The architect, his pupil, and his son: Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Matt Mumme are wedded to the Air Raid offense
Fri., Sept. 22, 2017
PULLMAN – The year was 2000 and Matt Mumme had decided to tag along with his father, Hal, for an American Football Coaches Association convention in Florida.
The two were strolling through a conference room when someone at a nearby table spoke up to get Hal’s attention. And Matt remembers this vividly. He and his father stopped in their tracks as Howard Schnellenberger belted out: “Hey Hal, you know you’re ruining football, don’t you?”
A 50-year coaching veteran who’d won a national championship at Miami before overhauling the football program at Louisville, Schnellenberger was well-respected in the coaching fraternity. Evidently, Mumme was still an outcast.
Like rock & roll music at one point in time, the Air Raid offense was a genre of football so unordinary and so intrusive that most thought its composer was mad for merely introducing it.
“Yeah, only 99 out of 100 coaches,” Hal said by phone earlier this week from Jackson, Mississippi, where he’s now coaching NAIA Belhaven University.
These days, it might be harder to find one coach in a pool of 100 who hasn’t been at least partially influenced by Mumme’s pass-centric system. The grandfather of the Air Raid introduced his offensive concept more than 30 years ago at a small high school in Copperas Cove, Texas, and even though Mumme never did spend much time coaching major college ball, or dip his feet into the pro ranks, his ideas and schemes have infiltrated almost every level of football – from high school to the NFL.
“(Texas Tech coach) Kliff Kingsbury told us one time he thought 85 percent of the high school coaches in Texas run Air Raid, some form of Air Raid,” Mumme said. “That’s a lot of high schools.”
Mumme is recognized by most as the founder of the Air Raid. He says that’s accurate. “I did it in places that nobody noticed.” But his disciples are the ones responsible for growing the brand, and none have been more dedicated than Washington State’s Mike Leach.
Since Leach became a head coach at Texas Tech in 2000, his offenses have generally led the nation in passing. When they haven’t, it’s because another one of Mumme’s pupils – or Leach’s – has installed the Air Raid and found a way to use it efficiently. Among them, Kingsbury at Texas Tech, Sonny Dykes at Cal and Louisiana Tech, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia.
It’s also the offense of choice at the University of Nevada, where Matt Mumme happens to be a first-year offensive coordinator.
“I grew up in it,” said Matt, who was hired by Nevada coach Jay Norvell in December. “I told Jay, I don’t know anything different, really.”
It’s too bad Hal has to take his Belhaven team to East Texas Baptist this Saturday because there’s a game on the other side of the country he’s invested in. Matt Mumme’s Wolf Pack (0-3, 0-0) are taking on Leach’s Cougars (3-0, 0-0) at 3 p.m. at Martin Stadium. It’s Air Raid vs. Air Raid – Hal’s longtime friend vs. his oldest child.
“I guess I’ll just root for the offense,” Hal Mumme said.
Humble beginnings in Texas
In an era when high school football was losing athletes to the year-round sports – basketball, soccer and baseball – Hal Mumme vowed to design an offense that would make the game fun again.
Copperas Cove High School later would later produce Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, but when Hal inherited the program in central Texas, it wasn’t particularly rich in tradition and it was about half as big as the schools on its schedule.
“So we were pretty much outmanned,” Hal recalled. “… But what we could do is we could be one of the best passing teams in the state of Texas.”
That same pitch is what eventually helped Mumme turn around the program at Iowa Wesleyan, the one at Valdosta State and the one at Kentucky. He wasn’t interested in drilling the Power I formation, the Wing T or the Wishbone – the bread-and-butter offenses being used at the time – but maybe he could entice quarterbacks to come play at a small cornfield school in Iowa by promising them they’d throw the ball 50-60 times per game.
“We have a little tiny college that’s been there forever, 100-something years, trying to survive,” Hal said. “There’s really no reason for a good player to want to go there.”
Mumme’s throwing offense brought enough talent in – and not just players. Iowa Wesleyan is where he linked up with Leach, who’d spent the 1989 football season coaching American football in Finland.
