The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

Play the next play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the perfect passThis 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.

1929 - when men were men and football was war
1929 – when men were men and football was war

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.

Testing football helmets...
Testing football helmets…

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!

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach

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.

Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of University of Kentucky Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP
Hal Mumme with Tim Couch, then coach and QB of Kentucky Wildcats
Photo credit: Ed Reinke/AP

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.

SC Gwynne
SC Gwynne

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link


61 thoughts on “The Perfect Pass by SC Gwynne

  1. An interesting modern parallel is FC Barcelona’s tiki-taka tactics. Finding themselves with a group of fantastically talented players who were all on the short side, they invented a passing game that concentrated on possession above all without trying to win the ball in the air from corners and so on. Just like Mumme, they developed a system for the players on hand, and revolutionised the game (for a while).

    • It seems to make sense to work with what you’ve got, though it appears in American football at least the old guard weren’t very good at accepting change. Apparently when a rule was changed to protect quarterbacks from being spifflicated, one of the top coaches suggested they should be made to wear dresses…

  2. Ah, so you’ve translated your thoughts into American, FictionFan – how kind of you. 😉 – In all seriousness, I’m glad you enjoyed this book as much as you did. As I was reading your post, it occurred to me that when an author can write well about two such different topics, s/he has real talent. It takes a special skill to be able to do that.

    • Haha! Purely temporary – I don’t want to be lynched by irate fans of the letter ‘c’! Absolutely – he’s one of these people who can take something complicated and kinda dry and make it entertaining and clear. I remember when reading the Stonewall Jackson book being surprised that he managed to interest me in battle plans and troop movements. I dread to imagine what subject he’s going to make me read next, though…

  3. This must be so amazingly written as I can think of little worse than reading a book about American football! I am very glad you liked it, FF, but I can’t see me having a go at this one. Now – perhaps if it had been about rugby and featured illustrations of players’ thighs, then I might be interested 😉

  4. Well done -you managed to make this sound interesting! I loved Stonewall, but I was somewhat taken aback by this choice of subject.

  5. I expect, however, you won’t make this any kind of winner this year IN CASE his next book is about something even weirder and more off putting for you – perhaps a novel written in first person present tense, which I know you adore……………………………….

    • Haha! I must admit I’m kinda dreading to see what he does next – though it would be hard to imagine anything less likely to appeal to me than this one! Unless he does Donald’s biography… Trump, not Duck!

  6. PS – Please tell me there is a basketball player called (something) Dadde?? I might even watch a game for the pleasure of hearing the crowd shout Mumme! Dadde! at regular intervals, leaving other members of the crowd panicky and confused wondering who is calling them.

    I looked at the pictures, but (hangs head, in shame) couldn’t bring myself to read the review. It only proves that even a brilliant blogger might fail to raise the interest of a lazy reader if the subject is just……..too…zzzzzzz…for her. I’m sure its a very interesting game really. But, well, it just isn’t TENNIS!

    • Hahaha! I could probably have made a good guess that you hadn’t read the review, since the sport in question is FOOTball!! No wonder the spectators are confused… now all we need is a baseball team to join in (coached by Granne, no doubt) to make the thing really exciting!

      It’s a pity you missed the paragraph about the quarterback, the shorts and the cream buns though…

      • Nice try, not biting. Not unless there’s a Mumme and a Dadde. It’s still not tennis, even if it is football. Just not football as we don’t know it. Wasn’t there a sport (baseball? Basketball?) which had a player called Bubba? There was certainly a player called Babe (Ruth). A man. Good family fun …surely the ball in your picture is the wrong shape for football. I rest my case.

        • Bubba?? I don’t know – d’you think I’m suddenly the American sports expert for wikipedia or something?? Look, I managed to get through the book, that’s all!! I know nothing! All I know is that they play football with their hands, basketball is netball for tall people, and baseball is rounders! And that an 80 minute football game lasts for about six hours – and I mean that literally, not as in curved space/time relatively eating chocolate while standing in front of a moving train that’s heading for a black hole type time. Though sometimes it can feel as if you’re already in the black hole…

  7. Oh yes, I am going to read this. Especially since, after 20 long years, I am finally getting the hang of football (aka “a bunch of guys jumping on top of each other to get to an oddly-shaped ball”). I had to laugh, though, when I started to read your review, because when you first mentioned the book in your 20 Books of Summer wrap-up post, I thought it somehow combined football and WWII. I had no idea that the air raids meant a strategy in the sport. 🙂

    • Hurrah!! I didn’t think I’d be able to talk anyone into this one – you’ve made me so happy!! 😉 Haha! If it had been about WWII I’d have been more confident of understanding it. But he did make it all very clear and I really felt like I understood the game 100 times better. I hope you enjoy it – he’s such a good writer… 🙂

  8. Reading about American football?! Who put you up to this? The Professor? Was it Tom Brady?

    Anyhoo, I’m glad you liked it. Sounds like it’s an engaging read and well written, but I will pass (bad pun intended).

