Gerald D. Austin ’64 MAEd ’69 felt like he had been on the receiving end of a very personal foul a few years ago after a letter from the National Football League arrived at his Summerfield home informing him that his days as an NFL game official were over. Austin, who was then 67 and the senior official in the league experience-wise, wasn’t surprised at being taken off the field and put out to pasture after 26 years of officiating NFL games, including 18 years as a referee – the head official. But that didn’t make it any easier. He had been officiating sporting events for more than 50 years. “I got a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment out of being an NFL official,” he said. “When I ran out of that tunnel and onto the field, there was no place I’d rather be.”
But, after sitting out four seasons as a league retiree, Austin is back making calls during the current NFL season – not down on the field but up in the broadcast booth. He’s been traveling to a game each week to work as an on-air “rules analyst” beside announcers Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden during the ESPN network’s “Monday Night Football” broadcasts.
Austin’s life in striped shirts started when he was a 10th-grader at Erwin High School near Asheville and began officiating basketball games for seventh- and eighth-graders. After earning education degrees at Western Carolina and his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Austin embarked on a 31-year career in education that began with him teaching in Buncombe County and included stints as a high school principal and associate superintendent of schools in Guilford County.
As a game official, Austin worked his way up through the ranks from high school to college. He served nine years as a football and basketball official for the Atlantic Coast Conference before getting the call to move up to the NFL in 1982. His years in the league wearing the striped shirt and No. 34 included three Super Bowls (one as side judge and two as the referee), six conference championship games and three Pro Bowls. In 2005, Austin received the NFL’s Art McNally Award, given to a game official who exhibits exemplary professionalism, leadership and commitment to sportsmanship on and off the field. He was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame two years later, and his other honors include the WCU Alumni Association’s Award for Academic and Professional Achievement (he currently serves on the association board) and selection earlier this year as the NFL Referees Association’s “2012 Annual Honoree” in recognition of his on-field work and support for that organization.
Austin has served as coordinator of officials for college football’s Conference USA for 12 years, and it was through that affiliation that doors opened for him to join the “Monday Night Football” crew. For every college bowl game, Austin said, the NCAA requires the network broadcasting the game to have in the broadcast booth a representative from the conference that is providing the game officials, to interpret college rules for announcers who often come from an NFL background. Conference USA provided the officials for last January’s Outback Bowl, and Austin served as rules analyst for Tirico and Gruden as they worked the matchup between Michigan State and Georgia. “Two weeks later, producer Jay Rothman called me about being the rules analyst for ‘Monday Night Football,’” Austin said. “I told him I’d love to do that.” Having an on-air rules analyst available to assist NFL football announcers is a trend that started in 2010.
The MNF season began with an exhibition game Aug. 7 (which happened to be a Tuesday) and ends with Atlanta at Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 22. Austin, part of an ESPN crew of 150 people who travel to game sites each week, said he wasn’t nervous before the first broadcast, adding that football officials are typically so intently concentrating on managing the game that they don’t get antsy about being in front of television cameras. But still, “I told myself before the first game that if I screw up now, everybody’s going to know about it,” he said. Tirico discussed the talents of his new booth-mate on the ESPN blog “Front Row.” “To have as great an expert as Gerry Austin, with his on-field experience, to pop in when something happens to clearly and concisely explain what is going on is a great addition to our ‘Monday Night’ team,” Tirico said.
Comparing his current duties in the booth with his work on the field, Austin said the concentration that he gives each play during the MNF broadcasts is similar to what he had to do as an active official. He has to be prepared to analyze calls and interpret rules any time a flag is thrown. When he is called upon to provide on-air input, sometimes fans at home see Austin in the booth, while other times they just hear his voice. Throughout the game, whenever a flag hits the field, Austin uses body language to let Tirico and Gruden know when he believes a questionable call has occurred.
The eyes of sports fans across the nation became more focused than ever on NFL officiating as the current season began, with the league using “replacement refs” to officiate games for the preseason and first three weeks of the regular season during a league lockout of unionized officials. Austin was in the booth for the broadcast of the now-infamous Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks matchup, when the game ended with what many saw as a botched call, giving Seattle a 14-12 win. NFL junkies were outraged by that call and others around the country, clamoring for the dispute between the NFL and regular officials to end. Even the nation’s president weighed in on the matter. “That was just the end of the game,” Austin told the Greensboro News & Record. “There was any number of calls throughout the game that were ruled incorrectly. That was just the one everybody’s going to remember.”
Austin worked a total of 525 games during his days as an NFL official, so being on the road for the 20-game MNF broadcast season is nothing new for him. “I enjoy being in whatever city we’re in, even though usually all you ever see is the airport, hotel and stadium,” he said. Austin’s wife, Sylvia, has traveled with him several times this fall, and the two have stayed over in some cities for several days after the game.
