A Brief History of the Super Bowl Coin Toss

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If the ceremonial coin toss before Sunday’s Super Bowl turns up heads, everyone enrolled in the Papa John’s customer loyalty program will win a free large one-topping pizza and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Max. Thousands of other fans will collect on a 50-50 prop bet. The Super Bowl coin toss hasn’t always been such a big deal. Here’s a brief look at the history of the pre-game spectacle.

Red Grange Breaks the Ice

For the first 11 Super Bowls, a game official conducted the coin toss. In 1978, at Super Bowl XII in New Orleans, Chicago Bears great and Hall of Famer Red Grange became the first celebrity to perform the toss.

The Dallas Cowboys – the designated visiting team – called heads and won the toss. Dallas went on to beat the Denver Broncos, 27-10. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who gave the Super Bowl its name and may have also been responsible for the coin toss becoming a televised event, participated in the coin toss ceremony before Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. A month after her husband’s death in December 2006, Norma Hunt took part in the coin toss with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino before Super Bowl XLI.

By the Numbers

In 45 Super Bowls to date, the opening coin toss has come up heads 24 times and tails 21 times. The NFC has won the toss 31 times out of 45, including a remarkable 14 straight years. The New England Patriots were the last AFC team to win the coin toss, way back in 1997. The team that wins the coin toss is 22-23 all-time and has lost 10 of the last 15 Super Bowls. All but two teams that have won the coin toss have elected to receive the opening kickoff. The Arizona Cardinals became the first team to defer to the second half in Super Bowl XLIII and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23. The Green Bay Packers deferred after winning the toss in last year’s Super Bowl en route to a 31-25 win.

Another Set of Eyes

Most of the ceremonial coin tossers have been former coaches and players. Los Angeles Rams great Elroy Hirsch performed the duty at Super Bowl XVII with a ceremonial coin that had helmets on one side (tails) and players holding helmets on the other side (heads). Miami’s Bob Kuechenberg called tails and the coin landed with the helmets side up, but referee Jerry Markbreit was confused. Markbreit turned to Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and said, “Heads. You win the toss.” Hirsch pointed out the mistake, and after Markbreit turned off his microphone to avoid any further embarrassment, sorted things out. According to Markbreit, Theismann turned to him and said, “You know, I remember when you used to work in the Big Ten and you stunk then. Where the hell did they get you?” It wasn’t the last time Markbreit would hear about his mistake. NFL commissioner Peter Rozelle came into the locker room after the game, found Markbreit in the shower, and said, “Markbreit, once you got past the coin toss, you did fine.”

Teach Me How to Flip It?

Marie Lombardi, the widow of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, whose name adorns the Super Bowl trophy, was selected to toss the coin before Super Bowl XV. “Somewhere up there, a coach is looking down and saying, ‘What is that woman doing out there on the field?’” Lombardi told reporters after learning that she had been chosen. Lombardi had reportedly never flipped a coin before, so NFL officials spent time practicing with her at the dress rehearsal on the day before the game.

Coins in Space

In 1992, CBS reached out to NASA to see if it would be willing to conduct a pre-game coin toss aboard the Discovery space shuttle. There was only one problem. “A coin flip in space would be mighty tough since the coin won't come down,” NASA chief flight director Randy Stone told reporters. “It will just flip and flip and flip.” Instead, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar held a coin and performed two backward flips before being brought to a stop. The coin came up heads, just as it did at the actual coin toss before the game, which was conducted by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll. A ceremonial coin that was going to be used for the coin toss before Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston flew with the space shuttle Columbia that was destroyed upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. The Columbia’s crew was honored at halftime of the game. The coin used in the ceremonial toss before Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 traveled more than 4 million miles on space shuttle Atlantis. Leland Melvin, who played with the Lions and Cowboys before becoming an astronaut, was among the people who traveled with the coin in space.

Presidents

In 1985, Ronald Reagan became the first president to perform the coin toss, but he wasn’t on the field at Stanford Stadium. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny relayed the call to the president, who was shown tossing the coin from the White House. George H.W. Bush and Roger Staubach performed the ceremonial coin toss before Super Bowl XXXVI.

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February 5, 2012 - 4:35am
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