Coin flip ritual part of football since the beginning

Team captains Jacob Covington (#3) and Jason Reeves (#20) meet at midfield for the coin toss during the season opener versus La Grange. La Grange won the coin toss and elected to receive. The game was called by head referee Brian Jones. (Kathy Canady Photo)

Team captains Jacob Covington (#3) and Jason Reeves (#20) meet at midfield for the coin toss during the season opener versus La Grange. La Grange won the coin toss and elected to receive. The game was called by head referee Brian Jones. (Kathy Canady Photo)


It’s the last thing before the real action begins on Friday night.

The two team captains, often three or four players per team, will meet at midfield with the officials for the coin toss. It’s a simple 50-50 chance — one that will determine which team gets the ball first and which team will head in either direction. It’s also been part of the sport since the beginning.

Starting in 1892, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the captains would meet by themselves at midfield. Twenty-eight years later, the officials joined the pre-game ritual in 1921.

Now, in 2014, the process hasn’t changed too much before the game. At Liberty Hill, one player will get the marching orders, then lead the group out to centerfield where the officials will ask the visiting captain to choose “heads” or “tails.”

“It’s always been like that, however, the official will often check with the coach first,” said Liberty Hill Coach Jerry Vance. “That way there’s no confusion of what someone is calling.”

Avoiding potential confusion became even easier in 1998. Prior to 1998, the visiting captain would have to call it in the air. However, a Thanksgiving Day game headed to overtime between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions changed that.

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said tails. But the head referee, Phil Luckett, thought Bettis said heads. When the coin landed on tails, Luckett gave Detroit the ball to start overtime, which led to the game-winning touchdown.

The following season the rule was changed at all levels. Now, heads or tails has to be called before the flip.

For some teams, winning the coin flip is more important than others. If a team has a particularly strong defense, a coach may want to start with his defense on the field. Other coaches tend to defer to the second half, treating the first possession of the second half like an extra piece in the coaching chess match.

At Liberty Hill, there isn’t an exact science to how Vance makes his decision. In fact, he still doesn’t know whether he wants the ball first or not when Liberty Hill hosts Brownwood this Friday night.

“It just depends on a couple things, but it’s really how we’re feeling that day,” Vance said. “We’ll just talk about it right before, then we’ll make our decision.”

In general, the coin flip before the game can be pretty inconsequential. For example, in the 48 Super Bowls, the team winning the coin flip is an even 24-24.

However, coin flips outside of the field have had a big impact in sports history, including in high school football.

In 1969, Penny Chenery won the right to own Secretariat – a triple crown winning race horse – through a coin flip. Up until 1984, the NBA used a coin flip to determine final order in the draft, making Magic Johnson a Los Angeles Laker as opposed to a Chicago Bull in 1979.

Nine years later, one of Texas high school football’s most famous coin flips was chronicled in Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights. Odessa Permian, Midland and Midland Lee high schools all finished tied for a district championship. With just two playoff spots available, the three coaches met at a truck stop outside of Midland to determine the two playoff teams.

Odessa Permian and Midland Lee won the toss, while Midland missed the playoffs on the 50-50 chance.

“When Earl (Miller) said his (coin) was heads, it was devastating. To me, there has been no other feeling like it except for having a death in the family,” then Midland Coach Doug McCutchen told the San Angelo Standard-Times in 2008, the 20-year anniversary of the fateful flip.

That coin flip, which was relived on the Hollywood screen in the 2004 movie based on Bissinger’s book, did change how much of an impact one coin can have on a team making the playoffs.

Today, a coin flip is only used if all other tiebreakers have been exhausted. Usually starting with head-to-head competition or a positive points formula, based on games between the tied teams.

“Now, we may use a coin flip to determine seedings in the playoffs – like in our district this year – but it won’t keep a team out of a playoff,” Vance said.

While it won’t be knocking teams out of the playoffs, flipping coins could become an added factor for teams and fans once the playoffs roll around in November.

Coaches will try to find an amicable location for neutral site games. But, if a locale can’t be agreed upon, a coin will help determine which team will have less travel.

“Everything can be figured out with a flip,” Joshua Mann, the football coach at Leander Rouse, Liberty Hill’s southern neighbor, said during the 2013 playoffs. “Everything from who’s the home team, who’s the away team. How many films to trade. If coaches can’t decide, the coin comes out.”