Play the next play…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
This is the story of how a college coach, Hal Mumme, developed an “unstoppable” offense that would defeat even the biggest, strongest defenses; and of how that offense gradually spread throughout college football and into the professional leagues, changing the very nature of the game – the Air Raid offense.
Sometimes you just have to take the things life throws at you and run with them. When SC Gwynne won my Book of the Year award in 2014 for Rebel Yell, his brilliant biography of Stonewall Jackson, I gave him the usual prize – my promise to read his next book. Of course, I was assuming it would be another biography of a historical soldier or politician. Imagine my… delight when it turned out to be a book about a passing offense in American football! In my life I have watched one full game and a bit of another, and frankly thought it was
a jolly silly game a game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate. So the question was not so much whether I’d like this book as whether I’d even understand it!
Gwynne starts with a great description of Texas Tech putting the Air Raid offense into action in 2008. He then whisks us back in time to meet Hal Mumme at the beginning of his coaching career. He shows the uncertainty of life as a college coach in a nation obsessed with the game – a hero when leading his team to victory, but abused and reviled if they lose. Hal had always wanted to coach, despite the low pay and precariousness of the profession. His big idea was that he was going to make throwing the ball the centre of the game.
To explain why this idea was so radical, Gwynne gives a potted history of the rise of football. He shows it as arising out of a nostalgia for war – an opportunity for men to hone their manly aggression in peacetime. Therefore it was all about brute force in “the pile” in the middle of the field – meat on meat, as it was charmingly summed up. The more broken bones, busted skulls and fatal injuries the better – a real man’s game! Forward passing was initially prohibited, but when reformers began demanding that the game be made less dangerous, it was eventually legalised. However, it was rarely used, since in this beefy culture it was seen as “feminising” the game. In short, passing was for sissies. Games were all about bulldozing the opposition, and as a result were usually low-scoring and rather dull to watch. This chapter is so well-told and very funny in places, especially over the “manliness” aspects of it all.
Though the passing technology was more than half a century old, there was still something morally thrilling about watching the quarterback toss the ball to the tailback, while the guard or tackle pulled and the fullback crashed down on the defensive end and the whole team seemed to move en masse in that swinging, lovely rightward arc of pure power followed by the popping sounds of all those helmets and pads and the scream of the crowd as the whole thing disintegrated into a mass of bodies on the turf.
Hal was convinced though that passing could be made to work, especially for teams without the brute power to win against bigger opponents using traditional plays. The bulk of the book is taken up with Hal’s long road to development of the Air Raid, learning from other coaches who used passing plays in their games, trying out new things with the various teams he worked with and, with his long-time coaching partner Mike Leach, gradually refining his system so that even fairly mediocre players could be taught it. It wasn’t just on the field that he changed things. Again the culture was to make the players prove their toughness in full contact training, often being injured before they even got to play, or being worked so hard in training sessions they would be on or past the point of collapse. Hal had his players do shorter sessions, focussed on passing rather than tackling, developing precision in throwing and tactics rather than beating each other to a pulp. His idea, which doesn’t sound as though it should have been revolutionary but apparently was, was that football should be fun!
And gradually, the no-hoper teams he initially worked with began to win games, and to win them spectacularly with huge scores. And dismissive traditionalist crowds began to see that the passing game was exciting (especially the fans of the winning teams – the losing fans perhaps weren’t quite so enthused). Slowly other coaches started to use Hal’s techniques until eventually passing became an accepted part of the game. Hal’s own career remained chequered and he never made it into the professional divisions, but his ideas did, and the final version of all his work, the Air Raid offense, has been used and adapted by the top teams.
One of Hal’s favourite sayings was, Play the next play. The words were a combination pep talk and theory of life, perfectly aligned with his coaching philosophy. The gist was, life, like football, is a headlong dive into the future. There is no past, at least not one you should worry too much about. If you lose, let it go. Don’t panic. If you win, don’t be too satisfied. Play the next play.
This isn’t a hugely long book, but even so I’ve only given a flavour of it. Gwynne’s writing brings the sport to life and he explains all the various plays clearly enough that even I felt I understood them. There are lots of diagrams to show the various offensive formations and how they’re designed to bamboozle the opposition defenses. Through it all, Gwynne’s respect for and warmth towards the game, its coaches and players, shines through, and the occasional humour and great descriptions of the games make the book entertaining as well as informative. A surprise hit for me, proving that a great writer can make almost any subject fascinating. I may even watch a few more games now…
(Since the game is American, I’ve gone along with the
wrong American spellings of offence and defence throughout… 😉 )
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.