Hometown Hero: Donnie Aultman

Donnie Aultman is pictured with wife Paula in 2018, when he served on the officiating crew at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl played in Atlanta between Michigan and Florida.

By T. Scott Boatright

Lincoln Parish has also produced some well known football officials over the years, including Bobby Aillet, who was a fixture on SEC gridirons and turned in a 36-year-career serving as a referee for 450 football games on both the high school and collegiate football levels. 

In 1966 Aillet, a Louisiana Tech University graduate and the son of former Bulldogs head coach and football stadium namesake Joe Aillet, became an SEC official until his retirement from the gridiron in 1986. He was the SEC’s chief of officials from 1978-82, and spent three years in press boxes serving as an observer of officials after leaving the playing field.

Aillet refereed 276 SEC games and eight bowls games, the biggest being Oklahoma’s Orange Bowl win over Penn State to win the national championship in 1985.

But Aillet, who passed away in March at the age of 93, wasn’t the last Tech tie to an NCAA championship officiating crew. 

In January, Tech grad Donnie Aultman, a Big 12 official who started his career as a referee in north Louisiana in 1995, served as one of the refs working the FBS national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

“That was all so surreal,” Aultman said. “Last year was such a different year.” Aultman said. “We were having to be tested (because of COVID-19 protocols) during the week starting to Tuesday prior to each game, just hoping a game would be played that weekend. I was fortunate to work every week with no missed games.

“Then one day I got this email saying I was going to be working the national championship game. I had to reread that email twice making sure I wasn’t hallucinating.”

Aultman said he got his chance because the Big 12 was one of conferences to not have a team in the playoff field, and the NCAA makes sure the playoff referees are from “neutral” leagues with no representatives in the semifinals or title games.

“It was an incredible honor and experience,” Aultman said. “Months later it’s still hard to believe that really happened.”

Aultman was only 22 back in 1995 when he began his career as a referee.

“I was going into the business world but had always been involved in athletics,” Aultman said. “I started asking myself what I could do to stay involved in athletics somehow, because I knew I wasn’t going to coach. I probably would have gone into baseball because that’s what I really wanted to do, but my job just wouldn’t allow it, especially because there were so many day games back then. 

“It just so happened that I worked for CenturyLink — I still do — and they had an in-house newspaper that had an article about a local referee, Robin Chappellie, who worked at Tech and was friends with Roy Waters, who also worked at Tech and was a referee. I talked to them seeking something to stay involved in sports.

“That was the spring of 1995 and he took me out to the Ouachita (High School) spring game. That got my feet wet a little bit and from then on I just started working as many what we call sub-varsity games as I could. I worked my tail off and worked my way up to varsity.”

Aultman said that back then, the NCAA usually didn’t pick someone to be a referee until they were at least 30.

“So I got about eight or nine years of high school experience before I broke into the college ranks,” Aultman said. “I started with the Southland Conference in 2004. Once the Big 12 started working with other conferences a couple of years later, I was working Southland games and was being looked at by the Sun Belt. I worked the Sun Belt for the 2008 and ‘09 seasons while also working some Southland games. Then in 2010 I got on a Big 12 crew.”

Aultman, who is headed to Boise, Idaho, this weekend for the Broncos’ contest against Nevada, says his gameweek experience usually begins the Friday morning before each contest.

“We have to be there the night before the game,” Aultman said. “So this week, we’ll meet there in Boise as a group at 4 p.m. Friday. We’ll have a crew meeting for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half and discuss logistics and anything that’s happened over the past week that we need to discuss as a crew. Then we’ll eat dinner and just rest and watch whatever football game is on television Friday night.”

“On Saturday we have a 1:30 (p.m.) kickoff, so we’ll meet Saturday morning just to discuss anything else that may have come up overnight, and then we’ll have a crew devotion. We have to be at the stadium around three hours in advance of kickoff, so we’ll be at the stadium by 10:30 to 10:45 Saturday morning.

“We have some responsibilities when we get to the stadium. Each official has different things to take care of. Then at least 90 minutes before kickoff, a couple of us have to be on the field to start monitoring what’s going on out there. Then we all have to be on the field 60 minutes prior to kickoff.”

Aultman says after the game the crew has to go over foul reports.

“There’s an online system we log our fouls on, and provide any description we want to on what we saw and what happened,” he said. “Then you get back home the best and fastest you can on Sunday and that’s the weekend. If we can get back out or are driving me, we’re free to go after that foul report is submitted. But usually if we’re flying, that happens on Sunday.”

While Aultman didn’t meet Bobby Aillet Sr., he has talked and gotten advice from Bobby Aillet Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps as a longtime SEC referee who worked 13 postseason games himself, including three SEC Championships, two Rose Bowls and two Fiesta Bowls.

“When I first got into refereeing college games, I talked to Bobby Jr. quite a bit and he was a big help for my career,” Aultman said.

“This wasn’t something I exactly planned to do when I was growing up, but it’s something I love. It’s best when you’re not noticed, because that probably means nothing controversial has happened — the kind of thing that can be a headache for a game official. … It’s just something I love doing.”

 
 


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