“Really I wanted to hire somebody that didn’t have a lot of preset notions on offensive line play because what we were doing was so different,” Hal said.
In order to widen the quarterback’s passing lines, Mumme decided to split the offensive linemen two to three feet from one another. Mumme poached the concept from BYU, where head coach LaVell Edwards and offensive line coach Roger French had utilized wide-split front lines to open things up for their shorter passers.
“Mike being Mike,” Mumme said, “he took it to some new levels in terms of being able to split your linemen out and pass-protect.”
The duo still wanted more edge for their edgy offense and they found it in Florida. Mumme and Leach were there for recruiting purposes when they ran into Don Matthews, a former Canadian Football League coach who was in Orlando for a coaching clinic. Matthews had an up-tempo two-minute drill that the Wesleyan coaches latched onto – the “Bandit drill” is what Mumme termed it.
“(We) took it back and we said, that’s what we want to do, but we’re not going to do it for two minutes, we’re going to do it all the time,” Mumme said. “And so that was what has become known as the Air Raid.”
Soon enough, both corn and winning football were sprouting from the soil in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. The Tigers went 10-2 in 1991 – “still the only playoff appearance for that little school in over 100 years,” Mumme said.
‘Don’t stop attacking’
You could call Mumme and Leach the Lewis and Clark of football’s modern era. Together, they resurrected three downtrodden programs at three different levels.
Mumme only means to flatter when he says his partner’s influence wasn’t truly felt until Leach left Kentucky in 2000 to become the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma.
“I can remember standing on the sidelines at Kentucky the year after he went to go to Oklahoma,” Mumme said. “Walking up and down the sidelined and thinking, something was different, it’s not right. And it took me awhile to figure it out, but what it was, I missed Mike in my ear telling me, ‘Don’t stop attacking, don’t stop attacking.’”
Attack they did, and win they did.
High school coaches would drop in to learn about the offensive theories the two mad scientists were cooking up, but even when Mumme and Leach arrived in Lexington, the Air Raid still had a relatively small footprint.
Then Kentucky beat Alabama.
On Oct. 4, 1997, Mumme and Leach orchestrated a 40-34 victory over the Crimson Tide. It took overtime and the Wildcats were at home, but for the first time in 75 years, Kentucky would upend the SEC’s biggest bully.
“After that, the whole state of Alabama – I bet we had 20 high school staffs from the state of Alabama come up there,” Mumme recalled.
Big-time upsets became the norm for Mumme and Leach. They believed they could beat anybody. Leach especially.
Valdosta State, an NCAA Division II school, traveled to Central Florida during the second week of the 1994 season. UCF, a top-ranked FCS team at the time, paid Valdosta State big money for the visit and in exchange, the Knights were supposed to spank the Blazers.
“I remember Mike who was coaching the O-line at the time,” Hal said. “He said, ‘Not only are we going to beat these guys, we’re going to beat them bad.’”
Valdosta State 31, Central Florida 14.
Kentucky’s 1997 win over Alabama was one of two signature upsets for the Wildcats that season. They opened the year with Louisville and even if the Air Raid had proven success at the small-school level, many skeptics decided that’s also where it would stop.
“Going into that deal, there was only three or four people in Kentucky that thought we would beat Louisville,” Mumme said. “It was Mike Leach, Matt Mumme and Tim Couch.”
Kentucky 38, Louisville 24.
The Air Raid was more than operational. It was lethal.
“Now you turn on the TV and everyone talks Air Raid and they turn on PlayStation games, Air Raid offenses are on there,” Matt Mumme said. “It is a pretty neat deal to see it everywhere and of course my dad would say this, too. The concepts have been around for a long time, but the way that dad and Mike have packaged is what made it such a game-changer.”
Consider Matt Mumme the world’s first Air Raid quarterback.
“I was doing this stuff when I was in junior high in Texas,” Nevada’s OC said on Tuesday, suggesting he was perhaps a lab rat for dad’s offense when it was still in the experimental stages.
