Tom Higgins spent the majority of his career as either a professional football player or coach in the Canadian Football League. He even spent some time in the front office as a general manager. But he never worked a CFL game as a referee or official.
So that makes it a bit unusual that for the last five years, Higgins, 58, has served as the CFL’s director of officiating. He says his playing, coaching and front office experience has added a different dynamic to what once was a traditional post.
“Most directors of officiating come from the ranks of officials,” he says. “[The CFL] deviated and wanted someone from football. I bring a different perspective to the referees and a different perspective to the coaches.”
Higgins, who played nose guard for NC State from 1972-1975, is now in his 30th year of being associated with the CFL. He played for the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 1970s and 1980s. He spent the 1990s and 2000s in various general manager and coaching positions in the league, even winning the 2003 Grey Cup, the CFL’s version of the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy, as head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos in 2003.
One of the common misconceptions, Higgins says, is that officials aren’t held accountable. He oversees 42 on-field officials, and 10 supervisors and evaluators. Every week during the CFL season, which runs from June until November, Higgins watches all the games live (with eight teams in the league, there are never two games on at once). He interacts with the coaches on a daily basis. And he ensures that all the referee crews are graded for every play in a game, which is about 155 on average.
The referees that grade out at the top get to work the prestigious Grey Cup game, which is the CFL’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. That game takes place this Sunday, Nov. 26, and is a national event.
“It brings the country together,” Higgins says. “It’s a week of celebration. It’s going to be hosted in Toronto. The city will be very similar to the Vancouver Olympics.”
Higgins, who also wrestled at NC State, says that even though it’s a thankless job, he’s learned one valuable lesson — officials are a lot like players.
“It’s basically a complaint department,” he says. “But what I’ve learned is that we can’t play the game without officials. If you make a mistake as an official, you have to have the same mindset as an athlete. Move on.”