    (btw, my Scottish love, Sam Heughan, is much cuter than Brady, and he’s in your very own backyard!)

    • Oooh, I have to admit he’s rather delectable! I must watch the show this weekend – I take it he wears a kilt? *swoons in anticipation*

      Haha! How did you guess? Yes, ’twas for Tom, ‘cos let’s face it, he’s more likely to put in an appearance on the blog than the Professor… 😉 At least now I’ll have something to talk to him about…”So, Tom, why DO you spell offence with an s…?”

      • Yes, he wears a swoon-worthy kilt! Funny, he reminds me of Brady in looks, but I still think Sam is much more handsome. And he can act! A bit of warning, however, and not precisely a spoiler, but the end of the first season got a little weird for me. Not a deal breaker though! Just move on. It’s still terrific. I’m on season 2 now. You must let me know what you think!

        I’m reading The Girls now and loving it! That’ll make 3 great reads in a row!!

        • Yes, I see the similarity… hmm! I’d have to see him act before I decided, but I’m swaying towards Tom… I shall give you my considered judgement once I’ve seen the kilt… Thanks for the warning – I shall bear it in mind!

          Oooh, I’m on a roll here! You must be my best customer this year – I shall have to give you a loyalty card or something – for every five books you read I post a picture of Sam maybe! So glad you’re loving it – definitely one of the books of the year for me. And yet another author added to my must-read list…

  9. Very entertaining and enlightening review! Thoroughly enjoyed the picture of the man testing the helmet! I have grown up watching American football and I can’t say that I’m a huge fan, but I’ll watch it if my husband has it on. I can take it or leave it. Maybe if I’d lived in a city that has an NFL team I’d feel differently. But I am glad that you enjoyed this one. It’s a testament to Gwynne’s skill as a writer. I may recommend this one to the hubby – a blend of history and sports is right up his alley.

    • Haha! Thank you – it was worth reading the book just to get to use that picture! 😉 I actually quite enjoyed the game I watched once I’d looked up the rules on wiki. But all those breaks! It goes on forever! But now I’d actually have a better idea what the experts were chuntering on about. Perfect Christmas gift material, I’d say…

  10. Here’s my confession: when I was little (pre-teen and teen, maybe) I wanted so badly to play football, but couldn’t because I was a girl. So, even though I have grown up actually liking the game, I still don’t know a whole lot about it. My son is now playing football, so I can live vicariously through him, except that mostly I just stand on the sidelines and pray that he doesn’t get hurt. (It’s stressful!)
    There are girls playing now on the younger teams, but it’s very rare to see them on the teams past the age of 12. I don’t really blame them – the guys are so big and scary looking in their gear. When are they going to start girls only teams, I wonder? Maybe they exist somewhere else, but they don’t here!
    Anyway, the point of all this (I think), is that I think I would like this book. And it might help me figure out better what the guys are up to when I’m watching them.

    • I’m like that with tennis – I watch it all the time, but because I’ve never really played it I still don’t really understand all the technical stuff. But I do feel slightly more knowledgeable about football now – I’m quite keen to watch another game to see if it makes a difference. I actually wondered while I was reading if there are girls teams now – I’m surprised there aren’t. It is fairly brutal, but so’s boxing and girls do that now. You should start up a girl book-blogger team – you can be the quarterback, and I’ll be the one who hands round the cake at halftime… 😉

  11. This sounds like exactly the sort of book I should get my dad! 🙂

    This author must be amazing – football and Jackson…though perhaps the war theme supplies the link between the two topics. My dad admits that is part of the fascination of sports – watching two teams lay everything on the line in order to win…as if it was a matter of life and death. Human struggle and effort. I’m not quite so philosophic – I just like to see my team win.

    Great review!

    • Thank you! I think it would be ideal gift material for a football fan – the other two reviews on Goodreads are both from fans, and they rate it highly too (it only came out yesterday – that’s why there’s so few reviews).

      Haha! Yes, watching people rip each other’s heads off seems to be an integral part of the fun! He did make me laugh with all the manliness and war substitute stuff… 😀

  12. “A jolly silly game one has to have grown up with to fully appreciate.” In other words, a game like cricket, or even soccer to this dunderhead (I still don’t get it, but my kids do).

