Dean Blandino keeps refs in check

IN A RARE SHOW of compassion, Bill Belichick once opined on how hard it must be to be the man in charge of the NFL's referees. It was at the funeral wake for New York Giants owner Wellington Mara in 2005. Belichick scanned the room and saw Mike Pereira, the NFL's vice president for officiating at the time. Pereira looked worn out. He recalled that as they left the service, Belichick caught up with him and said, "You look like s---."

"I'm looking at you," Belichick told Pereira, "and I'm realizing one thing. You never win, do you? You have 16 losers every week, don't you? I was just looking at you and thinking about how as a coach, losses are devastating. But victories are euphoric. And I'm looking across to you and I realize you never get that sense, do you?"

Belichick went on to tell Pereira that someday, even if the Patriots lost, he was going to call him and tell him he's doing a good job. Because Pereira never gets those calls.

Belichick never called.

THERE'S A ROBOTIC camera ready to zoom over a replay booth, and in a few days, 130 million sets of eyes might be fixed on Dean Blandino and a replay decision that could decide the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX. In an attempt to make the replay process quicker and more efficient this season, Blandino now oversees a replay command center and consults with referees during every challenge. The games have given Blandino a good share of drama, especially over the past month.

On Jan. 11 in a divisional playoff game between Dallas and Green Bay, Blandino presided over the process of reviewing Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's controversial fourth-down catch, which was overturned because the ball hit the ground. A week earlier, he was part of the decision-making process that favored the Cowboys over the Detroit Lions.

It should be noted that in August, Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, was plastered all over TMZ as he exited a party bus owned by, you guessed it, the Dallas Cowboys.

To get Blandino's thoughts on this -- or what runs through his head in the days leading up to the Super Bowl -- is a challenge. The NFL denied an interview request for this story, which seems sort of odd. In a season in which commissioner Roger Goodell has largely gone underground, Blandino has been one of the most visible faces of the league office. He's on TV constantly, explaining a rule, diffusing a controversy or backing up one of his refs.

In fact, Blandino's media savvy is one of the things that landed him this job two years ago. He is 42 years old and straight out of central casting -- young, handsome and Italian.

"There was a very strong feeling," says former Colts president Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, "that it was necessary for someone with really good communication skills to be out there every week refuting a lot of the conspiracy theories and a lot of the incorrect application of the rules that go on on a regular basis now in today's society."

So that's Blandino's job, along with a number of other stressful duties that encompass 80-hour work weeks during football season. He seems so different than many of his colleagues who toil away at 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan. He is one of the most influential men in the No Fun League, yet Blandino has a diverse background that includes being a stand-up comedian. He is in charge of 17 officiating crews, yet he's never reffed a game in his life.

His peers, the ones who work with him closely, are convinced of one thing: There is no one more qualified for this job.

BECAUSE OF THE unique nature of the business, NFL officiating is sort of a fraternity. It's a brotherhood of men who are ordinary during the week -- working as lawyers and accountants -- but whose split-second Sunday decisions are scrutinized by millions.

When the vice president job opened up two years ago, many longtime officials were interested, according to a person close to the situation. It was natural that some would question Blandino's credentials.

He played football in high school, a tight end for Wellington C. Mepham High in Bellmore, New York, then studied communications at Hofstra University. Upon graduation, Blandino sent out letters in the hopes of interning with either Major League Baseball or the NFL. The NFL called and Blandino interviewed with longtime officiating czar Jerry Seeman, who hired him as an intern in the officiating department. He was the definition of grunt, sweeping floors and carrying Seeman's bags around at the airport.

"He never complained," says former NFL ref Bill Carollo, who's now in charge of Big Ten officials. "He sat there and learned and watched."

It was a different time, with typewritten letters and hastily prepared game film that was shipped, by mail, to one ref instead of the whole crew. Blandino was young and techno-savvy. Carollo says he helped modernize the office by arming the officials with laptops so that they could watch film as they stepped on the plane after a game.

When instant replay was brought back to the NFL in 1999, Seeman entrusted Blandino to put it together. He was the replay official for two Super Bowls and managed the instant replay program for six years. In 2009, when the economy crashed, 400 employees were offered buyout packages, and Blandino took one. He left for California to start his own business training and evaluating replay officials. It was called "Under the Hood."

But eventually, the league summoned him back.

