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NFL's longest tenured referee also a dairy executive

Callie Curley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 03 May 2018
referee and cows illustration

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that Walt Coleman is a dairy farmer and owner of Hiland Dairy. This version has been updated to clarify Coleman’s role in the dairy industry. Progressive Dairyman regrets the errors.

There are two major passions for Walt Coleman of Little Rock, Arkansas: dairy farming and football.



Coleman was a fifth-generation dairy farmer, part of the Coleman Dairy Company, which became a division of Hiland Dairy Foods – headquartered in Missouri – in 2006. He’s now a controller with Hiland Dairy. Coleman is also a nearly 30-year veteran of NFL officiating, making him the longest current tenured referee in the league. As a result, Coleman has had no shortage of experience working in high-pressure environments – or in being criticized for his actions while doing so.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we face today is dealing with all the negative stuff we seem to constantly be getting hit over the head with,” Coleman said in a presentation at the 2018 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit in February. “There is this focus with the media on negative stuff. You open up a newspaper, turn on the television, listen to the radio, and really, all they want to talk about is negative stuff.”

According to Coleman, this constant bombardment of negative news has an impact on what each of us thinks, says and does in our daily lives. While there is value in being connected to world events and making pragmatic decisions on the farm, living in the negative is not in the best interest of farm owners or their farm businesses.

“It’s exactly what I deal with on Sundays during football season; it’s negative stuff,” Coleman said with a smile. “I can pretty much guarantee, before a game even gets started on a Sunday, somebody is gonna question my integrity, my upbringing and whether my parents have two or four legs! So my challenge on those Sundays, and sometimes on Monday through Friday at the dairy, is figuring out, ‘How do I turn boos into cheers?’ How do any of us deal with that?”

To answer his own question, Coleman laid out three simple steps to turning negative opinions, ideas and attitudes into positive reactions and contented living.


1. Remember your importance

“I spend a lot of time messing around with football,” Coleman said. “I really enjoy football for one main reason. When you look at all the team sports we play in this country – baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, even hockey – everybody gets to play the ball.”

Not so in football.

“See there’s these poor souls on every football team, who nobody knows who they are. They’re at every practice and every game just like the famous guys, but they’re the invisible people who never get to play the ball, never get to touch the ball, and nobody knows them, until they get their number called during a game on national television because they screwed up. But here’s the thing – how successful would that team be if those invisible guys didn’t know they were important, that they matter as much to the team and the game as any other player? I think we all know the answer,” Coleman said.

Much like those so-called unknown players on the football field, dairy farmers often play an invisible role in society, where their work is taken for granted and recognition is often given only when something has gone wrong.

“As dairymen, we have to remember that we’re important, that what we do is important, that the product we have is important, because we have plenty of people who want us to think the other way,” Coleman said. “There’s always going to be the negative, always going to be people out there who question us, but we have to remember that we can make a difference. When we all truly believe in ourselves and what we do, no critics or haters can take that power or feeling away. So it has to come from within.”

2. Learn to laugh it off

In his lifelong career in the dairy business and three-decade tenure with the NFL, Coleman has received his fair share of criticism. From “hate mail” sent by unhappy fans after a call left their team short of winning a game to setbacks or differing opinions in the day-to-day operations of the farm, his attitude of laughing it off has saved a lot of time stressing and worrying over things he can’t control.


When a Buffalo radio jockey found the phone and fax numbers for Hiland Dairy after Coleman officiated a losing game for Bills one season, he returned on Monday morning to a very curious secretary.

“She asked me, ‘Walt, just what went on at that game of yours yesterday?’ and I told her it was just a game, nothing really exciting or different. And then she showed me the stack of faxes and phone messages that had come in, each one saying in a creative way that I should start farming carrots in hopes of helping my vision on the field, that they hoped I was a better dairyman than referee, that I should tell my family the truth about my abilities as an official and just quit already,” Coleman recalled. “And that’s not a rare occurrence for me.”

So when days like that happen and Coleman finds himself faced with scrutiny, even name calling and outright disrespectful commentary from football fans his calls have offended, he reads the letters, saves the funniest ones to share with others and doesn’t let himself take them to heart.

“Stuff happens! And when it does, we tend to let it change the way we feel about ourselves, when what we really should be doing is just laughing and letting it roll off us,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to learn to not take it all so seriously, which unfortunately is something we do a lot of these days.”

3. Do what’s right

“This is the one that makes the other two so much easier,” Coleman said. “When we do what’s right, it’s easy to let criticism roll off our backs and go about our work, because we’re confident and satisfied with what we do.”

The number one way Coleman envisions dairy farmers fulfilling this task is by talking about what they do and why they choose to do it.

“Telling the story about our industry and about our product, that’s what we’re doing right,” Coleman said. “This industry of ours, it’s tough. What you do as a dairy farmer is not easy. But it is worthwhile, it is important. So at the end of the day, I hope you can remember that you matter, that you can laugh off just about anything, and if you’re doing what you think is right, you’ll have all the opportunity in the world to turn those ‘boos’ into cheers.”  end mark

Callie Curley is a communications graduate of Penn State University.

PHOTO: Illustration by Corey Lewis.