ON JUST ABOUT EVERY WEEKEND THIS FALL, YOU’LL find Gorillas on the football field, but these aren’t the DII powerhouse Gorillas who play in Carnie Smith Stadium or even those Gorillas who star on Sundays for the NFL. These Gorillas wear stripes.
“We do seem to have more than our share of Gorillas in the higher ranks of officiating,” said Mark Stewart (BS ’91), an NCAA football official in the Big 12, Mountain West and Southland Conferences. “That shouldn’t really be a surprise. There are lots of Gorillas excelling in all fields.”
Maybe it’s something in the game-day atmosphere in Carnie Smith Stadium. Whatever the cause, a long line of Pitt State alumni have risen through the ranks of football officials to be regarded as some of the best in the country.
Their stories vary, but in every case, these men share a love for sport and in particular, football.
“I loved the games, I grew up playing football, basketball and baseball and that’s what my friends and I did all year long,” said Mark Hittner, a 1979 grad who begins his 18th year officiating in the NFL this fall. “Whatever sport was in season, we were playing.”
Joe Blubaugh, a 1997 grad who has been a Big 12 official since 2005, said he loved playing football, but when his playing days were over, something was missing.
“There was kind of a void without sports,” Blubaugh said.
Almost all of the Gorillas in stripes say their officiating careers began with a little serendipity.
For Phil Laurie, a 1970 grad who worked as a football official in the Big 8 and Big 12 for 24 seasons before being named supervisor of MIAA officials in 2008, it was a call from his brother who needed another man to fill out an officiating crew for a high school football game.
Stewart said it was the neighbor of a co-worker in Texas who got him into officiating.
“I missed the competitive aspects and camaraderie of actual team sports,” Stewart said. “Officiating was a way for me to get back into that part of the game.”
Tom Stephan (BBA ’80), who is beginning his 17th year with the NFL after 6 years with the Big 12, said he got his start as an official because of a course on Rules and Officiating taught by Cliff Long. One of the requirements was to work three junior high games.
“I enjoyed working these games and, due to a shortage of officials at the time, was soon getting phone calls to sub in for more games,” Stephan said. “Officiating was now in my blood.”
Hittner added that for a college student, officiating junior high sports helped pay the bills.
“The pay was better per hour than you could get anywhere else and I loved the game and the kids,” Hittner said.
It’s been decades, but all of the Gorilla officials say they are as passionate about the game today as when they were kids. They just have a different perspective.
“I love the atmosphere, the give and take of the flow of the game, the opportunity to make the right call when it is presented to me,” Hittner said. “It is such a thrill every week, to step on the field in the NFL.”
Stephan agreed and added, “Each and every game presents another set of challenges to conquer. You have to be prepared and have confidence in yourself to be able to look a coach or player in the eye and explain a difficult call that may not have gone his way.”
“I still get butterflies before I walk on the field,” Blubaugh said. “Hopefully, that’ll never stop.”