I have a soft spot for Hal Mumme. He was the most interesting thing to happen to Kentucky football since Bear Bryant (and maybe the entire SEC, sans Spurrier); he invented the vaunted Airraid offense which it seems like half of all high school teams now run; and he is always willing to share information about his offense, even back before Tony Franklin had his "system" or Mike Leach became the dread pirate of Lubbock, Texas. And, Mumme's sweaty, exasperated sideline performances will likely never be equaled.
Well he's back: Mumme, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, has taken the job as head coach of small McMurry college in Abilene, Texas. New Mexico State fired Mumme after his team went 3-9 in 2008.
Commentators like to talk about the "NFL coaching trees" of guys like Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. Yet among active coaches -- excluding guys like Hayden Fry and Bear Bryant -- I can't think of a better college coaching tree than Hal Mumme's. Not all have been successful, but it's pretty remarkable considering Mumme's (relatively) diminutive stature in the pantheon of college coaches. Among the major coaches who have coached under Mumme -- and all of these guys were under him, running Hal's offense doing Hal's drills and using Hal's techniques -- are Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Chris Hatcher (Georgia Southern and won a D-II National Championship at Valdosta St), Sonny Dykes (offensive coordinator for U. of Arizona), Guy Morriss (Baylor and Kentucky head coaches, now head coach of Texas A&M-Commerce), Dennis Roland (head coach Southeastern Louisiana), Tim Keane (Memphis secondary coach), and Darrell Patterson (linebackers coach at Stanford).
Obviously the guy that sticks out in this list is Leach. For roughly a decade after a brash high school coach named Hal Mumme became the head coach of Iowa Wesleyan college in 1989 and hired Leach, a guy whose previous coaching job had been in Finland, the now-head Red Raider played second-fiddle to Hal. As the storyline goes now -- usually in the context of discussing Leach -- the two are credited with dreaming up the potent Airraid offense (named that as part of a marketing campaign by a staffer at the University of Kentucky). Yet, until he broke out on his own, Leach was not well-known, nor was he so credited by the media. Indeed, as the storyline went then, it was Mumme who called the plays, and it was "Mummeball" that his teams had varying degrees of success with at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta, and Kentucky.
And then they split. Leach took the job as offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops. (And how different might history have been: a season earlier Leach had considered becoming head coach of a very small D-II college himself.) It's almost bizarre how different life has been for the two men.
Leach's story has been well-documented. He's not quite Bear Bryant (or Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops for that matter), but his trajectory has almost entirely been upward: a quick turnaround of Oklahoma and particularly Oklahoma's offense, and OU wins a title the next year running "his" offense (which isn't entirely fair either way, as Stoops really wanted to hire "Mumme's offense" and the next season, without Leach, Mark Mangino had some input as well); and Texas Tech's unprecedented streak of bowl games, high rankings, and upset victories over Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M in the past several seasons.
Then there's Mumme. He lasted only two more years at Kentucky. In the first, UK surprisingly went 6-5 without Tim Couch and went to a then record two-straight bowl games. But in the second, it must simply be known as the beginning of the end. After the 1999 season, Chris Hatcher left to take over at Valdosta State, and Tony Franklin was promoted to offensive coordinator, though at Kentucky everyone knew that Mumme really held the title.
Then things got weird. Mumme benched productive but uninspiring returning starter Dusty Bonner in favor of the infamous hefty-lefty, Jared Lorenzen, then but a wee true freshman. (Around this time I heard Terry Bowden good-naturedly tell a room of coaches, as a jump-off from some anecdote I don't remember: "And then there's Hal Mumme, who doesn't hesitate to bench to bench the SEC leader in passing and pass efficiency!") In Lorenzen, Mumme got what he apparently wanted -- arm strength -- but he also got a bevy of interceptions and erratic play, waffling between a 500 yard game against Georgia to disastrous interceptions against South Carolina, and the team wound up a pitiful 2-9.
Yet that doesn't even tell the whole story of how bad 2000 was. It was so bad, by midseason Mumme no longer spoke to his offensive coordinator Tony Franklin (though history now tells us that Franklin is himself a prickly guy). And then came the NCAA: apparently an enormous behemoth known as Claude Bassett, Kentucky's recruiting coordinator, had flatly been paying players. (I once rode in Bassett's golf cart: I rode by grasping onto the roof and rail because there was little room in the passenger's seat for . . . obvious reasons, and the entire time I was convinced the cart was going to tip over.) Mumme was never formally implicated, but if nothing else he had little control over Bassett's clandestine activities. And, between the 2-9 finish and the infractions, Mumme's time at Kentucky was done.
All was quiet until Mumme took over at Southeastern Louisiana in D-1AA, and resuscitated a dead football program (literally, the program had been terminated) before leaping to New Mexico State, where things never congealed. In his first year he went 0-12, and never won more than four games. He takes the job at McMurry, in Abilene, Texas, presumably because there were few other options.
Who can explain how Mike Leach, his friend and former assistant, can go on to such heights while Mumme seems to face nothing but personal and professional tragedy? Chris Hatcher too, who had both played for Mumme and coached with him, has an exceptionally bright future. And who knows if Mumme will have any success at this small school, and even if he does, most won't remember him for that. Mumme, whose wife is a cancer survivor, will also have to wage his own cancer battle.
In the last decade, likely Mumme's entire career in D-1 football, his high water mark was a 7-5 season with Tim Couch as his quarterback -- hardly the stuff of legend. During his time he became notorious for goofy calls, an obsession with how many passing yards his team had (sometimes at the expense of winning), and a tenure forever tainted with recruiting violations, either with knowledge or simple lack of control. For these reasons, to many, if Mumme is a tragic figure, then he's somewhere between MacBeth and Dr. Faustus, as figures who got what was coming to them.
But that offense. That elegant, "backyard"-yet-disciplined approach to throwing the damn football. Many of Mumme's hallmarks -- throwing the ball repeatedly with a grand total of about ten passing plays practiced endlessly, warm up drills instead of stretching, relentless passes against "air" with five quarterbacks dropping back on every play, and an unyielding belief in "throwing the ball short to people who can score" -- can be seen not only in places like Texs Tech and the University of Arizona, but in countless high schools across the country. (I really cannot overstate this.) Tony Franklin, Mumme's St. Paul, proselytized the word of the pass-first, shotgun spread offense, and while Mumme may not be divine, he is not without messianic qualities: the rise of the spread and passing offense in the last decade, particularly in the lower levels of football, may have been inevitable, but Mumme's little system, mesh, shallow, Y-cross, Y-sail, Y-stick, and the others, along with his ingenious practice methods, delivered football forever from its more ancient roots.
The spread to run offense of Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez may ultimately prove more viral and sustained than the pass-first Airraid. But Mumme's legacy is assured; as prophet, harbinger, and technician of the explosion of the passing game throughout football, particularly at the lower levels. In his way, Hal Mumme might prove to be the most influential coach of the last two decades. I wouldn't bet against it: Hal always likes his odds.