He was popular among his co-workers because he was calm and fun-loving. He used humor to handle stress. One time, Pereira was on edge, and Blandino pulled him into his office and told him to knock it off because he was driving everyone in the office nuts. Blandino was his subordinate and 20 years his junior, but upon hearing these words, Pereira agreed to chill out.

But no matter how popular he was, there was going to be some animosity when he took the job in early 2013, because he was now the boss, and because he wasn't really one of them.

"I think it started out that they absolutely loved having him in there," says a former official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And my understanding [now] is that the animosity is starting, because he's having to make the tough decisions and he is a company man and he's not siding with the officials. The officials kind of feel that, 'Well, you've never been on the field.'

"It's a tough position. It's a no-win situation."

Sometime around 10 years ago, before he had a wife and kid and one of the most stressful jobs in the NFL, Blandino did stand-up routines on the Upper East Side at the New York Comedy Club, Stand Up NY and Gotham Comedy Club.

Chris Mazzilli, who started Gotham nearly 20 years ago, remembers Blandino's face but can't recall his act. He said Blandino most likely did sets that lasted 15 or 20 minutes.

His co-workers would often see his shows and said they were funny but also edgy.

"Listen, I can't compare him to J.B. Smoove," Pereira says. "I'm not a guy who goes to comedy shows. I only went because of him. He was a little rude, but good. He had the place breaking up laughing. It's just a side to him that nobody sees."

IT'S THE MIDDLE of a snowstorm in New York, and the woman who picks up the phone is hesitant. It's not necessarily the contentious nature of her son's job that prompts Gaetana Blandino to check out a reporter's credentials and call her son before she says anything. She's just never been interviewed by anyone before.

Her family's life is simple, from their cozy house in Bellmore, a small town on the south shore of Long Island, to the reason she believes Blandino got into this business. It started with her husband John, a man who loved his family and two other things: the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. John Blandino worked in the garment industry as a special-order men's clothing cutter by day. At night he'd sit up with his son in the summer watching Los Angeles Dodgers games, screaming and yelling until it jarred Gaetana out of bed.

He loved talking about sports with his son, loved grabbing the sports section of the newspaper before Dean could get it and pore over the stats. John Blandino passed that passion to his son.

Three years ago, he died unexpectedly, which devastated Dean and the family.

"He never got to see what Dean became," says Gaetana, who emigrated from Italy to the United States as a teenager.

Surely, John would laugh at the hubbub created this summer over the party bus. A Cowboys fan?

No way in that house.

AN ACCOUNT of the party-bus ride, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, goes like this:

Cowboys staffers were out to dinner in Los Angeles last summer, and Fox Sports reporter Jay Glazer was with them. Glazer invited Blandino to meet them at a restaurant. Blandino met them about halfway through the meal and ate dinner. This isn't anything revelatory or explosive. Blandino meets with teams throughout the course of the year. But then the meal ended, and the group was headed to a club down the street. Blandino hopped in the bus, and the photos were snapped. He didn't stay in the club for long, maybe 10 minutes, and left.

People close to Blandino scoff at the notion that a couple of blocks in a party bus could ever influence his decision-making process. His objectivity is tested every Monday morning, when the onslaught of calls from losing coaches begins.

"He responds to every call," says St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who's worked with Blandino on the competition committee. "He tells the truth; we were right, we were wrong, I disagree, I can see. He's very truthful in his answers.

"There is a human side to the officiating department, and I think he deals with it very well."

PEREIRA SAYS THE JOB generally has a shelf life of no more than 10 years. It's too consuming to do much more with a shred of sanity. The head of NFL officials must know the rulebook, to the letter, so that he can immediately recite pages and sections to a disgruntled coach or general manager. He must remain calm and composed at all times, because arguing with a coach is unproductive.

He could see Blandino doing something completely different when his run as head of officials is over, possibly in acting or writing. He's that good on television.

But on Sunday night, he'll be a story only if the red flag is thrown and a call is challenged. He'll rush to the monitors and will watch the play over and over with senior officiating director Al Riveron.

By the time referee Bill Vinovich gets under the hood to see it, Blandino will probably know exactly what needs to be done.

Maybe Belichick will call him on Monday and tell him he did a good job. (Maybe it will snow in Phoenix, too.) Regardless, he's a long way from carrying someone else's bags.

ESPN writer Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.