by SC Gwynne
review by Meike Alana
In Texas, people tend to fall into one of two camps: On one hand are those who are fanatic about the game of football—they won’t dream of missing the chance to watch their favorite team play, even travelling many miles to catch a game in person; they faithfully wear their favorite team’s colors, no matter how unflattering; they doggedly argue team stats with anyone willing to engage in debate. On the other are people who don’t understand what all the fuss is about, completely puzzled as to why anyone would want to watch grown men run around and into each other in pursuit of an oddly-shaped ball.
No matter which camp you fall into, this is a fascinating book that you won’t be able to put down.
The titular American genius is football coach Hal Mumme, whom many football insiders consider to be one of the most influential coaches of the last 20 years. He was instrumental in developing the advanced passing offenses that have come to dominate the game at every level. Especially here in Texas, where football is king, without Hal Mumme our Friday night lights and any given Sundays would look vastly different.
Gwynne traces the history of football back to its incarnation in the latter 19th century. Americans had come to see that there was “a link between the violence, discipline, and hardship of war and the development of upright, courageous, productive, and God-fearing citizens.” The early form of football was a “legal form of intimate, savage violence” typified by violent tackling that required “intelligence, strategy, collaboration as well as pure strength.” The game allowed only running; the forward pass was illegal until 1906, but even when it became permissible it was considered “sissy” and most teams continued a run-only offense—until Hal Mumme came along in the 1980’s, that is.
Gwynne spins a mesmerizing tale of how Mumme conceived of a completely different offensive strategy. Inspired by such legendary coaches as BYU’s LaVell Edwards and the San Francisco 49’ers Bill Walsh, Mumme developed a fast-paced offense built around quick, simple passes—one that evolved into the Air Raid offense that Mumme protégée Mike Leach used to such devastating effect in Texas Tech’s 2008 defeat of the University of Texas Longhorns.
But The Perfect Pass is about far more than the game of football. Ultimately the game is just the backdrop for the riveting story of a man with a vision, and the passion to pursue that vision for most of his life. For Hal Mumme, coaching football wasn’t about fame or fortune—it was about the pure joy of crafting and executing a gameplan for success.
For those who’ve read award-winning journalist SC Gwynne’s earlier works, no encouragement is needed to pick up his latest; he brings the most scholarly topics vividly and engagingly to life. Texas Monthly readers may recall his cover story about Mike Leach, which ultimately led to the idea for The Perfect Pass. His first book, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quahah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, became a New York Times bestseller; it told the parallel stories of the rise and fall of the Comanches and the saga of Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest of the Comanches. Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, another NYT bestseller, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; it is the account of a great and tragic national hero.