    The best of any game you didn’t grow up with–the poetry of it, if you will–is very difficult to appreciate. The speed, the geometry, the prescribed distances that still make sense a century later–it’s sorcery almost. It’s a very good book that seems to have given you a real leg up to seeing all that in our football. And back then a coach who felt the game should be fun (rather than a test of the bull*!#^ that so often went by the moniker “manhood” in those days) was indeed revolutionary then.

    All of which makes me think a book that did this for baseball would be a good thing for a globalizing world . . .

    • Haha! Don’t mention cricket! He might decide to write his next book on that and I don’t think I could cope…

      Yes, I think you almost have to have played a sport to really get a feel for it. I was always rubbish at sports, but at least I’ve had a shot at tennis, soccer, even cricket! So I might not appreciate all the skill but I’ve got a handle on the rules and tactics at least. Whereas the finer points of American football passed me by, especially the importance of the coaches. And the commentators and experts were more or less incomprehensible. But this book has given me enough of the jargon and tactics to maybe try again… quite an achievement!

      Baseball! At this rate I’ll be talking with an American accent soon… 😉

  13. I’m in awe of the breadth of your reading list. You read absolutely everything! Good on you! Great review! I love watching football. Never wanted to play it though. The thought of being tackled was always a deterrent. We played flag football though. No tackling.

    • Hahaha! I know! The odd thing is I usually end up enjoying these weird books too – I think I must have been dropped on my head as a baby! I’m most definitely a sports watcher rather than a player – always was. I did play various sports at school but not with a huge amount of enthusiasm. I might try watching another football game and see if my new-found knowledge helps…

  14. So glad to hear the book didn’t bamboozle you even if some of the tactics devised did so within the game. I think this is the perfect example of how good writing really transforms the way we take in information – I’m not going to go as far as to say I’d read the book, but it’s good to know that even though the subject matter might not have been the most appealing, it was written in a way to keep you entertained.

    • Yes, indeed – I’m always amazed at how a good writer can make anything not just clear but enjoyable. I’d never have read this if he hadn’t won the FF Book of the Year, but I’m kinda glad I did. I might not become a huge American football fan, but I do appreciate it more than I did now – though I still don’t appreciate the American spelling! 😉

  15. Do you know what I love about coming to read your blog, Fiction Fan? Your eclectic reading tastes. I never know what I’m going to see here! I’m currently trying to read wider and have started using Audible and using it to read non-fiction books. I’m finding it a joy and am reading books I might not have otherwise read if left to pick it up as an actual book (paper or E). Thank you for sharing another fascinating read.

    • Haha! Thank you! I don’t know what it is about these weird books that appeals to me, but oddly I usually end up enjoying them even if they’re about a subject as odd as this! Audiobooks can be great for non-fiction – quite often I find the narrator makes all the difference, making something that could have been quite dry on paper enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Shepherd’s narration of a book about Churchill – mind you, I could listen to Simon Shepherd’s lovely voice reading the telephone directory… 😉

  16. This was an enjoyable review, but I don’t think I’ll read the book or watch a game of American Football. I was brought up watching Aussie Rules and love it, suspect you’re right about having to be brought up in a particular sporting culture to really appreciate the finer points of the play. You might like to check out AFL, there are some gorgeous young men playing this game 😉

    • Oooh, I’ve never watched Aussie Rules – looking at the description on wiki makes it sound like quite fun, if completely mad! I must check and see if any of our cable channels show it. I do hope nobody writes a book about it, though! Yes, I suspect you probably have to play a sport as a child in order to really get a feel for it. All the sports I enjoy most are ones that I played (badly) at school – because I understand the rules and tactics, I suppose.

      • I think Aussie Rules is a bit like Gaelic Football. The AFL grand final is next weekend, so it’s an exciting time in Melbourne. We get a public holiday for the Grand Final Parade! I wagged work one year to go, it was great!

        • A public holiday for a football game!!? Lucky you! I’m going to start demanding that we get a public holiday anytime Scotland wins a game – so that should be roughly once every twenty years… 😉

  17. Between the rampant domestic abuse allegations in the NFL, the “boys will be boys” attitude of college football players who aren’t convicted of rape even when there is irrefutable endurance, to the new attention to the incredible danger and consequences of repeat concussions that leads to players’ deaths, I despise football and everything it stands for.

  18. *mouth drops* You read a … football book? Why, BUS and I are so proud. (Don’t you like how I keep bringing her into the conversation?)

    Anyways. The Pats are doing excellent. 3-0. And all without TB! *dances*

    • I did! I’m proud too! (No, I do not, sir! It would be tragic if in a fit of jealous rage I accidentally blancmanged my own sister!! *pauses* Though it might also be fun…)

      Why, what’s happened to my Tom? Who’s being the QB then? Most importantly, is he gorgeous?

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