Recently, former Texas Tech (and for 34 days USC’s new offensive coordinator) head coach Kliff Kingsbury was tapped by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to fill that team’s head coaching vacancy. And while the hire had many very reasonably mystified (Kingsbury was fired by Texas Tech in November after three straight losing seasons), somewhere Hal Mumme had to have been smiling. So too S.C. Gwynne.
Gwynne is the author of a 2016 book about Mumme titled The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. Though many readers have likely never heard of Mumme, in 2014 ESPN The Magazine’s Kevin Van Valkenburg concluded that Mumme was the most influential football coach of modern times. In Van Valkenburg’s words, “it’s Hal Mumme who brought you the game you’re watching today.” Considering Kingsbury’s hire, not to mention last year’s Super Bowl in which Nick Foles and Tom Brady respectively threw for 373 and 505 yards, it would be hard to argue too strenuously with Van Valkenburg’s assessment. By extension, it would it be hard to argue with Gwynne’s decision to write a book about an innovator about whom we all need to know more. Readers who pick up Gwynne’s book will be thankful they did, and this is true even if they’re not sports fans.
Indeed, while Mumme himself has retreated into semi-obscurity, his story represents what Gwynne describes towards the book’s conclusion as a “unique form of entrepreneurial technology.” Yes it does. The definition of an entrepreneur is someone who believes something deeply, and seeks to practice it, when very few (least of all the most established players in a certain field) think he’s correct. In that case, Mumme was a true entrepreneur whose vision of how football should be played forever changed the game.
It all begins in the late 1970s when Mumme, a successful agricultural equipment salesman in Corpus Christi, TX, took a $9,000/year job (against the wishes of his wife and parents) as the quarterbacks and receivers coach at Foy H. Moody High School. The team had three losing season during his time there, at which point Mumme was hired as head coach at Aransas Pass High School where his team went 1-9. Mumme joined the West Texas State coaching staff as quarterbacks and receivers coach after Aransas Pass, then followed head coach Bill Yung to University of Texas at El Paso where Mumme was the youngest offensive coordinator in Division 1. Nearly 4 ½ years later, he was out of a job. Such is life in the world of football coaching it seems, but Mumme persisted.
Even though his next head coaching job represented a step backwards to high school football (Copperas Cove HS), and a bad Texas high school football team at that, Mumme had a vision as all entrepreneurs do. As Gwynne puts it, “Hal’s grand, icon-shattering idea was that he was going to throw the ball.”
At this point some readers are likely shaking their heads, wondering why anyone would care so much about a coach who merely chose to “throw the ball.” That’s seemingly what all coaches do today. To a high degree that’s true. But it wasn’t then. Going back to football’s early days, Gwynne reminds us that legendary Yale coach (there was a time when Yale and Harvard were Alabama and Clemson, hard as that may be to fathom) Walter Camp disdained passing because it would “sissify the game.” As late as the 1970s, college football coaching giants like USC’s John McKay (student body right) Texas’s Darrell Royal (“I’ve always felt that three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad.”), and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes oversaw offenses that were heavily designed around the run.
Considering the NFL, Gwynne writes that while we “all remember Terry Bradshaw hitting Lynn Swann on those artistically perfect post patterns,” the “typical Steelers play was Franco Harris breaking off tackle for a gritty 4 yards, again and again.” Arguably one reason it took Swann so long to be voted into the Hall of Fame is that by the time he was eligible, football was a different game more and more geared toward the pass such that Swann’s stats looked rather unimpressive. Gwynne notes that during their Super Bowl winning 1975 season that the Steelers “ran the ball an average of 42 times per game and completed 14 out of 20 passes.” Swann may have had Hall of Fame talent, but his statistics increasingly look pedestrian in consideration of how the game has evolved. Gwynne’s view, and he’s not alone, is that Mumme played a significant role in the game’s evolution.
So while Mumme was plainly a contrarian by nature as readers will soon see, the passing game for him was also born of necessity. Just as entrepreneurs eager to run against conventional wisdom frequently find themselves operating on a shoestring budget, so do coaches it seems. In Mumme’s case, he deduced that “To beat Goliath, David had no choice but to throw.” The outsider surely wasn’t going to be able to recruit the biggest players most capable of forming a running game around, so he found players who could run his offense. They’re called “system” players today. Mumme would pass, and pass some more. And he would do so from alignments that were unorthodox, as was his view that 3rd down was 2nd down given his frequent decision to go for it on 4th.
