What does it take to run the Air Raid? It takes savvy, arrogance and wisdom—and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Air Raid godfather Hal Mumme was all three.
Hal Mumme’s life was so full of football that his wife had to schedule an induced labor to fit the birth of their child into his itinerary.
In Mumme's biography, The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne tells a story about how bad Iowa Wesleyan College was at football when he arrived. As head coach at IWC, Mumme tried to recruit a heralded wide receiver named Dana Hologorsen. He sent a message into Holgorsen’s English class that said Mumme would like to talk to him. Holgorsen sent a message back that, with respect, he’d rather finish his English class.
Mumme’s playbook does not exist. He didn’t make one because he didn’t want his players thinking too hard about what they were being asked to do. There were only 15 pass plays and six run plays in his entire scheme, though the offense did run those plays out of various formations.
On the brink of one of the biggest games in school history, Sports Illustrated’s Douglas Looney spoke to Mumme, then head coach at Valdosta State, about how his team was built.
“We don’t stretch, run sprints, we don’t practice on Mondays or Fridays,” Mumme said. “And when we do practice we never go longer than an hour and forty-five minutes. All this is so we don’t waste the players’ time, and we never scrimmage in the fall, to avoid injuries. So when I recruit offensive linemen I say, ‘Look, all you have to do are three things — lift, jump rope and eat. There’s probably one of these three that you like already.”
While he was the offensive coordinator at the University of Texas at El Paso, he spent an entire month in the state of California because the university could not afford to fly him back and forth. He eventually got fired from that job.
Several months later he was hired on as the athletics director and head football coach at Copperas Cove High School. This, despite Mumme having coached just two teams in 10 years that had winning records.
Nothing much changed while he was at Copperas Cove.
In his first three years, Mumme didn’t have a winning season. But it was the way they lost that began to show signs that Mumme’s teams were not only getting better but that a funny-looking, pass-happy offense he chose to tinker with in real live Texas high school football games was working.
See, that was Mumme’s deal. He wanted to come up with an offense that would allow him to win football games with average players against superior players. The best way to do that, to his mind, was to make use of every blade of grass on a football field. You could only do that by spreading the field with wide outs and chucking the ball into open space. There was proof that this not only could but did work.
It worked in the 1930s when Texas Christian coach Dutch Meyer popularized the spread offense with no fewer than four wide outs in formation at a time. It worked in the 1950s and 1960s when Tiger Ellison was inspired by a bunch of kids playing backyard football in Middletown, Ohio, to begin diagramming what he would later call the Run and Shoot offense.
It worked for Sid Gillman’s Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers when passes were about timing rather than yardage. It worked for Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers, which made use of quarterbacks with quick releases while receivers ran short economic routes that frustrated the defense five yards at a time.
Mumme wanted to add something brilliant to those schemes and that growing philosophy of passing first.
One of Mumme’s breakthroughs came with his popularization of the wide receiver quick screen. Upon first glance, watching the quick screen looks like the wackiest, most unfulfilling pass play ever. It really just looks like an extended, high risk handoff.
After all, all the quarterback does is take the snap from the center, spin around and throw a horizontal pass to a wide out who has taken a single step backward to catch the pass. Then the wide out is left to try to out-duel a defensive back who has seen the whole thing develop in front of him and has a good opportunity to make a tackle for a loss.
But the play was genius for two reasons. The first came from the realization that Mumme should let his quarterback and wide outs make decisions for themselves. If the corner back played bump-and-run, throw it behind him. If he played off 10 yards, throw it in front of him. That became kind of the point of Mumme’s offense: Throw it where they ain’t.
The second reason came after Mumme attended a coach’s clinic where University of Southern California coach John Robinson gave a talk about the philosophy behind his famous sweep right running play.
The play, better known as Student Body Right, sent the whole of the offense to the right side of the field to block for the tailback. The sheer mass of men cleared the way against most average teams for the tailback.
Against better teams, it didn’t always work, but as Robinson explained, it did force the whole defense to honor it—and there’s nothing fun about having to sprint 10 yards at an angle over and over again, especially if you’re playing defense on the weak side of the field.
Eventually, weak-side and middle linebackers are gonna get tired. With tired linebackers, eventually, that tailback is gonna go 60 yards to the house.
Today, you see variations of the quick screen at every level of football.
When Mumme held his first team meeting at Iowa Wesleyan, only two players showed up. One was the punter who looked like a stiff breeze might knock him over. The other was a big guy who looked like he might halfway be able to play a little football. But when Mumme told his team — all two players of it — that they were going to lift weights hard during the offseason to prepare for the season, the great big guy stood up and walked out.
