S. C. Gwynne – his friends call him Sam — is an accomplished writer and historian. His Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Commanches, was a New York Times best seller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Gwynne’s Rebel Yell, which chronicles the life of Civil War general Stonewall Jackson, is simply a remarkable biography. Gwynne earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University and a master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins University.
In the tradition of the late Shelby Foote, Gwynne writes non-fiction history in a narrative style that reads like award-winning fiction.
And so, you might ask, what is Gwynne doing in Jackson this Thursday night, signing a book he has written about football and Belhaven University coach Hal Mumme?
I asked him just that.
“In 2008, I was working on a magazine story about Mike Leach when he was winning big at Texas Tech,” Gwynne said by phone from his home in Austin earlier this week. “Leach was setting records with his Air Raid offense, but nobody seemed to know how it worked.
“When I asked him about it, he told me about this miraculous team at Iowa Wesleyan College back in the late ’80s and its coach, Hal Mumme. He told me, ‘If you really want to know about this offense, you should ask Hal Mumme.’”
So, Gwynne did.
“I was fascinated,” Gwynne said. “You had Mumme and Leach at this little school in Iowa, traveling around the country, visiting with NFL coaches and college coaches trying to perfect this passing offense. And from that, they have revolutionized the game of football.”
Mumme was the head coach; Leach was his offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. They turned Iowa Weslyan, a never-had-been, into an NAIA powerhouse. They set record upon record with what became known as the Air Raid offense.
“You look around football today and you see everybody doing what those two started,” Gwynne said. “You see Tom Brady and the Patriots doing it. You see SEC teams, Big 12 teams. People said it wouldn’t work against the speed and size in the SEC and Hal did it at Kentucky. Set records. Beat Alabama with it.”
Earlier this week, in his Belhaven football office, Mumme talked about Gwynne’s book. Yes, he liked it.
“I was flattered that Sam wanted to do it,” Mumme said. “He got it right.”
Mumme looks more like an absent-minded professor than a football coach. His wears his thick hair long and reading spectacles on the end of his nose. His desk is a mess. When a reporter asks him what time his practice is, he calls out to none in particular, “Hey, what time is practice?”
Yes, he acknowledges, he could still be working at NCAA Division I as an offensive coordinator and that might lead to another head coach’s job.
“But I love this,” he said. “I love it here. We’re going to win here and have fun doing it.”
Gwynne unabashedly calls Mumme “a genius.” In fact, it’s in the subtitle after The Perfect Pass: “American Genius and the Reinvention of Football.”
Gwynne is not alone. Said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops of Mumme: “Hal Mumme has always been a true American genius, and every year teams running his offense are among the tops in yards and points. I know, because I would like to have hired him.”
What Gwynne tells so well is how resistant to change football always has been. And how Mumme and Leach have changed it. (I would add that the legalization of offensive holding greatly helped.)
“It took football 35 years to even accept the idea of the forward pass,” Gwynne says. “For so long, it was a run-dominated game, a bloody scrum at the line of scrimmage. Hal and Leach, like two mad scientists, changed all that.”
Gwynne and Mumme will be at Lemuria at 5 p.m. Thursday to sign the new book.