From John Tarleton Park to the Rose Bowl

By Steve Williams

He’s known for having worked in the “Big Four” college bowl games – the Cotton, Sugar, Orange and Rose bowls – but he hasn’t forgotten his start at John Tarleton Park off Sutherland Avenue.

After 34 seasons as a Southeastern Conference football official (17 years on the field and 17 years in the replay booth), he worked his final game in 2022.

Now 76 years old and still going strong, Gerald Hodges will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 31 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

“I had a lot of help from a lot of good people here in Knoxville,” said Hodges.

Gerald grew up in the Norwood community and graduated from Central High. He played basketball and baseball at Maryville College and also attended the University of Tennessee.

Hodges first registered with the TSSAA in basketball in 1966.

“I had done a little basketball officiating out at Karns High School with H.B. Jenkins way back in the day,” recalled Gerald. “He had a little Saturday morning elementary school league and he and I both officiated the games.”

Not long after that, Hodges was playing softball with Ray Banks, a TSSAA official, out in Halls.

“He knew I worked basketball and said, ‘You ought to come down and try this football. You might like that.’ So I went and the rest is history.”

Starting in 1967, Hodges officiated high school basketball and football for 20 years, and worked five TSSAA state championship games in football.

Hodges started officiating in college football in 1974 in the South Atlantic Conference, then worked in the Ohio Valley Conference (1975-1985) and Division 1 football in the Southern Intercollegiate Conference (1986-1988).

In those early years, Hodges said on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays he would work either junior high games or youth games at John Tarleton Park.

Gerald started flying for a living and got his pilot’s license in 1975, so Friday nights he would work a high school game and Saturday morning he would fly to an OVC game, work it and return home.

When he got into the SEC in 1989, he had to be at the game sites on Friday night, so that ended his basketball officiating.

Hodges flew to his SEC games up until 2005 when his on-field games ended and he became a replay official.

“There were three of us (including Eddie Powers and Dr. Ted Davis) from Knoxville on a crew in the SEC,” said Gerald. “All three of us plus Bob Kesling.

“When Bob first started out he was doing the sideline reporting for Jefferson Pilot. They had that Saturday Game of the Week on TBS. When we had a game that was on Jefferson Pilot we would wait on him to do the sports at Channel 10 and then he would fly with us to the game and back.”

After eight years, Powers started officiating in the NFL and Dr. Davis, a veterinarian in the Bearden area, retired from officiating.

Hodges also would fly to SEC meetings along with officials Bert Ackermann and Mack Gentry. Rocky Goode, a SEC referee, later also would fly with them to SEC meetings in Birmingham and spring scrimmages.

Hodges said Ackermann had been very instrumental in helping him get into the SEC. “He was my mentor.”

Gerald was on the sideline with several famous college coaches in his officiating career, including Bobby Bowden (Florida State), Joe Paterno (Penn State), Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Tom Osborne (Nebraska), John Robinson (Southern Cal) and Rick Neuheisel (Colorado).

Gerald was asked where he enjoyed officiating more – on the field or in the replay booth.

“Well, obviously being on the field and right in the middle of everything,” he answered. “But I tell you what – the replay position was really interesting. I mean you’re in the game and you gotta be in the game especially with these high powered offenses. You have 20 to 30 seconds to stop the game or not. It’s pretty intense the last two minutes of each half especially.

“And the game has sped up in this day and age of teams not huddling between plays. The size of the players and the speed of the game have changed so much over the years. These changes have made it even more challenging for the replay official.”

In addition to working the “Big Four” bowls, Hodges officiated a total of 30 post-season and preseason assignments, including three Fiesta Bowls, three SEC Championship Games and a National Semifinal Playoff Game at the Fiesta Bowl.

When he started, the youth games at John Tarleton paid $5 each and a high school varsity game paid $15.

The pay for a TSSAA official this coming season will be $115 for a varsity game and $85 for an ECO and PCO (clock operators).

“I would encourage anybody who is interested in getting into officiating to contact Harold Denton of the KFOA,” said Hodges. “It’s a lot of fun and you can go as far as you really want to take it.”

Gerald took it a long way. His first game as a SEC official in 1989 was LSU at Texas A&M and his last game was at Texas A&M last season as a replay official.“That place (College Station) had really changed a lot in 34 years as you can imagine,” said Hodges, who had come full circle.