ESPN the Magazine  /  September 19, 2014
Talk all you want about the gridiron genius of Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn or Chip Kelly. But it's Hal Mumme who brought you the game you're watching today.
by Kevin Van Valkenburg
Photographs by Andrew Hetherington
ESPN the MagazineSeptember 19, 2014

Talk all you want about the gridiron genius of Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn or Chip Kelly. But it's Hal Mumme who brought you the game you're watching today.
by Kevin Van Valkenburg
Photographs by Andrew Hetherington
Talk all you want about the gridiron genius of Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn or Chip Kelly. But it's Hal Mumme who brought you the game you're watching today.
by Kevin Van Valkenburg
Photographs by Andrew Hetherington

HAL MUMME, THE not-quite-forgotten genius of college football's modern era, wants to show me the spot where William Travis died defending the north wall of the Alamo in 1836.

"I'm going to give you the nickel tour," Mumme says, grinning like he's granted me membership into his private club. Here, he shows me, is the spot where Davy Crockett might have -- depending on which historian you read -- killed 16 enemy soldiers before finally being struck down with a knife in one hand, rifle in the other. Over here, in the center of the mission, he reflects on the courage it took for Travis to vow, in a letter asking for reinforcements, that he and his men would fight until "victory or death."

It's just about 9 a.m. on a humid summer day in San Antonio, and Mumme, the head coach of tiny Belhaven University football in Jackson, Mississippi, is hosting a coaching clinic just up the street at the Menger Hotel. Curious football minds have come from all across the region to scribble down his secrets. In the insular world of college football, Mumme is the Yoda of the air raid passing attack. For $75, this 62-year-old Jimmy Buffett obsessive and prostate cancer survivor will give an off-the-cuff speech, tell a few stories and most definitely help you put points on the board.

Who is the best college football coach of the past two decades? It's clearly Alabama's Nick Saban -- defensive guru, deadpan disciplinarian and, oh, by the way, winner of four BCS championships. But the most influential coach of the past 20 years? That'd be Hal Mumme. He wasn't the only one to drag college football out of its ground-and-pound dark ages. But as Kentucky's coach in the late 1990s, he is the one who brought video game offenses to the SEC, the game's motherland. And it was there that football changed forever. If Cam Newton or Johnny Manziel ever did something that made you jump off your couch, you have Mumme to thank. "Hal was really one of the trailblazers for throwing the ball," says Art Briles, whose Baylor team led the FBS in offense last year. "Without question, Hal was instrumental in the game being what it is today."

It's hard to capture just how dramatically offenses have changed in the 38 years since Mumme began coaching at Foy H. Moody High School in Corpus Christi, Texas. But consider this fact: In NCAA history, there have been 79 times a quarterback has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in a season; 65 of them have come since 2000. Mumme-influenced offenses are so pervasive, in fact, that Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson says, "It's to the point now where the three or four teams we play a year that line up in two tight ends and a fullback are harder to prepare for. That sometimes confuses players now more than the spread does, because most teams have three and four wideouts just like we do."

All of this raises a rather obvious question: Why the heck did a godfather of modern college football coaching, a man with a career record of 137-118-1 through Week 2, just take a gig at an NAIA school that went 3-8 last year and plays its home games in a high school stadium? The answer doesn't seem to matter much to Mumme. He just wants to show me the Alamo -- his sacred ground.

Mumme grew up in San Antonio, and he says that knowing his reverence of this place is the best way to understand him. At least, that is, before I see him drawing up pass plays on an overhead projector in a dimly lit hotel ballroom. "Every team I've ever had, I've brought them here," Mumme says to me. "I'd tell the players, 'Put yourself in these guys' place. They didn't have to stay. They could have easily run. But they vowed to be the tip of the sword.'"

Few speeches in sports are more tone-deaf than those that compare football to combat. But Mumme is well aware of the dissonance. In his mind, bringing his players to the birthplace of Texas isn't about hyping them into believing they're fighting for a greater cause. It's a lesson in perspective. To know the history of the Alamo is to know how silly it is to treat football like a matter of life and death.

"How many football coaches have you heard say, 'This is war! This is hard work!'" Mumme says. "Guess what. Football isn't work. I've never worked a day in my life. This isn't rocket science! This isn't cancer! It's fun! And when I die, I want that on my tombstone: 'Hal Mumme: His players had fun.'"

So that's what Mumme is doing serving as his own AD at a school viewed as a hell on earth from the heights of the glittering football programs he helped bring to life: having fun.

"The coaches who think Belhaven is beneath them? They're idiots," Mumme says. "I just feel sorry for them because this is like the best deal in the world. Small colleges are a lot better than big-time football. The kids are getting educated, which you can't say at a lot of places, and they're having fun. How do you beat that?"

