is still robust at 81 but somewhat hobbled by a bum right knee, can’t pinpoint the exact year all this time later. Maybe 1955, he says.
But he remembers that a Huston-Tillotson coach gathered him up — Wilson was a guard on the basketball team — and a couple of other H-T students to work a football game between the black high schools in Round Rock and Georgetown. The pay, as best he recalls it: $4.
Back then, the black-and-white stripes on the backs of “refs” were the only integrated feature of Texas high school football. Black players played against black players under the auspices of the segregated Prairie View Interscholastic League, officiated by their coaches or, as in the case of that game in Georgetown, thrown-together crews with some rules knowledge and little or no concept of how to run a game. Across town — at larger stadiums, with better equipment and experienced white officials — the University Interscholastic League games chronicled by newspaper reporters and audited by recruiters for the whites-only Southwest Conference kicked off separately and unequally.
The ad hoc nature of officiating in those segregated games showed, Wilson says.
“Whatever happened over near you, you flagged it and you enforced the penalty,” recalls Wilson, now retired from a much-honored, 44-year primary career as coach and athletic director at his alma mater in East Austin and a similar tenure of serious and pioneering duty as a ref. In proper practice, an official designated as the “umpire” has that job of stepping off penalties. In time, with experience and training, Wilson would know that.
“That’s just how it was,” he says now, standing on the unruly grass of Yellowjacket Stadium in East Austin.
Until it no longer was.
Somewhere around 1960 — again, the precise dates are lost to history — Wilson and other black officials formed their own group, the Capitol City Officials Association. Most of them were teachers; Wilson had taught and coached in Smithville for three years before returning to Austin and the college. He remembers his fellow refs were trying to make a little extra money and, perhaps, bring some structure for the young men playing the game. And, for a handful, establish their legitimacy as football officials.
But America was changing, grudgingly, almost a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Austin schools — far from all of them, and usually just a few students at a time — were integrating. The UIL and Prairie View organization would merge in 1967, ending de facto segregated high school football in Texas. In 1966, Jerry Levias of Southern Methodist University, first black player to get a Southwest Conference scholarship, took the league by storm. And that same year, based on records kept by Bill Steffek, an official from that time who retired just a few years ago, the two football official associations in Austin, white and black, also merged.
Wilson, on this same Yellowjacket field, erased that particular color line. With three white officials, he called a game between Anderson High and Phillis Wheatley High from San Antonio. Wilson had graduated from Anderson in 1953, when it was located about a mile to the west near where Kealing Junior High now sits. So a lot of people in the stands knew him, as their friend, as a fellow parishioner at Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church, as Georgene’s husband, and as the Huston-Tillotson coach and athletic director. They understood what the moment meant.
“I was a little nervous because of the situation I’d had, and the 2,000 or 3,000 people in the stands,” he says. “Just about everybody on this side of town would come to the (Anderson) games…I could hear ‘Coach Wilson’ from the stands.”
That nervous energy, along with his youthful speed and still-shaky grasp of referee “mechanics” (do’s and don’ts about positioning and duties), meant that on one pass near the east sideline, Wilson was there waving his arms to signal that the pass was incomplete. He was maybe 40 yards away from his proper position on the west sideline.
“Ed Norris (a fellow ref) said to me, ‘Jim, you don’t have to work that hard,’ ” Wilson says.
So, how did it go, having integrated crews and acting as an authority figure over white coaches and players who had grown up in a society that stigmatized African-Americans? Wilson, a deeply religious man who came of age in that same caste system of strict written and unwritten rules, doesn’t dwell on whatever ugliness might have occurred. Maybe he is rounding off the rough edges of memory, and perhaps his dual status as a coach and a ref helped in that transitional time.
“We just didn’t have any problems, really,” he says. “They (the other officials) were really good people and most of them were professionals in some type of vocation. So we just worked together, and we learned together.”
And the coaches, a bottom-line breed who can sense uncertainty in an official and tend to exploit it?
“As long as you treat people nicely and respect them, they’re going to respect you,” Wilson says. “It’s all about attitude. You can win them over. And if they said anything, you didn’t have to argue back.”
Wilson learned the zebra trade quickly enough that by the 1970s he was working small-college games in the Lone Star Conference. Then in 1978, with recommendations from the Austin High and Travis High coaches, among others, he was the second black official chosen to call Southwest Conference games. When that league folded in 1995, Wilson worked the final conference game, between Texas and Texas A&M.
He moved on to the Big 12, which had accepted UT and three other schools from the defunct league, and called that league’s games through the 1999 season. He finally left the field at age 64, having won several officiating awards. He was named to the Austin Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, and the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2011 as a coach and athletic director. Huston-Tillotson in 2012, by now a university, awarded an honorary doctorate to Wilson, who had earned his master’s from Prairie View in the 1960s.
The zenith of his officiating career? The 1991 Orange Bowl.
The toughest call
That Colorado player closing on Ismail, No. 17, never got a chance to make the tackle. A Notre Dame player at the last moment hit him — crucially and illegally — from the right and just to the back. Ismail broke completely free, headed for a certain touchdown.
On the tape of the broadcast, you can see Wilson at the top of screen. He is leaning downfield, preparing to chase Ismail. His right hand, however, grabs the flag at his belt. With a practiced casual quality born of all those years doing this job, Wilson flings the flag back to his left, out of the screen.
Ismail reaches the end zone seconds later. There is a brief dogpile there, and pandemonium in the stands. Then it becomes clear there was yellow laundry on the field, and you see shoulders sag. Clipping (under today’s rules it would be called a block in the back), Wilson’s flag. No amazing last second punt return, in other words. A few minutes later, the game is over. Colorado’s 10-9 win gives them a national championship.
Wilson’s call was in the lead sentence of the next morning’s New York Times story on the game, and of Sports Illustrated’s article in the following issue. Notre Dame fans, many of whom phoned him in the aftermath, never forgot it. Same for Colorado fans, from a happier standpoint.
It was a huge call, at the most critical moment, on the loftiest stage. The easy thing would have been for Wilson to leave the flag in his belt. Another official, with an equally clear and closer view, did so. But, in officials’ parlance, the foul was there. The TV commentators, despite the spoil-sport quality of it all, looked at the replay and, grumpily it seemed, said as much.
Wilson had taken his younger son, Blake, to Miami for the big game.
“He ran up to me as we were going to the dressing room: ‘Dad, Dad! You were right!’” Wilson says.
Wilson waves off a suggestion that it took a special brand of intestinal fortitude to make that call — the notion that somehow growing up and enduring Jim Crow on the East Side, singing for a lifetime in the Greater Mt. Zion choir, overseeing young people for decades at Huston-Tillotson and raising two successful sons — forged a character strong enough to pull the flag in that cauldron. No, he says. It was simply the right thing to do.
“I just had to call what I saw.”
Following James Wilson’s footsteps
The Austin Football Officials Association has begun weekly training classes for the upcoming season, but is still accepting recruits for the rookie class. Interested? Go to afoa.ws for more details, or email the association at firstname.lastname@example.org.