Mumme had to build an entire roster around a single player — a punter — before the season started.
He and his newly-hired offensive line coach Mike Leach created his team mostly out of Texas kids who weren’t offered scholarships anywhere else and junior college kids who needed another chance. His starting quarterback, the same he’d had at Copperas Cove, had all but given up on football when Mumme convinced him to give it another go with him at Iowa Wesleyan. And this would be the group of kids Mumme would rewrite NAIA record books with in 1989.
Mumme was on his way to creating a smallest of the small college juggernaut when he was told he was going to be fired at the end of the 1991 season. No matter. He took Leach with him and created another one at Valdosta State. And Valdosta State is where Leach’s name for the offense finally began to take hold.
Mumme didn’t really care what Leach called the offense. But Leach, who had acted as Iowa Wesleyan’s sports information director and had been promoted to offensive coordinator at Valdosta State, wanted to give the offense a name to get more reporters to write about his team in an age when the broadsheet was still king.
He thought “Air Raid” had the same panache as Steve Spurrier’s "Air Ball" and Tiger Ellison’s "Run and Shoot." In Valdosta, Ga., it was kismet.
Turns out the father of a Valdosta State wide receiver owned a genuine air raid siren from an actual carrier. The sound is terrifically alarming, and Valdosta State made a point of playing it after every Blazer touchdown—of which there were many.
It was so annoying that the Gulf South Conference instituted a rule against noisemakers in the stadiums. So Leach, being the pirate he is, convinced a Valdosta State fraternity near the stadium to mount it on the roof of its house and play every time his team scored.
With similar talent — which is to say not a whole hell of a lot at all — they challenged teams in the run-dominated Gulf South to keep up with a pass-happy offense that fancied throwing the ball 60 times a game. Two years after Mumme took the job, his quarterback, a walk-on named Chris Hatcher, won the Harlon Hill Award — the de facto Division II Heisman Trophy.
Then, in 1996, Kentucky called.
At Kentucky, Mumme, Leach and the boys rewrote school and conference record books again with quarterback Tim Couch. They turned a team that had gone 9–24 over the previous three years into the kind of squad that would knock off No. 20 Alabama in its first year. The Wildcats hadn’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 1922.
They scared the bejesus out of SEC defenses. So much so, that when Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops got the head coaching job at Oklahoma he recruited Leach to be his offensive coordinator.
Leach was so good at OU that he was offered and took the head coaching job at Texas Tech after just one year in Norman, where he laid the groundwork for the Sooners’ 2000 national title run. What’s more, Leach and Mumme have turned the Big 12 conference into one that stands as a sort of league made in their image, with disciples littered all over it running some version of the Air Raid.
One of Leach’s first quarterbacks at Tech was Kliff Kingsbury, who is now the headman in Lubbock. TCU co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie was also a Leach quarterback. Former Baylor head coach Art Briles was a Leach assistant. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen was an offensive coordinator for Leach at Tech, and TCU co-offensive coordinator Doug Meachem was a wide receivers coach on Holgorsen’s offensive staff at Oklahoma State.
After he stopped dancing with the girl that brought him, Stoops hired offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Riley coached for Leach in one way or another for seven years before setting a new standard for offensive output as the play-caller at East Carolina. In his first year at Oklahoma, Riley’s offense helped the Sooners reach the College Football Playoff.
Because Mumme was bull-headed, cocky and willing to go almost anywhere that would let him try out his ideas, we get to see the best college football ever.
Balls are thrown all over the yard to anybody with a good set of hands—even a 400-pound lineman. Offenses have just two speeds: standing on the sideline and warp speed.
Quarterbacks routinely throw for 300 yards in a game—or, if you play for Leach, 734 yards in a game. Wide receivers make miraculous catches on the regular, and coaches are more willing than ever to go for it on fourth down.
It’s a hell of a time to be a college football fan. And, in large part, we have Hal Mumme to thank for that.
RJ Young is a former Oklahoma Sooners football and basketball beat writer, investigative journalist, essayist, novelist, and Ph.D student. His memoir "LET IT BANG" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) hits shelves and earbuds in October. His YouTube channel is fire if you're into storytelling and topics ranging from Baker Mayfield to The Rock's early wrestling career to this one time when a guy got a little too interested in RJ's "Black Panther" cup at a urinal inside of a movie theater.