Unlike the historical football norm of lining up offensive lineman tightly together, and in the down position, Mumme had them four feet apart. They were also upright. By the time Mumme was head coach at Iowa Wesleyan, Gwynne writes that his “offense did not have a playbook. Of any kind.” The latter shouldn’t be construed as evidence of Mumme’s facile mind. Quite the opposite, really. According to Gwynne, Mumme’s thinking was that he “did not want to clutter his players’ minds with a lot of unnecessary ideas.” Nor did he “want them watching much film.” Most of all, Mumme didn’t want his teams to “practice mediocrity.” Instead, they would practice very few things very well; Mumme’s playbook amounting to 15 pass plays and 6 rushing.
Crucial about all this is that the pass was accented. Indeed, Mumme disagreed with much of the conventional football wisdom. As Gwynne so upliftingly puts it, Mumme and assistant Mike Leach (yes, Washington State’s present head coach) “held deep contempt for traditionalists of all stripes and for what they saw as the ossified coaching systems of the contemporary game. They were subversives, loners together.” And so they set about mocking all that had previously been seen as truth.
First and foremost, they scoffed at the “run sets up the pass” myth. No, Mumme’s teams would pass first, always. Stretching before games and practices? No thanks. Mumme and Leach felt there “were flexible people and inflexible people,” and “no amount of stretching was going to change that.” Practices would not only be short, but “would involve only light hitting.” The latter is accepted wisdom nowadays, but at the time it was “perhaps the most heretical of all of Hal’s practice heresies.”
And while most teams employed a two-minute drill offense in crucial situations, Mumme asked “what if we just did that all the time?” Ok, but wouldn’t a perpetual two-minute drill limit the long drives that boost the all-important measure of success that is time of possession? No doubt, but then Mumme’s view was that time of possession “was one of the most worthless metrics of all.”
Mumme was plainly a different kind of thinker, but luckily his teams started winning. Though he was fired despite turning Iowa Wesleyan around, he ended up at Valdosta State (Georgia) only to build a Division II power. His next step was the Kentucky Wildcats of the SEC, at which point the former $500/month (with no benefits) college assistant found himself in the $1 million/year category. This also coincided with notoriety that had long eluded this contrarian. Mumme had two bowl teams at Kentucky, and could claim wins against blue bloods of the Alabama and LSU variety.
Recruiting scandals sadly forced what Gwynne deems Mumme’s unfair resignation from the Kentucky job, and he’s since bounced around to various lesser-known schools. His latest as of the book’s publication was Belhaven University, an NAIA college in Mississippi. At present Mumme is offensive coordinator of the Memphis Express in the Alliance of American Football. Mumme’s individual star has dimmed somewhat, but that’s what makes last week’s developments so uplifting.
While Mumme himself has drifted into obscurity of the mainstream variety (among football types, it’s apparent that his star still shines brightly), his vision for offensive football hasn’t. It’s not just that the last year’s Super Bowl seemingly featured two variations of his “Air Raid” offenses. There’s also the appreciation for Washington State head coach Mike Leach, with whom Mumme developed the Air Raid long ago. Notable here is that Leach coached Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, and then Kingsbury eventually employed the Air Raid at Tech himself. Now Kingsbury is in the NFL, and he is in no small part thanks to Mumme.
Though Mumme is as far from the NFL professionally, his vision isn’t. The offense he created is increasingly all the rage in the NFL as teams seek to emulate the success of Air Raid disciple teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, and the development of their star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes played for Kingsbury, and now the Cardinals hope Kingsbury can make Josh Rosen the next Mahomes.
Again, somewhere Mumme must be smiling. The man who once “held great contempt” for conventional thinking in the sport of football designed an offense that is now somewhat conventional. Gwynne must be smiling too. Readers will be pleased if they pick up this very enjoyable book about a man who thought and thinks different. We need more entrepreneurs like Hal Mumme, and more books like S.C. Gwynne’s.