The tale of Hal Mumme and how he changed American football is a David and Goliath story with similarities to Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its number-crunching general manager, Billy Beane. That was a different sport and era, but both Beane and Mumme found themselves in underdog positions and used creative, out-of-the-box thinking to level the playing field.
Author S.C. Gwynne stumbled upon Mumme's genius while interviewing Mike Leach for a 2009 cover story. At the time Gwynne was on the tail end of an eight-year stint as executive editor at Texas Monthly and Leach was a winning head coach for the Texas Tech Red Raiders, still months away from a concussion-gate firing.
“Mike Leach, in 2008 he took a team that was an also-ran, and he beat Texas, which was No. 1, and he beat Oklahoma State,” says Gwynne. “He had an offense that nobody could stop. It didn't matter; every year he would lead the formation in passing at Tech. At some point I asked him, 'Where did you get this offense from?' and I heard the story [about Mumme] and I thought it was a great story.”
Gwynne followed that thread and about two and a half years ago, he called up Mumme and asked, “Are you interested?” The author wanted to explain to ordinary football fans what people in the football industry already knew about, how Mumme “eventually put up a team that lit up the world.”
Two hundred hours of interviews later and after driving around in freezing weather “looking for the gurus of the forward pass,” Gwynne is out with a new book about Iowa Wesleyan head coach Hal Mumme, his assistant, Mike Leach, and the invention of the most revolutionary passing game in the 145-year history of football in The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football.
“[Mumme] is a man who changed football. He changed it at a school with 466 kids (when he first got there),” says Gwynne. “There are not that many people that you would call football geniuses in the past 30 to 40 years, and here you have two of them. [Mumme and Leach] transformed the game, and my book is about trying to figure out how these guys did that.”
It was an uphill battle for Mumme, who has deep Texas roots. “Hal is a total Texan. He grew up mostly in San Antonio, went to high school in Dallas, finished college at Tarleton State at Stephenville. By the time he's ready to make his mark on the world, he's spent 14 years in Texas in five different teaching jobs,” says Gwynne about those stops at Corpus Christi, West Texas State University, El Paso and Copperas Cove.
“My guy Hal Mumme is sitting there at Iowa Wesleyan College, the worst football team in America. It was horrendous, nobody wanted to go, [it was] a team of misfits,” says Gwynne. “How are you going to play faster, stronger, richer? How do you build the system that, in effect, can beat better players?” Mumme's answer was in developing a new way of passing the football, and finding the innate talent in players who had been overlooked by other coaches.
But first he had to find those players. Nobody was interested in Iowa Wesleyan – except maybe other coaches eager to book a patsy opponent for a pre-homecoming easy win – and so Mumme recruited heavily in Texas to help fill the ranks.
The Perfect Pass is short on photographs (four) and long on diagrams and statistics, and interweaves the narrative of how, game after game, the “simplicity against complexity” strategy dominated the field and leveled opponents from much larger schools.
Mumme and Leach developed the offense together, stripping the number of plays down to a minimum and tossing out the playbook. They used the concept of time to their advantage, running as many plays as possible and turning a team with a 0-10 record into a record-breaking powerhouse. Over a three-year period, Wesleyan quarterbacks broke 26 national records and threw for more than 11,000 yards.
The book follows the “mad inventors” through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s as their careers took them from Iowa Wesleyan to Valdosta State and on to the University of Kentucky. Most fascinating is the effectiveness of the strategy: No matter how often opposition coaches watched the tapes, they were powerless against the “Air Raid.”
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Gwynne lives in Austin and is the author of New York Times best-sellers Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.
At Time, he served as bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor from 1998 to 2000.
Gwynne will be reading from his book and signing copies at 7 p.m. on September 23, Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com. Free.