MIAMI – It’s one of the most astonishing pregame storylines of Super Bowl LIV.
Bill Vinovich, whose officiating crew was responsible for what’s widely considered the worst blown call in NFL playoff history, will referee the game Sunday between the Chiefs and the 49ers.
He will be easy to spot among the seven on-field officials because of his white referee cap. But to many in New Orleans, where Vinovich is still a villain, a black hat would be more apropos.
“Oh no,” Saints receiver Michael Thomas wrote on his Twitter account when the league named Vinovich two weeks ago, “he don’t even own any flags (to throw).’’
The jokes and insults started at the end of the NFC championship game last year between the Saints and the Rams.
With 1:49 left to play, Vinovich’s crew missed an obvious pass interference infraction by the Rams and the no-call essentially cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl.
Yet here is Vinovich, 58, a certified public accountant in Southern California who also officiates Division I college basketball games, preparing to referee his second Super Bowl in five years.
He can’t publicly comment on the improbable turn of events since officials are off limits to the news media. But his father, Billy Vinovich Jr., and others chimed in with how the backlash has effected Vinovich.
“It was a scary situation,” his dad said of the immediate backlash last year. “They had them sneak him out of the hotel and put him in another hotel and change their flights and get them out of town by 6 in the morning.
“The cops stayed with them all night. Those people in New Orleans are nuts.”
For decades, the Vinovich family has been subject to the wrath of sports fans.
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Bill Vinovich, a 15-year NFL veteran, is a third-generation referee. His father, Billy, and his late grandfather William (Butch) Vinovich Sr. officiated college basketball and multiple high school sports.
In July, all three men were inducted into the sports hall of fame in Midland, Pennsylvania, where Bill Vinovich III was born before his family moved to Southern California when he was in grade school. Bill Vinovich referred to the blown call from the NFC championship game during his induction speech, according to Chris Shovlin, president of the executive committee of the Midland Sports Hall of Fame.
“He just kind of said, ‘It was a tough situation’ and he mentioned it to me just in chatting that it was a tough year for him,” Shovlin said. “Obviously he’s a human being and it affected him. But he was able to fight through it, and a lot of people came to his aid and to his support.’’
Officials are selected for the Super Bowl based largely on graded performance during the regular season and postseason — and Vinovich apparently performed well enough to overcome his link to the ignominious non-call.
“He’s got a knack for controlling things,’’ Billy Vinovich said, noting they were on the same basketball officiating crew for 12 years. “He’s very low key when he talks. Talks soft.’’
By contrast, Billy Vinovich is a gregarious, wisecracking retired highway patrolman who is not afraid to call out his son.
“I remember his first college (football) game,’’ Billy Vinovich said. “There was a play on the sideline and he threw his flag for blocking below the waist, and I ran over. I said, ‘You got blocking below the waist?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ I says, ‘They’re allowed to do that in college.’ He said, ‘Oh, (expletive).’
“The coach is right there hollering at him. He says, ‘Coach, I’m going to eat the flag. I’m sorry. I made a mistake.’
“When you make a mistake, you can’t try to weasel your way out of it. Just admit it and that’s the end of it.’’
To be clear, there was no admission of a mistake by Vinovich after the NFC championship game.
When asked why no penalty flag was thrown on the key play, he told a pool reporter that it “was a judgment call by the covering official. I personally have not seen the play.’’ He also explained that the play was not reviewable.
Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints, later said he got an apology from NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron. Neither Vinovich nor any other member of the seven-man officiating crew was publicly singled out.
Billy Vinovich and others say his son was wrongly blamed for the non-call because the referee is positioned behind the line of scrimmage and tasked with focusing on the quarterback, not downfield. That fell on deaf ears in New Orleans.
“They crucified him,’’ Billy Vinovich said.
Prior to that game, Bill Vinovich’s story once was cast as uplifting. He broke into the NFL officiating ranks in 2001 and six seasons later was forced off the field.
Diagnosed with a heart condition in 2007, he moved into an supervisory role for the NFL. But after having successful heart surgery, he returned to the field in 2012.
He refereed his first Super Bowl in 2015.
Before the game, talking about his recovery from heart surgery, Vinovich told The Associated Press, “I never gave up.’’
A three-sport start at Canyon High School in Anaheim, California, Bill Vinovich played wide receiver for two years at Santa Ana College and two years at the University of San Diego, where he graduated magna cum laude.
Greg Williams, former head coach at the University of San Diego, recalled Vinovich as unusually analytical. One day, Williams said, Vinovich walked into a room as the coaches were reviewing film of the upcoming opponent and in five minutes solved a coverage that had eluded the coaches.
It resulted in Vinovich catching the game-winning pass that week, Williams said.
“What separates the good from the great is attention to detail,” Williams said. “And he always was one of those guys that no matter how he feels inside, he could give you the illusion that he was on the calm.
“He doesn’t get too up or too down. He’s very even with his temperament, which for an official I think would be huge.”
But his father has one gripe.
“He says, ‘Repeat first down,’ when there’s a penalty,’’ Billy Vinovich said. “And I said, ‘Bill, you graduated magna cum laude.’ If you repeat something, you’ve got to run the same play, with the same penalty, with the same time, with the same yardage and everything.’ Say ‘Replay’ or ‘Still first down.’
“He’s been getting away from it gradually, but he’ll do it generally about the third quarter. If you watch the Super Bowl, listen. He’ll do it the second or third quarter and he does it because he tells my wife, he says, ’Tell me what dad does.’ She said, ‘Well, dad turned the sound off one time, with the clicker he turned the sound off.’ And he does that just to get under my feathers.’’
But just imagine the feathers that will be ruffled if Vinovich’s crew blows a big call.
“Oh, he’s forgotten all about that,’’ Billy Vinovich said.
Forget potentially the worst non-call in NFL playoff history? Fair to say plenty of other people remember it.