LIKE COUNTLESS TEXAS boys before and since, Mumme grew up enamored with football in the Lone Star State. In 1979, after an uneventful college career at Tarleton State and three years as an assistant coach at Moody High School, he interviewed for his first head-coaching job at Aransas Pass High. While Texas football coaches were donning fedoras and ties to look like Tom Landry and Bear Bryant, Mumme exuded a different kind of swagger. "I put on my best leisure suit, which was baby blue," Mumme says. "Hell, it was the '70s."

He wasn't the most experienced candidate. He didn't have a prepared speech or even a playbook. But he did have the ability to sell himself as an agent of change. He told Aransas and every team that would interview him that he had no use for three yards and a cloud of dust. His team was going to be fun to watch. It would throw the ball all over the field and get off plays as fast as possible. "Football coaches as a whole tend to be ultraconservative people," Mumme says. "I couldn't live like that. Some people are artists and some people are mechanics. I always wanted to be more on the side of the artists."

After just a year, Mumme left Aransas Pass to be a passing coach at West Texas State. By 1982, he had climbed another rung up the coaching ladder when he joined UTEP as offensive coordinator at the age of just 29. It was there that the artist found his canvas. The downside was that coach Bill Yung's teams were so short on talent that UTEP won just seven games in the four years Mumme was there. The upside was that UTEP was in the Western Athletic Conference with Brigham Young and had access to the Cougars' game films. "They were splitting three and four wide receivers out on every play," Mumme says. "I didn't know what LaVell Edwards was doing, but I knew I wanted to do that."

Mumme still isn't sure why Edwards' innovative, spread-the-field attack didn't prove more influential at the time. Maybe other coaches assumed BYU's system was too hard to teach, or that it succeeded only because the Cougars were using older, more mature kids back from Mormon missions, Mumme says.

In any event, when the entire UTEP staff was fired in 1985, Mumme decided to head back to the high school ranks, convinced it was where he'd finally have the freedom to build on what he'd learned watching BYU. He got a head-coaching job at Copperas Cove (Texas) High, a school that would one day produce a Heisman-winning quarterback named Robert Griffin III. But back in 1985, Copperas Cove had won only 10 games total in the six seasons before Mumme's arrival. Of the five kids who he estimated were the best athletes in the school, zero played football. When Mumme asked them why, they told him football wasn't fun.

"Some people are artists and some are mechanics. I wanted to be on the side of the artists."

- Hal Mumme

"We were losing kids," Mumme says. "A few of us realized that if you don't do something entertaining, the kids are going to play basketball or soccer. Not everybody had to change, but some of us sure did."

He broke out his BYU film and promised the kids at Copperas Cove that "we were going to take what LaVell was doing and put it on steroids." First he put his best athletes at quarterback and wide receiver. Then he drastically widened the splits of his offensive line -- a radical idea at the time. Practices were short. No Oklahoma drills, ever. And he might call the same play (one of only three the team would learn) 50 times in a row, mixing up only the formations. He believed artistry would emerge naturally from the simplicity, not the complexity, of his playbook. "There are a ton of great ideas," Mumme says. "And as a coach, you spend all your time thinking about them. But kids? They're thinking about three things, and I promise you none of them are football."

It worked. His first season, the team became an offensive juggernaut and knocked off two of central Texas' powerhouse football programs, Killeen Ellison and Austin Westlake.


Andrew Hetherington for ESPN

IN 1989, IOWA WESLEYAN -- an NAIA school with just 800 undergraduates -- hired Mumme almost solely on the recommendation of his friend Steve Kazor, then special-teams coach with the Chicago Bears. It also helped that no high school coach in the state of Iowa would take the job. When Mumme called a meeting of the team's returning players, only two showed up. He cobbled together most of his staff on a minuscule budget but struggled to find an offensive line coach for $12,000 a year. "I had two people apply," Mumme says. "One was offering to bring his gang with him from Los Angeles, and the other was Mike Leach."

In finding Leach, an alumnus and fellow acolyte of BYU, Mumme stumbled upon the Paul McCartney to his John Lennon. Neither one of them gave a damn about college football's hallowed traditions. Both cherished the lessons you could learn from heroic iconoclasts like Davy Crockett or Geronimo. And both liked getting in the car, blasting Jimmy Buffett and driving to any football practice in the country where they thought they could snatch up another crazy idea and make it part of their oeuvre.

On the field, no concept was too goofy. In addition to wide splits, Mumme and Leach decided to do away with three-point stances entirely, figuring (correctly) that it would help their offensive line get in position to pass-block that much faster. They decided to run every play out of the shotgun, which they predicted (correctly) would help the quarterback better see the field. But their most radical idea was the one that still pisses off football's traditionalists -- Nick Saban included. They decided to play around with time. Every team had a two-minute offense; Mumme and Leach just wanted to employ theirs two minutes into the game. And in their minds, the quarterback couldn't snap the ball fast enough.

Well before Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly were riding their wide splits and hurry-up offenses all the way to the BCS championship game, Mumme and Leach were running the concept on a small practice field in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. "The more shots on goal you get, the better," Leach says. "That's how we saw it. And with so many people touching the ball, it elevates the enthusiasm of the whole team." In their three years at Iowa Wesleyan, the Mumme and Leach show went 25-10 and led the nation in passing once and finished second twice.