Austin said he has enjoyed working with Tirico and Gruden, “terrific people who go out of their way to accommodate fans when they ask for autographs or photos,” and is gratified to be back at the NFL games, where his goal remains “to get the call right.” But this grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of seven still feels the tug of the striped shirt. “I can tell you that the fire still burns in me,” he said. “I miss the camaraderie with other officials and being out on the field. If the NFL called me today and told me to start officiating again, I would be ready to go.”
Hard work and determination coupled with a million-dollar smile have helped land Beth McDade ’02 right in the spotlight. A communication major at Western Carolina who scored an internship with ABC affiliate WLOS-TV in Asheville while a student, McDade certainly has put in the hours behind the camera. Earlier this fall, years of effort put her in front of the camera as she made her debut with the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” as a college football sideline reporter through the ESPN network’s online streaming outlet, ESPN3.
“My degree from Western Carolina has opened up so many doors for me,” McDade said. “Coming from a small town, WCU really changed my life. Without so many people’s love and support – the professors, sorority sisters, WCU alumni – I’m not sure I would have made it to where I am today.”
Originally from Trinity, near Greensboro in Randolph County, McDade comes from a football family. Her father, David McDade, signed to play football at Clemson in the late 1970s. Younger sister, Madison, is a kicker on her middle school football team.
McDade said that her longing to become a broadcast journalist began at a young age. Growing up in the Piedmont, she spent a lot of time with her grandparents. During the 1980s, the family purchased its first video camera. Little did they know that it would plant a seed that would later grow into a profession.
“Having that video camera was a big deal,” said McDade. “My grandfather bought it and was so proud of it. When I was 4, he would go into the den and set up one of those old metal TV trays. He would take a note card, bend it in half and write ‘Channel 8’ – our local TV station – and Granddaddy would videotape me pretending to do the news.” Those childhood “broadcasts” would generally follow the same script, she said. “The weather today is … and I love my granddaddy because ….”
Several years after those living-room recordings, McDade became involved in dance and theater, taking summer classes at the North Carolina School of the Arts throughout her time at Trinity High School. Following graduation, she chose WCU for the next step of her life. But that major leap to further her education in the mountains was not an easy one. Many in her family believed that instead of attending college more than four hours away from home, she needed to join the work force right after high school. But she wanted to go to college and ultimately made the decision to come to Cullowhee. Through her four years, determined to stay in school, McDade worked up to three jobs at one point while enrolled as an undergraduate. “I was as stubborn as a mule,” she said. “Getting the degree was all I could think about.”
While at WCU, she rekindled her desire to work in journalism. She pursued an internship at WLOS, where she worked alongside Mike Bettes – the station’s chief meteorologist who now is employed at The Weather Channel in Atlanta. Bettes, who remains a mentor for McDade, described her as “a go-getter” and someone “driven by her passion to be a great journalist.”
“Beth has a great personality that the camera adores and she has always liked sports, so she’s a natural for ESPN,” Bettes said. “I can see her being there for a long time. I could also see her branching out into other sports, too. She’s a big NASCAR fan.”
After graduation, McDade was offered a position with WLOS starting out on weekends. Faced with a fork in the road, she declined the job offer and chose a different path, taking a position with a pharmaceutical sales company. Yet on the side, she continued taking occasional broadcast jobs. Being in front of the camera was never far from McDade’s mind. “I would always think about that TV tray and my granddaddy, who was so proud to film me,” she said.
In 2011, McDade’s career path took a drastic turn. A celebrity photographer from the West Coast took some professional pictures of McDade, which started her back on her journey in the broadcast world. She landed several stints in Las Vegas conducting celebrity interviews, working with camera equipment and gaining more knowledge, experience and contacts within the industry.
“I remember when she called me and told me she wanted to get back into broadcasting. I thought, ‘Oh boy! You’re crazy,’” said Bettes. “It’s a cutthroat business that is so tough to make inroads. Honestly, I thought about talking her out of it, but she was determined to make a go of it – and she did. I had my doubts but can say she proved me wrong and I couldn’t be more proud.”
From the deserts of Las Vegas back to the East Coast, McDade continued to pursue her dream of working in broadcast journalism. She worked on other projects and built a portfolio until a fateful outing in the South Carolina Lowcountry. McDade was reporting a golf story at Kiawah Island titled “The Basics of Golf.” The right people saw her report, which channeled her to ESPN. From there, she worked her way into her broadcast position, making her professional debut on ESPN3 during the William and Mary versus Maryland game.
“I guess I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, yet I never realized how important it was to follow your heart until I got older. Being a journalist was all I ever wanted to do,” McDade said. “I am proud to represent Western Carolina University in my position on the sidelines with ESPN3.”
Bettes, who has witnessed his share of WCU alumni entering the broadcast profession, said he is glad to see McDade pursuing her dream. “All of her successes wouldn’t have been possible without the solid foundation she got at WCU. She’s a shining example of what every Catamount should be,” he said.