Mac Curles spends his weekdays in relatively reserved, genteel surroundings as a financial planner and advisor in the Birmingham office of Bridgeworth LLC. But on Saturdays this time of year, Curles trades the pinstripes of wealth management for the zebra stripes of a Southeastern Conference referee — and his office becomes a football world that rocks and rumbles.
This will be the 10th season that Curles — who pronounces his name “kurls” — has refereed SEC football games. For him, it’s more of a higher calling than a side job. “I love the game of football, ” says Curles, who started playing the game as a third grader in his hometown of Pelham, Georgia.
“I loved playing the game. Officiating, for me, is a way to still be involved in the game — not as a fan in the stands or even a coach on the sidelines, but out there on the field. For me, I’m still playing the game. I’m just in a different role, and I love it.”
Curles was a three-year starter as a defensive back in high school and started officiating 27 years ago when he was a junior at Georgia Tech. “In the fall, my fraternity brothers would be getting dressed to go a Tech game, and I would be suiting up to go referee a youth football game in North Cobb County or something like that, ” he says.
No matter how good a player you might have been in high school or college, you start at the bottom when it comes to officiating. “When you first start, you get experience working those little kids, seven or eight through 12 years old, ” Curles says.
“That’s how you get out on the field. You learn that way, and as you get better you start working the junior high games and the high school varsity games. And when you start doing the high school games, you start at the bottom. You start by working the chains.”
By the time he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1990, Curles had accepted a job in Birmingham selling steel pipe to customers in the oil and natural gas industries. He continued refereeing on the side after moving to Alabama, getting better at it and working his way up the officiating ladder.
At age 30, Curles went directly to the collegiate level as a referee, which is not the norm. “That doesn’t happen very often, ” he says. “I must have made a good impression when I applied to the Gulf South Conference (which includes the likes of the University of North Alabama, for example) and was trying out and being evaluated. There’s a world of difference between college and high school rules, and I had a good grasp of the rules. And I think it had something to do with my being comfortable managing a crew (as a referee).”
Curles became an SEC referee in 2006 when he was 38; today, at 47, he is the youngest referee among the SEC’s nine football officiating crews. He loves calling games, but he does wish the average fan knew more about the time and effort officials put into getting it right.
Curles’ eight-man crew meets for a couple of hours at their hotel before each game, and they arrive at the stadium two hours ahead of time, taking jurisdiction of the field an hour before kickoff. The critique of his crew’s game performance is virtually constant, and much of it comes from the crew itself.
Before Curles ever leaves the stadium after a game, the replay official uploads a video of the game to Curles’ iPad. His crew will return to the hotel after the game, shower, eat and then review the video (a television version) to see what they did well and could have done better that day.
The next day, more comprehensive video from high end zone and high 50-yard line perspectives is available. “That will show things that the TV version might not have caught, ” says Curles, who begins reviewing the new video on Sunday and spends hours continuing to pore over it each evening during the week. Feedback is also provided by an observer from the SEC who works each game and subsequently critiques the officiating crew.
On Wednesday, the officiating crews receive a grade of their performance the previous Saturday. Curles and his crew do a final video review and critique of their previous game when they meet on Fridays before their next game, then the process is repeated for each game.
Curles views his officiating crew as a third team on the field, trying just as hard as either team to win. “We’re working together to do our best to do our job perfectly, ” he says. “We’re no different from the teams or coaches. We’re not perfect, but it isn’t because we’re not trying.”
After changing careers and joining Bridgeworth, Curles was quickly challenged. “I came here in 2007, and the stock market fell off the table the next year, ” he says. “We had clients with a 401k or investments that were down by a half. Had they gotten out (of the market) they would not have recovered. I was able to get them to stay the course, maybe do a few things differently, and they’re in better shape than they were. I hope I made a difference in their lives. I feel like I did.”
Officiating also has presented challenges — even adversity — for Curles. The worst of it came in 2009, after his crew made a controversial call in an LSU-Georgia game, and a few weeks later Curles himself was purloined in the media by Arkansas fans after making a call that he openly admitted after the game was incorrect.
But it all passed. When Curles quickly took responsibility for the bad Arkansas call in an interview, ESPN’s website was flooded with e-mails showing support. “That meant a lot, ” Curles says. “I got e-mails from former coaches and former players, and that really meant a lot. I learned a lesson, and you can grow from trials like that.”
Curles notes that SEC officials must not only know the rules but they have to keep up with the physical demands of calling games. “The players are 18 to 22 years old, and that doesn’t change, ” he says. “But the officials add a year each season. You have to be able to keep up physically.”
Curles is a fit 5’9″ and weighs around 160 pounds. He works out before going to the office, plays golf when he can and has been an avid runner through the years. He has done less running and more work on elliptical machines this year, following surgery in January on a knee he injured during an Alabama game late last year.
He isn’t allowed to share his schedule for the rest of the year, but it’s safe to say that Curles can’t wait for the next game. Quoting Vince Lombardi, he says the goal of his officiating crew is to “relentlessly pursue perfection, knowing full well we won’t achieve it. But along the way, we will catch excellence.”
Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text by Charlie Ingram • Photos by Cary Norton