When Valdosta State came calling in 1992, Mumme and Leach took their now fully formed air raid act to Georgia, and they tore up the Division II NCAA record books as well, going 40-17-1. "We knew we were changing the game," Mumme says. "We just weren't sure if anybody else was going to change with us."


With the Battle of the Alamo as his touchstone, Mumme has always known that football is a game -- not a life-or-death mission. Andrew Hetherington for ESPN

TIM COUCH CAME to the University of Kentucky in 1996 as one of the most prolific high school quarterbacks ever, having thrown for more than 12,000 yards in his prep career. But coach Bill Curry had him splitting time and running the option. When the team started 1-6, Curry was fired. Seven games into his first year, the Wildcats' best prospect ever was all but gone.

Wildcats athletic director C.M. Newton asked Couch to think about staying. There was this coach at Valdosta State he wanted to grab. He told Couch: I want someone who is going to be Rick Pitino on grass. I think I've found him. Fast-forward to the quarterback's first meeting with Mumme. "He says, 'You're going to throw the ball 55 to 60 times a game,'" Couch recalls. "That's all I needed to hear. But we all had question marks. We thought, 'This might work when you're at Valdosta State or Iowa Wesleyan, but not in this conference against these kinds of defenses.'"

Which is why, in retrospect, Kentucky's first game under Mumme in 1997, against state rival Louisville, feels like the first tremor of an earthquake. Couch threw for 398 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 win. "Everyone -- the players, the fans, the coaches -- was looking around after I threw my first touchdown like, 'Oh my god, this is awesome,'" Couch says. Three weeks later at Indiana, Couch tied an SEC single-game record with seven touchdown passes. He threw for 355 yards in an overtime victory against Alabama, the first time Kentucky had beaten the Crimson Tide since 1922. "Early on, it was easy," Mumme says. "No one knew how to defend it."

Other coaches started paying attention. Urban Meyer, then the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame, and Sean Payton, then the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, were among those who made the pilgrimage to Lexington to see what this lunacy was about. "People thought we were nuts," Mumme says.

Mumme's final season at Kentucky was marred by scandal and infighting. "I've always kind of joked with him," Leach says, "that the perfect job for him would be a small-college job day-to-day and then calling plays on Saturday in Division I." Though Mumme wasn't implicated specifically, he was forced to resign from Kentucky in 2001 when it came to light that his recruiting coordinator had sent money to a high school coach in Memphis. "It's kind of sad the way it ended," he says.

But then a crazy thing happened. As Mumme moved down the coaching ladder -- short gigs at Southeastern Louisiana, New Mexico State and D2 McMurry -- his disciples installed versions of his air raid offense at schools around the country, plugging in better athletes and racking up big stats and victories.

"We knew we were changing the game, we just weren't sure if anybody else was going to change with us."

- Hal Mumme

Leach taught Mark Mangino the air raid offense at Oklahoma, and the following year the Sooners won a national title with it. Leach, now the head coach at Washington State, added his own wrinkles to the air raid at Texas Tech and passed on pieces of it to Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech, California), Briles (Houston, Baylor) and Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), who had played wide receiver for Mumme and Leach at Iowa Wesleyan. Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) became friends with Mumme in the late 1990s at Mumme and Leach's annual offseason coaches gathering, even though he was then just an assistant at Minnesota. Sumlin added his personal touches as an assistant coach at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops -- more vertical routes and letting his quarterback run.

Mumme even passed down his philosophies to his son, Matt, who played for him at Kentucky. Matt Mumme served on his father's staff at Southeastern Louisiana, New Mexico State and McMurry, and in 2013 he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at LaGrange College. After just one year with Matt in charge of calling the plays, the Panthers already have one of Division III's most prolific offenses.

Mumme, meanwhile, has found contentment at Belhaven. He enjoys the simplicity of working small miracles. "Small colleges are great places," Mumme says. "At Belhaven, we'll have 5,000 people show up, sit on the grass and yell and scream. If you love the game and you don't care about how many TV channels you're on, you can do this forever." It's also where he can continue to tweak his mousetrap. Says Leach: "There's been a lot of innovation out of those levels because there is more freedom. Even now when I study schools, I probably study more small schools. I already know what big schools are doing. The higher you go, the more homogenized it gets. The lower you go, you'll see some wild stuff."

Twenty minutes after my tour of the Alamo, I'm listening to Mumme captivate 40 high school coaches with his own wild stuff. In a few months, he'll kick off his inaugural Belhaven season with two straight victories, outscoring opponents 76-20. But at the moment, he's enjoying his role as the nutty professor. "Let me diagram some plays here," he says. "I love this play. This is called the mesh. I once called this 53 consecutive times in a game."

And as he takes the cap off his Sharpie, another generation of coaches starts scribbling.

Yoda illustration by Henry Rojas

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