Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: The Perfect Pass (2016)

By S.C. Gwynne

Football fans probably have noticed a trend in their favorite game during the past several years: some teams are throwing the ball constantly.

Quarterbacks have smashed records for completions and yardage on all levels of the game. The days when a coach worships the concepts of time of possession and establishing the run are dying. Offenses love to cram as many plays as possible into four quarters. It's no wonder college games can last over four hours.

Every once in a while, it's important to ask "How did we get here?" about such transformational developments in any part of life. That's essentially what S.C. Gwynne has done in his book "The Perfect Pass." He has discovered the key to this underreported story, and it's more charming than you'd think.

We like our geniuses to be a little eccentric at times, and that certainly describes Hal Mumme. He loved football, loved to play it in high school and college, and loved to think about it the rest of the time. Mumme worked his way up the coaching ladder when he finished his playing career, becoming an offensive coordinator in Texas El Paso.

That's where he got fired in 1986. So Mumme started over, at Copperas Cove High School in Texas, and tried to do it all over again. But this time, he was going to do it his way - by throwing the football around. And throwing it some more.

Mumme had seen other teams emphasize passing, such as Brigham Young University and Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers. The high school coach took some ideas from both places, and added a few wrinkles of his own. Suddenly, Copperas Cove - a traditional doormat - was competitive for the first time in years despite playing bigger schools with better athletes.

That eventually led to a stop at Iowa Wesleyan College of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. If it wasn't the worst football program in America at that point, it was close to it. Mumme took the head coaching job and found a kindred spirit in Mike Leach, who had a number of interests headed by coaching football. Mumme recruited a bunch of players who generally weren't wanted elsewhere, stopped ordering stretching and sprints during practices, and installed his offensive system. Again, Mumme's team won more games than they had any right to win.

Eventually, Iowa Wesleyan got tired of Mumme and his ambition for a bigger and better program, and the coach was told to be on his way. The road led to Valdosta State, where his offense put up astounding passing numbers and his teams could stay with almost any opponent. He stayed five years, and then moved up to Kentucky - a traditional bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference. But after some reasonable success, Mumme had a bad season partly due to graduation losses in 2000, and the athletic director who hired him retired. Some recruiting violations by staff members led to Mumme's firing in 2001. He's had other stops at small colleges since then, and now coaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Author S.C. Gwynne obviously has plenty of writing talent, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He sticks to people and their personalities here for the most part, which is an excellent idea. There are some X's and O's along the way, which may intimidate a few but are probably necessary to tell the story adequately. Besides, most people who pick up a book like this in the first place will handle the technical matters smoothly. The pages go by very quickly, a good sign.

Mumme always has carried a conviction that football should be simple and fun, resembling a touch football game in the backyard. According to Gwynne, it sounds like Mumme's professional problems usually have popped up when he's dealt with others who think more conventionally - on and off the field. Mumme is much more at home with a blackboard or paper, charting the next play.

Football offenses always have tried to get one step of defenses, only to be reeled in eventually. We'll have to see if Mumme's work continues to catch on in the years to come. In the meantime, "The Perfect Pass" is an excellent way to find out where this latest wave of strategy came from, and where the sport might be going.

Four stars

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