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Monday, April 20, 2009

The ballad of Hal Mumme

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.


Year2 said...

I don't know if I'd call Mumme the most interesting thing to happen to all of SEC football since Bear Bryant. I think Steve Spurrier might have a thing or two to say about that.

Even so, I agree with the premise that Hal Mumme is largely under appreciated for his contributions. After all, other people have been able to succeed with his framework whereas only Spurrier runs/ran the Fun 'n Gun.

squirrelyearl said...

Great post. Mumme is a name I heard float around a lot but wasn't terribly familiar with his contribution. Thanks.

JD said...


Unknown said...

Another underrated coach for offense alone is Chris Ault at Nevada. In a few short years the Pistol offense has totally changed high school football which will in turn change college football in a few years.

Chris said...

As an FYI to readers - I made a few minor edits to the piece to fix typos and I also added Spurrier's name into the lede. I had him in there originally but thought it read clunky, but Year2 and others have all pointed out that he can't be overlooked.

As Paul: Respectfully, I think what Ault has done as Nevada is great, but to me the pistol is just a formation, whereas Mumme's offense is an offense in the Bill Walsh sense: a theory, a philosophy, and, most importantly (in what I think his lasting legacy will be) a well organized method for practicing and implementing the passing game. Ault's innovations are real but can only change so much. There were shotgun spread attacks before him, and there were single-back formations with the back behind the QB before him (just from under center). He combined the two, which is great, but that impact only goes so far.

Will said...

I met with Coach Mumme and his staff several times when he was at Southeastern and I was coaching in New Orleans. He was always willing to talk and to explain in detail his plays and practice methods and is an extremely nice guy. I knew the turnaround af NMSU, going from Power-I triple option to the Airraid, was going to be tough (he converted his QB to a receiver and a receiver to QB) but I never doubted he would succeed, and I was among a lot of surprised people when he didn't. He should get a lot of credit not just for innovation but for assembling great staffs - having Woody Widenhofer with his fingers full of superbowl rings coaching defense in Hammond was quite a sight. That said, Coach Mumme will be the first to tell you that he did not invent his offense, but that he borrowed it from the BYU teams of Chow, Henderson, Olson, and Edwards. He just adapted it to the shotgun (but largely kept the two backs, unlike Leach and Hatcher) and heavily de-emphasized the running component in favor of short throws and screens. In fact, he told a coaching clinic I attended that he was inspired to use the offense after watching a BYU/Texas A&M game on TV. So he and his offense belong in the West Coast coaching tree - which is why the Airraid is fundementally different from the Run and Shoot even though the pass routes have become similar through convergent evolution: the Airraid is a child of the West Coast with its 7 man protections and uneven passing formations, while the R&S is a fundementally balanced, singleback philosophy with 6 man protection. Anyway, I agree that his major contributions are in how the game is now practiced. He used to say he could not hold practice if someone took away his tennis balls and garbage cans.

Anonymous said...

can anybody say John Jenkins? Why is nobody smart enough to hire these two gentlemen? You cant tell me that either wouldnt be great for young quarterbacks.

Richard said...

Hal Mumme's fame to me was the threat that no matter who you were, he was going to stretch you. Kentucky never had much football talent, but they have always had, especially under Mumme, the threat that if you had an off day, or didn't pay attention for one second, he would torch you. Another thing I like about him is buried in the depths of the story - "plays" instead of "warmup drills and stretching". There is a recent survey of research that says there is no,.. none,... nada, credible evidence that stretching, or even warmups, improve performance for the game. So why bother, when you can practice the plays you'll be using?

Finally, Mumme's incredible resemblance to Ed Begley Jr. can give some insight into his inner whacko. He has the eccentric joie de vivre necessary to be a football legend of the lesser lights, much like Alex Karras (Mongo).

Lumberjack90 said...

WOW!!! Joe Lee and Mumme at the same school. You know how much these guys have changed the face of high-school football? You've already commented on Mumme, but I lived in Starkville (home of MS State) for 13 years and watched Dunn develop the 3-3/3-5/odd stack defense. How many high-schools run one or both the airraid offence or 3-3 D? The pilgrimage location for HS coaches.

Lumberjack90 said...

WOW!!! Joe Lee and Mumme at the same school. You know how much these guys have changed the face of high-school football? You've already commented on Mumme, but I lived in Starkville (home of MS State) for 13 years and watched Dunn develop the 3-3/3-5/odd stack defense. How many high-schools run one or both the airraid offence or 3-3 D? The pilgrimage location for HS coaches.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I am a USC graduate and have sen first hand how dangerous this ofense can be at times. Sonny Dykes has single handidly turned around the U of A football program. The have played us extremely tight the last three seasons. I sure wish he would get a head coach job so we can get him out of here and get U of A back to being last in the confrence in offense.

Jon said...

I don't really have anything to add other than that is some awesome hair in the first pic.

Steve from down South said...

lucky enough to be a student at Valdosta when Mumme was coach and Hatcher was his quarterback. approachable fellow and his lasting legacy of excellence at Valdosta St is much appreciated. i'm paraphrasing, but one of my favorite sayings he had at UK was about arriving at a stadium and opening the emergency exit bus door 'cause he wasn't going to just arrive, he was going to start passing immediately: "we're going to throw the ball out the back of the bus."

Anonymous said...

Hal was my neighbor in Lexington, Ky. He made Uk football fun and filled the stadium. I hope all goes well with his career and personal life.
A great guy!!!!!