Empire of the Perfect Pass
Quanah Parker, Stonewall Jackson . . . and Hal Mumme?! Why S.C. Gwynne took a break from historical epics to tell the story of the Texas coach who changed football.
In 2010 S.C. Gwynne became a best-selling author when he published Empire of the Summer Moon, a large-scale history of Quanah Parker and the Comanche. For longtime readers of Texas Monthly, however, Gwynne was already a household name: as a staff writer, he had reported on subjects ranging from Karl Rove to UT’s sports program. One of his assignments took him to Lubbock to uncover the reasons behind the high-flying success of the Texas Tech football team. That trip provided the early inspiration for his latest book, The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, which will be published by Scribner on September 20.
Brian D. Sweany: There’s a famous saying: “When you pass the ball, three things can happen and two are bad.” Your book argues that football teams should have been passing all along.
S.C. Gwynne: That’s the old cliché, which is often attributed to Darrell K. Royal but I think predates him by decades. But the idea speaks to the incredible conservatism of the game. This book started with the 2009 cover story I wrote for Texas Monthly on Mike Leach, who was then the head coach at Texas Tech. He was running a crazy, wide-open passing machine he called the Air Raid that no one could believe and no one could stop. He spread the field, as one observer put it, “from here to Amarillo.” He went for it on fourth down—in fact, he went for it when it was fourth down and 8 from his own 35-yard line. He spaced his linemen four or five feet apart. That offense was off-the-wall for the Big 12, but in 2008 Leach beat the number-one-ranked Texas Longhorns and made a run at the national championship.
BDS: That’s one of my favorite all-time games: Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree with eight seconds left to play.
SCG: It was an astounding game. I open my book with that catch. The rest of the nation sort of went, “Who the hell is this?” But Leach had been running this offense since he was the coordinator for the Oklahoma Sooners, in 1999. Defensive coordinators who are watching game film, playing the Red Raiders year after year after year, cannot stop him. Tech once scored 70 points against Nebraska. Against TCU, in 2004, the Raiders scored 70 points in two and a half quarters. In that famous game, the Horned Frogs jumped out to a 21–0 lead, and one of the team’s defensive backs was caught on camera going, “They’re not going to score.” Tech ended up winning 70–35. You have to understand that Leach had five quarterbacks in a row who led the nation in passing. Three of them were fifth-year seniors who hadn’t even started before.
BDS: And you trace this offense back to a coach named Hal Mumme, who was among the first to try the passing game, when he was coaching at Copperas Cove High School in the late eighties.
SCG: For the original Texas Monthly story, I interviewed several guys I wasn’t familiar with, including Hal, who is the originator of the Air Raid. I wanted to figure out how it worked. The reason I’m a journalist is because I want to learn how the world works. That’s what motivates me. I wanted to know how this guy changed American football in a major way. ESPN the Magazine wrote a huge feature story in 2014 that said he was the most influential college coach of the last quarter century. Period. More so than Nick Saban, more so than a lot of other famous coaches.
Hal is a Texas guy through and through. He was from San Antonio, and he played football at Tarleton State, in Stephenville. He coaches high school all across the state and eventually ends up at the University of Texas at El Paso as a coordinator. But the head coach gets fired, and that means everybody gets fired. So Hal lands at Copperas Cove, which has one of the worst teams in Texas. And that’s where he comes up with his master plan. Hal decided he was going to throw the ball sixty or seventy times a game. He was going to throw it on first down, on second down, on third down, and on fourth down.
BDS: The advantage of this offense was that it helped balance out talent and size. You could beat teams that were bigger and stronger. As you write, “It took the bludgeon out of the bully’s hands.”
SCG: It changed the game of football. After a few years at Copperas Cove, Hal ends up coaching at Iowa Wesleyan, which is a college with, like, five hundred kids. Leach is his assistant—that’s where he learns the system. I think about Hal and Mike alone out there in the frozen, windswept plains of the Midwest where no one cared about throwing the ball. Mike told me that when they weren’t playing football, they were getting in these old cars and driving to places like Green Bay or some junior college in the middle of nowhere to talk to coaches who were trying different things with the passing game, then they pieced together a system that didn’t exist yet.The changes are so radical that today the entire Big 12 is an Air Raid conference. A lot of people have told me, “I thought everyone had always passed the ball.” But they didn’t. For a long time it was a sissy thing to do. “Real” teams ran the football. Today we’ve seen it take over. We’re seeing it in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. The issue is, Why did it take football so long? In a way, when Gus Dorias threw that first 40-yard rocket to Knute Rockne in the Army–Notre Dame game of 1913, the game should’ve changed. It certainly should have changed in the thirties when Sammy Baugh operated from the shotgun at TCU. Instead, the game’s response to that was, “Let’s run the single wing. Let’s run the T-formation.”
BDS: And what’s your answer?
SCG: There’s an innate conservatism to the game. Passing was considered dangerous, because the early interception percentages were very high. It was a hard thing to teach, it seemed excessively reliant on one player, and above all, it was a way for a coach to get fired. If a coach started to throw the ball like crazy and it didn’t work, that guy was gone faster than you could blink your eyes. You won games with ball control and possession. Which completely changes in Hal’s world. He doesn’t care about ball control, and he doesn’t care about time of possession. That makes him an intriguing character to write about. There’s a lot of the frontier in him. He distrusts the establishment, he’s anti-authoritarian, and he thinks defensive coordinators are lower than earthworms.
BDS: The Perfect Pass is coming out at a time when football is being attacked on a lot of fronts: the excesses of the sport, sexual assaults, concussions. How would you describe the health of football?
SCG: Interest in football is at an all-time high in America. It has taken over from baseball as the national sport, and I think part of that is because we are now in this era of crazy passing and scoring all over the place. Passing has made the game incredibly attractive to watch.
It’s interesting about concussions, because one of the things I learned was that Hal held extremely light practices with almost no hitting. His practices were almost ballet-like. But as we learn more about concussions, I think that if I had had a son, I wouldn’t tell him to play football.
BDS: Did you play football growing up?
SCG: I played Pop Warner, and I played for two years at a prep school outside Philadelphia. But there was a moment where I met this guy named Paul Gajewski. I think we all meet our own Paul Gajewski at some point in our lives. I was on the line, and he hit me, and it was very clear who was bigger and stronger. I think I saw the end of my playing career at that point.
BDS: You’re known for two epic historical books, Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell, which is about Stonewall Jackson. This project is a departure.
SCG: I said to Hal, “I’ve written my last three books on Quanah Parker, Stonewall Jackson, and you. Which one doesn’t belong?” But it seemed epic to me that somebody who remains so unknown could come along and change the major sport in America.