Bookshot #177: The Perfect Pass

I think it was probably the closing of Iowa Wesleyan University that made me want to read this book. I

can only think of one person I know (The Quiet Man's sister) who went to IWU down in Mt. Pleasant but the only other thing I ever knew about the place was that legendary football coach Hal Mumme along with Mike Leach helped develop the Air Raid system down there and as people usually mention, 'changed the face of football.'

Other than that, I knew nothing. Nothing about IWU or really about the history of football in general- I mean, I've taken in a couple of seasons of Dead Letters now and have expanded my knowledge base about specific teams as a result, but the development of the game? It's ebb and flow? I didn't know about that. What I did know is that the author of this book, S.C. Gwynne wrote a fantastic book called Empire of The Summer Moon about the Comanches and I figured if I enjoyed the writing in that book (I did), then this book couldn't be too bad.

Turns out, I was right: this too, is a fantastic book. 

The early part of the book covers Hal's coaching journey and it is something of a revelation, especially if you're a fan of the sport. I know Coaches- especially at the top end get a lot of grief for the size of the salaries and things of that nature and maybe the market there is due for a correction at some point in the future, I don't know- but you can also argue that the process of working your way to the top of the heap is unforgiving, takes years and if you get there, the least you- and more importantly perhaps, your family deserve is some compensation for the journey.

And for sure, the early part of Mumme's coaching journey seems rough. Lots of work for not a lot of money before finding a rung on the ladder as a QB/WR coach at West Texas and then following the head Coach to UTEP for a stint as Offensive Coordinator, When that blew up, there were some very lean times before Hal found a high school job and plotted out his next move- which as it turns out was to Iowa Wesleyan University.

It's been kind of popping up in my mind lately, but I feel like one thing people don't talk about when it comes to success and metrics of success is the idea of obsession. I feel like whether it's food or anything, people at the top of their game, people who wind up thinking differently about what they do-- they're all a little bit obsessive. It would fascinating- and I'm sure there are books out there, to hear about what the life of a Coach is like for their families on the way up the ladder because a nomadic life for a relatively small amount of money takes years to pay off doesn't sound like it would be a recipe for family stability and happiness. 

Here's what I didn't know: The forward pass was considered heresy for the majority of the existence of the game of football. There were some flashes of use here and there-- the run and shoot emerged in the late 70s and into the 80s and it had some brief flashes of use in high school- famed coach Glen 'Tiger' Ellison turned around a successful state powerhouse by just throwing the ball around- though nowhere near as much as Mumme would end up doing. By the time Hal was coming up, really the only game in town during the 80s that was passing the ball in any meaningful way was Levell Edwards at BYU.

It was fascinating to listen to the evolution of the ideas that would eventually form the Air Raid- with Hal knowing, convinced that there's something to this idea of the forward pass and seeking out everyone ranging from Bill Walsh to Mouse Davis to figure out what, if anything was there. After a stint at UTEP and a step back to the high school ranks, he got back on the ladder when Iowa Wesleyan University gave him a call.

There's sort of a deep, sad, irony that underlies the initial call from Iowa Wesleyan. At the time, their football program was bad. Really, really bad, and the then President wanted to put the theory of 'athletics is the front porch of the University' into practice by hopefully reviving the football program to wait for it: increase enrollment.

There's a counterfactual 'what if' here that's fascinating to consider: What if Iowa Wesleyan had leaned into Hal's vision for the program and their athletics department just a little bit? I don't know if it would have prevented the inevitable from coming- but I feel like it might have staved it off for just a bit longer. But whatever the reason, Hal goes to Iowa Wesleyan. He meets Mike Leach. He starts refining developing and reducing the playbook and the fortunes of IWU begin to turn immediately. Culminating in a victory of NW Missouri State that served as an announcement that the Air Raid had arrived. But- IWU decided that they didn't want athletics overshadowing their academics so Hal is let go and winds up moving up a Division to Valdosta State.

Here is where the Air Raid really comes into its final form- when Mumme, Leach, and company decide to go all gas no breaks, and essentially run a no-huddle offense. Valdosta State proved to be a tougher assignment than IWU, because down in 'real football country' no one was convinced that anything involving passing the football was going to work. Mumme had to adjust after the first season when he realized he had moved away from keeping things as simple as possible- but once they got going, it went like crazy, with many of his quarterbacks-- not only at Valdosta but at IWU putting up unheard of passing yardage and featuring in the top ranks of quarterbacks and offenses of the sport. They defeated Division I-AA (FCS) powerhouse Central Florida in a barnburner of an upset and then faced conference rivals North Alabama not once, but twice and the second time is probably my favorite. Mumme decided to play conventional football in the first half to wear down North Alabama's defense and then in the second half, down eleven, he flipped the switch and turned on the gas. Valdosta State won and soon, Kentucky came calling.

NCAA scandal took Mumme down at Kentucky, but soon enough his offense was everywhere- with Mike Leach carrying it to Oklahoma and then Texas Tech and the coaching tree going from there. Mumme never really got back on the ladder again, but it is indisputable that he changed the game of football- forever.

Overall: This was one I snagged off Audible, so I have to give credit to narration- Santino Fontana does an excellent job and even though he has you 'refer to the PDF' so you can look at schematics of the various plays they talk about in the book- a helpful feature, I thought- I didn't find that it took away from my overall enjoyment of listening to it. (Gwynne also narrates the Afterword himself, which is a nice touch-- talking about how the genesis for this book came from that famous Texas Tech victory over Texas and that he just kept coming back to it again and again until he finally wrote the book.) 

I genuinely did not know just how revolutionary the Air Raid was for the game of football itself, so this made for a fascinating experience to learn about it-- but in the bigger picture, it's a fascinating story of one man knowing that he's got the germ of an idea and is an exploration of the process of developing that idea and growing and refining that idea until it finally comes into full bloom. It would be a compelling story in any number of fields/contexts but it works brilliantly here. The tagline for the book is: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football and that's an absolutely perfect description.

I would call this a must-read for any serious football fan, but I'd call it a good read for just about anyone full stop. My Grade: **** out of ****


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