Matt later became a prolific quarterback at Valdosta High in Georgia and won a national championship as a junior. He figured he’d play at nearby Valdosta State, where most thought Leach would become head coach after Hal Mumme bolted for Kentucky. But Valdosta State went in another direction, Leach followed Hal to coach QBs at Kentucky and Matt decided he’d rather be in Lexington as a backup to Couch, the eventual first pick of the NFL Draft, than start at Valdosta, which had already divorced from the Air Raid.
Matt wore out his arm throwing the ball on the weekdays, gladly backed up Couch on Saturdays and graduated from Kentucky in 1999. He vowed to get away from football and sporting a business degree, went to work as an accounts manager in Lexington.
“Being from Texas, you know the Willie Nelson song, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,’” he said. “My mom didn’t want me to be a coach. So I tried not to.”
It was a temptation Matt fought for three years before Hal offered him a position at Southeastern Louisiana.
“Then basically the rest is history,” Matt said.
That was in 2003 and Matt Mumme has been holding a clipboard since. Leach isn’t the least bit surprised.
“He was always around the office, always watching a lot of film,” the WSU coach said. “Hal always watched a ton of film, so you know that Matt didn’t have any choice on the subject. As a kid, if Hal was watching film at the house, he’s going to drag Matt in and make him watch it. You know, ‘Hey Matt, what do you think of this, what do you think of that?’ Matt says, ‘Hey, I think I want to go to bed,’ and Hal says, ‘Well too bad, we’re going to go ahead and talk about this stick route, so what do you think we do it like this and motion to this?’”
An Air Raid reunion
Saturday, Matt will stand on the opposite sideline as his one-time mentor when WSU and Nevada go head-to-head. One of these Air Raids will presumably look much more mature than the other. Leach has produced the two most productive quarterbacks in school history and WSU’s all-time passing leader, Luke Falk, is still on campus. Meanwhile, Mumme and Norvell are just three games into their rebuild at Nevada. They’ll be starting a true freshman, Kaymen Cureton, against the nation’s 18th-ranked team.
The learning curve can be steep for rookie QBs in the Air Raid. And it’s awfully hard on the arm at first.
“It’s like being a pitcher,” Matt Mumme said. “You’re going to throw a lot. I always tell them, quarterbacks when they get here, I’m like, ‘As much as you think you’re going to throw it, you’re going to throw it more than that. You’re going to have to ice every day.’”
The Cougars are 28-point favorites on Saturday. It could get ugly for Matt Mumme’s Wolf Pack, but either way, this should be a good show for the Air Raid aficionados out there. Including the architect himself.
“I’m torn,” Hal Mumme said. “I don’t know who to root for in this.”
If the actual contest isn’t entertaining, at least a few of the game-week stories have been.
Both Hal and Matt Mumme offered their best Leach tales earlier in the week and it’s as if they’ve been colluding – the father and son end up sharing the same one. Almost.
“When I was a freshman, I went into his office and I had about 20 minutes to kill before class and Valdosta State, it’s not a big campus, so I just knew it would be like a two-minute walk to class,” Matt said. “And as I walk in there and sat up and look at the Geronimo picture and I was like, ‘Coach, you really love Geronimo a lot, don’t you?’ And that led into about a two-hour-and-45-minute discussion of Geronimo in which I missed two classes.”
Hal accuses Leach of a similar crime.
Mason Miller, now the offensive line coach at Nevada, was also a player at Valdosta State under the Mumme/Leach regime. Miller was a bright kid, but he was occasionally a no-show to class. Days after the Valdosta coaches grilled their player for skipping, Mumme noticed that Miller had missed a history lecture.
“He’s on some kind of secret probation or something,” Mumme said. “I call him up, I’m like, ‘Hey Mace, how could you miss this? I just got on you about going to class and you go and turn around and miss this history class.’ He said, ‘Coach, I was going to history class and coach Leach called me in his office and said, ‘Let me tell you about Geronimo.’’ He said, ‘Two hours later, I left and class was over with.’”
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