The irony of Art McNally’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that he fended off fame. McNally keeps a ledger in his Philadelphia home for every game he’s managed in any sport – 3,145 total. The goal was to leave all 3,145 without anyone remembering he was there.
“His belief was that every time you heard about an official or wrote about an official, it was bad, something went wrong,” said Brian O’Hara, McNally’s son-in-law.
This feeling followed McNally during the 48 years in the NFL. He was on the field for nine seasons, from 1959 to 1967, and became a supervisor for NFL officials in 1968. And the officials are like lifeguards on the beach: You need them there, but you don’t want to talk about them on the way home.
“A lot of people are looking for 15 minutes of fame and glory,” said Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president. “And to be really good in charge you have to honestly just be a little out of the limelight. You will want to be well prepared and really be a treasure Not being the story. …and art, that was his heart and soul in terms of his sense of leadership position in the game. He was also very consistent in delivering (that) the message.”
McNally, 97, will make history as the first field official inducted into the Hall of Fame, even though his definition has more to do with his public body of work than his time in the field. Management is an essential part of football, but it can be difficult to determine the merit of an official or to qualify for a Hall of Fame. Player has stats. The coach has a record. Owner has organizational achievements. McNally’s entry is based on the reputation he has earned over decades in the league. When McNally got the call to inform him that he had made it to the final stage, it was explained to him that “integrity” was the word that resonated during his nomination.
“It … embodies integrity and credibility,” Anderson said. “So much of what management stands for is maintaining, protecting, and maintaining the integrity of the game, and I don’t think anyone exemplifies that more than Art McNally.”
McNally’s composure was essential to his job. When Norm Van Brooklyn coached a team Vikings, the direct judge ran to inform McNally that “the Dutchman wants to speak with you.” Never had to share restaurant recommendations. And “talking” would be an understatement. Van Brooklyn shrieked and cursed, according to O’Hara, and continued to do so until he ran out of breath.
“Well, coach, anything else?” McNally said.
McNally was once tasked with telling Vince Lombardi that his side’s relegation would be reversed. Lombardi took it as one would imagine. McNally was unmoved.
“He wasn’t changing the call; Lombardi could have screamed whatever he wanted,” O’Hara said. “Because it was the right call.”
According to O’Hara, McNally’s management style was based on common sense: does it materially affect the play? If the penalty does not materially affect play, leave it.
“His strength was his common sense and his strength was understanding the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of the rule,” O’Hara said.
The Philadelphia native has been a loyal fan of Big 5 basketball and the Army-Navy game, and has never allowed himself to support an NFL team. This is his job. It is his integrity. He won’t get caught wearing team clothes – unless he’s cheated. During a tour of the training camp, former Houston Oilers coach Pom Phillips watched training from a tower overlooking the field. McNally called to the tower. Phillips said McNally needed a hat because of the sun in Texas. McNally refused, but Phillips put one on his head the moment she took a picture. “I got you!” Phillips said, of O’Hara.
As a supervisor, McNally and his staff recruited and evaluated NFL crews. Installed the first official professional sports program to train and evaluate officials, According to the Hall of Fame website. Because of its longevity, it is difficult to find an official without roots going back to McNally. McNally hired the administrator, or was appointed by a person appointed by McNally.
“They always talk about training trees,” Anderson said. “I think the same can be said from an official point of view that many of today’s NFL officials can certainly trace, not only their beginning, but certainly their influence through Art McNally.”
McNally’s physical influences on football should not be ruled out. The seventh official added to the NFL games. Bring an instant replay to the league. Submit the video to the NFL. There are parts of the NFL today, whether it’s playing rules or official decisions, that arose out of McNally and McNally’s policies.
But his legacy may be more tangible to the people, and O’Hara meets officials at all levels who are raising his father-in-law. The NFL annually awards the Art McNally Award to the official of the game who best exemplifies the qualities for which McNally is best known. The NFL Command Center has been renamed “Art McNally GameDay Central.”
– NFL Football Operations (NFLFootballOps) February 7, 2015
“The tree of art is a big oak,” Anderson said. “And it sure is the trunk of that tree for many of us in today’s world of governance.”
This honor also has meaning. The story of football cannot be told without officials, even if they are not supposed to be part of the story. So it makes sense that the Football Museum recognizes an official. McNally is the sensible choice to be the first.
“Art will never be one to brag to itself,” Anderson said, “but for many years everyone has taken root—if anyone deserves that recognition, it is Art McNally.” “And that’s just because of what he meant over the many decades to the game, how he contributed, and how tirelessly he worked behind the scenes.”
McNally’s late daughter, Rita O’Hara, worked for the NFL and wrote letters for years defending her father’s candidacy. When Brian O’Hara goes to Canton this weekend, he’ll be thinking about his wife, who passed away in 2019 — three years before Rita, her father’s “biggest fan”, saw it pay off.
For a few minutes in Canton, McNally will be in a place he never wanted to be at a football event: the spotlight. If the words were accurate and the rules were followed, it would be a fitting tribute.
“He just wanted to be right. That’s it,” O’Hara said. “Then go ahead.”
(Photo by Art McNally, left, with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rosell: David Pickoff/Associated Press)