Photo courtesy of Baynes.
Former MBHS coach and NLF official Ronnie Baynes gathers with the officiating crew of the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii before being award the Art McNally Award.
Ronnie Baynes is a legend at Mountain Brook High School. As the head baseball coach and assistant principal, he encouraged his players and students to work hard. And he set quite an example.
On Sundays, Coach Baynes would officiate as line judge at an NFL game, and on Monday he would be at school and ready for baseball practice. Around here, Baynes’ name is associated with his 50 years as a baseball coach, but to the outside world, he is known for football. He has participated in every aspect of every level of the game: player, coach and official; high school, collegiate and professional.
On Jan. 29, the NFL presented the 2011 Art McNally Award to Coach Baynes at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium.
A Talladega native, Baynes played basketball, baseball and football for Auburn. At 24, he was named Selma High School’s head football coach, jumpstarting his career in high schools across the state. The success of baseball teams he coached also earned him high praise. When he came to Mountain Brook High School in the 1990s, he took the varsity baseball team to three state playoff games.
Throughout these coaching years, Baynes was also officiating. In fact, one season he was coaching Friday night high school football games, then racing off across the southeast to officiate for the SEC. In the early 1980s, Baynes ran himself ragged on this hectic schedule.
“One weekend I coached a Friday night game in Tallassee. As soon as the game was over, I jumped in a private plane and flew to Atlanta, and barely made the last flight to Dallas. I got there about one in the morning and slept in the Dallas airport. The next morning, I caught the first flight to Oklahoma City. From there, I took a shuttle bus to Norman. I walked into the hotel at nine a.m., just as the other officials were walking in for breakfast.”
That was the morning of the 1981 Kentucky game at Oklahoma. Baynes’ stunt would not have passed current officiating guidelines, and with today’s airport security, he would have never made those flights. After two years, keeping up with this work schedule and six children pushed Baynes out of high school football, although he continued to coach baseball for 18 years.
In 1987, Baynes interviewed with Art McNally for a position officiating in the National Football League. McNally, whom Baynes refers to as the “godfather of officiating,” welcomed the seasoned SEC official into the hallowed organization. In early September, Baynes was off to Cleveland, where the Browns were taking on the St. Louis Cardinals. He recalls the officials cramming into a car headed for Cleveland Municipal Stadium and the shoddy conditions upon arriving there in stark contrast to the police escort and plush accommodations he had grown accustomed to in the SEC.
When he first set foot on the field, Baynes “was very intimidated and very nervous.” In time, he called the first foul of his NFL career a short-lived decision. Following the call, Baynes said he was talked into picking up his flag. As a result Cardinals’ head coach Gene Stallings “went ballistic and let me have an ear full.” That evening, Baynes called his wife, Marie, to report that he wasn’t suited for NFL.
Twenty-six action-packed years later, the NFL named Baynes the 2011 Art McNally Award winner, which recognizes an official for his contributions on and off the field in the spirit of the legendary referee. McNally officiated in the NFL for ten years before accepting the position of Director of Officiating. In this role, he hired officials like Ronnie Baynes. With great admiration, Baynes describes McNally as “a courageous ex-military person, and the most dedicated and honest person with impeccable moral character. He embodies absolutely the right combination of toughness without using profanity or intimidation to lead people.” McNally’s devotion to officiating is the example that Baynes has tried to emulate throughout his work with the NFL.
That first NFL foul call taught Baynes a valuable lesson: stand by your call. That lesson was tested in an unforgettable divisional playoff game between the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers. When a San Francisco player dropped a backward pass, he immediately fell on the ball but in doing so forced the ball up in the air. An Atlanta player caught it and ran for a touchdown. Amid the roar of 80,000 exuberant Atlanta fans, Baynes ruled that another Atlanta player had touched the San Francisco player trying to recover the ball. San Francisco ball. No touchdown. After the game, official reviews proved Baynes’ ruling correct.
Controversial calls come with the territory, but making the right call takes refined skill. The NFL recognized Baynes’ highly trained eye and complex understanding of the game. To show their appreciation, the NFL invited Baynes to officiate Super Bowl XXIX. He also officiated as line judge for Super Bowl XXXIII.
In 2001, he stepped off of the field to serve as the NFL’s Supervisor of Officials, which required Marie and him to live in New York City for five years – an experience they cherish. Football, and especially the NFL, has been one of the biggest blessings in Baynes’ life and his children are living proof: Baynes’ three sons now officiate in collegiate and professional football.