In Search of the Perfect Pass

In Search of the Perfect Pass

S.C. Gwynne on the little-known coach who transformed football

You’ve probably never heard the name Hal Mumme, but you’ve very likely watched or even played the game he transformed. That’s the argument made by writer S.C. Gwynne, a former lecturer at the UT School of Journalism, in his new book, The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. A longtime Texas Monthly editor and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his history of the Comanche people (Empire of the Summer Moon), Gwynne turns his attention to Mumme, who together with Mike Leach quietly pioneered a new, pass-heavy style of play at tiny Iowa Wesleyan College.

Though virtually every college team in the country eventually copied their strategy, Mumme and Leach got little credit. Diehard fans will enjoy the nerdier chapters that dig into the details of how the now-ubiquitous Air Raid offense works, while other readers will latch onto the underdog narrative. No matter your interest, Gwynne’s down-to-earth, irresistible prose will pull you in.

You’ve said that the book was inspired by a Texas Monthly story.

I was working on a story about Mike Leach, the Texas Tech coach who was the terror of the Big 12. UT people will remember the 2008 game where Tech knocked us off—people cry  to this day about that game.

At some point, I asked Mike where his crazy offense came from. He said, “I gotta tell you a story about a little school called Iowa Wesleyan”—which I’d never heard of—“and a coach named Hal Mumme” —whom I’d also never heard of. Mike told me about how he and Hal would get in these old cars and drive 10 or 12 hours across the frozen Midwest to find some passing guru at a junior college. I thought it was like a buddy movie—two guys, driving all over searching for the secret of the forward pass, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or something. When I finished my last book on Stonewall Jackson, I gave Hal a call and said, “Are you game?”

the-perfect-pass-by-s-c-gwynneYou write about how deadly football was at the turn of the century—18 people died and 149 were severely injured playing the game in 1905.

It was this very violent game that took place at the center of the field in a bloody pile of humanity. People were getting their eyes gouged out, elbows were getting shoved into ribs, and they didn’t wear much equipment—it was brutal. You just looked to run the ball into the middle and hope for the best. There was a big movement led by all sorts of people, including Teddy Roosevelt and the president of Harvard, to save the game by making it less deadly. Because otherwise it was going to be banned due to all the injuries.

Passing should have transformed the game at this point, but it didn’t. It kept being a game about the middle of the field, although the rules did change to allow the forward pass in 1906.

Why was the sport so slow to change?

Football is an incredibly conservative sport. It didn’t matter if you put statistics in front of someone showing they were wrong. The game was pretty much a ground game, and it just kept reverting to what it wanted to be. By the mid-’70s, we entered what is known as the dead- ball era in football. In 1977, fewer points were scored than at any time since 1941. Football was regressing back to its old antediluvian form. It was so bad that the NFL changed the rules of the game. It was a weird echo of 1906, but this time they were trying to save the game from being boring rather than from being deadly. And Hal Mumme comes out just as that era is happening.

What kind of a character is Hal Mumme?

A Texan, first and foremost. I’m not from here, but this idea that Texas has this frontier-like, innovative attitude, a distrust of authority, and a willingness to do things differently—I believe in that. Hal is entrepreneurial, resilient. When he started at Ohio Wesleyan, he had three winning seasons out of 14. Most of his career he’d been a loser, the school he was at had been a loser, and he wanted to start throwing the ball 40 or 50 times per game, which no one was doing. You wouldn’t have given him much hope.

I was surprised how little of his strategy was about X’s and O’s. Hal’s team didn’t play by the rules. He thought about time and space differently. I have a chapter called “Hal’s Theory of Relativity,” and that’s only partly a joke. For most coaches, a game was 60 plays long; for Hal, it was 80 or 90. He was launching a new play every 14 seconds. His line had 5 feet between the guards and the tackles, while the other team had 1 foot. Everybody had New York City phonebook-sized playbooks, and he didn’t have one at all.

While football is a very different topic than your past books on the Comanche and Stonewall Jackson, all three books are about key moments in history whose impact didn’t become clear until later. Why are you drawn to that kind of story?

I like to write about transformation. The Comanches transformed the middle of the continent when they got ahold of the horse. Stonewall Jackson transformed the Civil War, and like Hal, he’s a case of a loser becoming a winner. Hal transformed football. He’s a part of why 120 million people watched the Super Bowl last year, why football is our national obsession. It’s not exactly warfare on the American Plains—although I guess it kind of is [laughs]—but it is a big part of our history.

Is there another transformational moment ahead for football, especially considering the dialogue around concussions and safety?

There’s going to be a reckoning one way or another. There’s a type of shoulder pad now under consideration that creates a glancing hit, not the same kind of hits we saw being made on Cam Newton the other night on television. Either by changing the rules or coming up with something new technologically, I do think that the game will have to change again.

Photo by Anna Donlan



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