The date was October 26, 1985 and the place was the great West Texas city of El Paso. I was ten years old and in the fifth grade, and like most El Pasoans was looking forward to the upcoming college basketball season. The UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso) Miners basketball team, coached by the legendary Don Haskins, was the pride and joy of the Sun City. They regularly ranked in the AP Top Twenty (as the rankings were then called) and were expected to not only compete for a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championship every year, but to also go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Expectations for UTEP Miners football, by contrast, were lower. Much lower. Gridiron-wise, UTEP was college football Siberia: a place where coaching careers went to die. Such was the fate that loomed over head coach Bill Yung during the fall of 1985. The Miners were 0-6 and the team they were slated to play on that last weekend of October was none other than the #7-ranked Cougars of Brigham Young University (BYU), the defending national champions. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was expecting a blowout. Coach Yung likely felt the same way, but not his young offensive coordinator, a native of San Antonio named Hal Mumme (pronounced “mummy”). For some time, Mumme had been studying BYU’s passing plays, in particular a play called the Y-cross, which the Cougars never expected to see used against them. But Mumme did, and that plus an inspired Miners defense resulted in a shocking upset over BYU, 23-16.
Alas, it was the only game UTEP would win that year. Bill Yung was fired in the off-season along with his entire coaching staff, including Mumme. But while Yung’s career had come to an inglorious end, Mumme’s was just beginning. For Mumme had an idea, an insane, crazy, revolutionary idea that would evolve in the coming years and, in time, revolutionize all of American football.
It is this story that S.C. Gwynne tells in The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. Being a native Texan like Mumme, it was perhaps inevitable that a book with such a thought-provoking title would catch my eye. It did not only that, but held my interest from cover-to-cover. Gwynne does a superb job explaining the trials and tribulations of professional coaching to the reader whilst weaving a fascinating biography of Mumme’s idea.
What was Mumme’s idea? It was this: football should be a pass-first game. These days that is a relatively non-controversial statement, rather like saying one prefers Pepsi to Coke or Woodford Reserve to Maker’s Mark, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was near heresy. Throughout much of the professional and college football world, it was widely assumed that a strong running game was needed to open up the passing game, rather than vice-versa. And in some quarters there was a deep-seated belief that passing first was the mark of a finesse, effete team. No less a personage than Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football,” worried that the introduction of the forward pass in 1906 would “sissify the game.” Eight decades later, that bias still held. Mumme would change it.
Gwynne recounts how Mumme rebuilt his career. Following his dismissal from UTEP, Mumme returned to the high school coaching ranks, accepting a position as head coach at Copperas Cove High School where, over the next two years, he fused together lessons he had learned from such offensive coaching minds as LaVell Edwards (of the aforementioned BYU Cougars), Bill Walsh (of the Stanford Cardinal and the San Francisco 49ers), Darrel “Mouse” Davis (of the Portland State Vikings), and Don “Air” Coryell (of the San Diego Chargers). To their ideas (such as the aforementioned Y-cross) Mumme added many of his own, including the use of a spread-out offensive line. His system was coming together.
After two years at Copperas Cove, Mumme returned to college coaching at an NAIA school called Iowa Wesleyan. Upon arriving at his new job, Mumme began putting together a new staff, and among the applications he received was one from a most unlikely candidate: 28 year-old law school graduate-turned-football coach named Mike Leach. Every Obi-Wan Kenobi needs a Luke Skywalker, and Leach would fill the latter role admirably.
Leach had never played college football, but while a law student at Pepperdine University he became obsessed with the game. Rather than pursue a career as an attorney, after graduation Leach dove head-first into coaching, taking up positions at such places as California Polytechnic, the College of the Desert, and even a semi-pro team in Finland called the Pori Bears. To say Leach was quirky was an understatement. In conversations with Mumme he was quick to go off on tangents about his own interests, which included surfing, Geronimo, and an almost insatiable affinity for pirates (which would lead to one of Leach’s many nicknames, the “Old Pirate”). Perhaps Mumme sensed in Leach a kindred spirit, for he quickly hired him and brought him to Iowa Wesleyan. Leach not only brought an unbridled enthusiasm for Mumme’s ideas, but also a name for the new system that he and Mumme would perfect: the Air Raid.
At Iowa Wesleyan, the Air Raid took off. Over three seasons from 1989 to 1991, the Tigers went from being perennial doormats to doughty contenders. After Mumme left Iowa Wesleyan following a dispute with the college’s president, he took Leach and the Air Raid to the NCAA Division II Valdosta State Blazers in southern Georgia, transforming them from a power-running contender into an Air Raid powerhouse. After the 1996 season the Southeastern Conference (SEC) came calling. The Kentucky Wildcats wanted Mumme to be their new head coach.
It was at Kentucky that Mumme reached the peak of his career. Just as they had done with Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State, Mumme and Leach infused the Wildcats with a potent offense, all the more remarkable considering that the SEC was the epitome of a power-running, smash-mouth defense league. Perhaps the greatest moment of Mumme’s career came during his first year at Kentucky, when the Wildcats played the visiting Alabama Crimson Tide, a team they had not defeated since 1922. Maybe the Tide thought the Air Raid would prove weak and ineffective. They were wrong. The Wildcats won a thrilling victory in overtime, 40-34. The Air Raid had found a national stage.
Regrettably, Mumme’s success at Kentucky would not last. He was forced to resign in early 2001 amid recruiting violations by one of his assistants, infractions that Mumme had no knowledge of and of which was ultimately declared innocent. Beforehand, Mike Leach had already left to become the new offensive coordinator for the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999, and then head coach for the Texas Tech Red Raiders in 2000.
Mumme would never return to the career heights he enjoyed in the late 1990s, but his pass-first concepts caught on and spread like wildfire throughout the college and professional ranks. Both professional football teams and major college programs are today headed by products of the Mumme/Leach coaching tree, among them Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals, Dana Holgorsen of the Houston Cougars, Neal Brown of the West Virginia Mountaineers, and Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners. Leach himself is still in the game, coaching the Washington State Cougars since 2012.
Gwynne’s story is a compelling tale of how even the most radical concepts can come to fruition by grit, guts, and sheer force of will. It is a truly American story, harkening back to the improbable, seemingly insane deeds of such men as Stephen Decatur, George Patton, and Neil Armstrong. It stands as a lesson that success and greatness can come from the most obscure and unheralded of men, even a Mumme and an Old Pirate.