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An Interview With Hal Mumme, College Football's All-Time David

Hal Mumme had 38 radiation treatments during the 2011 season and didn't miss a game. He's also alive and well, coaching football, and happy to admit he likes Nickelback. Spencer Hall catches up with the Godfather of the Air Raid.

Spencer Hall spoke with current McMurry University football head coach and former Kentucky and New Mexico State head coach Hal Mumme on June 20th, 2012. Mumme became nationally known in the 1990s for the Air Raid offense, an aggressive attack whose adherents include Washington State coach Mike Leach, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and his offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, and Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes.

Mumme was also diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, and is currently in remission. We talked about working while undergoing cancer treatment, his wide-ranging coaching career, the elk population of New Mexico, whether Texas A&M can run the Air Raid in today's SEC, the NCAA's dentist office, and about liking extremely unpopular music.

SH: First off, how's your health?

HM: It's been pretty good here lately. It's been a little bit of a battle for a couple of years. The best thing I did was that I stopped eating 10,000 calories a day and lost some weight, so I feel a lot better.

SH: What was your cheat food? Everyone's got one.

HM: Oh, Mexican food. I'm from Texas originally, so eating Mexican food is a way of life. I've had to give up a few things, but I've lost about 30 or 40 pounds. My energy level's a lot better. I'm in remission, there's people with a lot worse cancer than I've got.

SH: How does that work, to coach and receive cancer treatment at the same time? Explain that for someone who doesn't understand. How do you cope with doing both at once? Or can you?

HM: Mine hit in August of '08 before my last season at New Mexico State. I didn't handle it very well, to be honest with you. I was really tired, I was sick, I spent the first half of the season in a golf cart. Then they put me on some medication to try and clear it up and it didn't work, but towards the end of the season I got to feeling better.

But then we got fired. We had a good start, we were 3-2 halfway through the season, which is pretty good for New Mexico State. We'd beaten UTEP and Nevada at home, but then the team got hurt and I got sicker, and it just kind of cratered. I'm not a real good guy to ask how to handle that effectively, because I didn't do a very good job. Later on I had surgery that winter, so it's been a little easier since I got it out.

SH: There's not really a good way to handle cancer and football at the same time, is there?

HM: No, there's not a good way to do it. What happens is this: we played Nebraska the first game. I spent the whole game on my knees. I would just take a knee because I was so tired I couldn't stand up. It just makes you really tired.

This past season I had 38 radiation treatments during two-a-days and during the season. That makes you tired, too, but it's not nearly as bad as the onset of the stuff.

SH: So during the McMurry 2011 season, you had 38 radiation treatments?

HM: Yeah, I'd go every day after practice. Radiation's not that bad. You go lay there for fifteen minutes, and they give you a massive sunburn in one place. Got a real neat tattoo, too, so that's pretty nice. That's an added plus.

SH: What are the aftereffects of all that, for the layperson?

HM: It makes you really tired. If you've ever been to the weight room and just been really exhausted afterwards, that's what it's like.

SH: Like the worst squat workout ever, all the time?

HM: Yeah, yeah, and your legs are tired, your body's tired. I handled it a lot better this year, I think. That's because we had a good team. They overcame my coaching, for the most part.

SH: Do you delegate more now?

HM: Really, the first two seasons here at McMurry I delegated a lot. My son was offensive coordinator, but after he left for Davidson to be the OC there I took over the playcalling again. That's the first time I'd done that in six or eight years. It was more work, but it really kind of energized me.

SH: Going back to New Mexico State for a minute, they're one of those teams that's left out of realignment.

HM: Yeah, that's a tough deal for them.

SH: First, how hard is it to build something at that program? And where do you see them landing in realignment?

HM: I don't really have any answers for you there other than, "It's tough to get players there." New Mexico has the fourth-largest landmass in the U.S., and something like near the bottom in population. There's not a lot of players. There's a lot of elk. There's not a lot of people. In terms of football players, they don't produce very many. You have to go a long way to get players. Being patient with that is hard to do sometimes.

As for realignment, I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen. I'm not even going to venture a guess.

SH: Your coaching tree extends throughout college football now. What's it like to be the source of all that, and to watch it proliferate through college football?

HM: It's been fun, to see how it's spread. We always believed in what we were doing. We've got Leach, Holgorsen, Chris Hatcher at Murray State, coordinators all around ... when we first started doing it in the '80s in high school, no one else was doing it for the most part. There were a few pioneers like John Jenkins at Houston, and of course LaVell Edwards at BYU was who we modeled most of our stuff after. Now everyone's doing it.

SH: I read a quote from Kirby Smart who said, "Alabama football is not about fun," this past week. Your teams were always fun, but also pretty effective. Is that something that gets lost the higher up you go on the coaching ladder?

HM: I think it depends on the level. I always had these jobs where they were pretty desperate, and had to think outside of the box. I think there's programs like Alabama and around the top 25 where they don't have to do what we do, so they don't.

We were at Kentucky, and we were doing this, and Spurrier was throwing it around pretty good at Florida with great players. (We were at Kentucky, and had a few great players but not as many.) I think everyone found Kentucky football fun, and that's why we were on television so much. We were fun to watch.

I had a guy tell me one time when we first started that he never turned off a BYU game. He had no connection to BYU or even the state of Utah, but if BYU was playing on TV he was going to watch the game. That always kind of struck a chord with me, because that's a way to get everyone excited about your football program: the fans, the players, the people who needed to get excited about your program.

SH: What drew you to BYU specifically?

HM: They started this. I started my coaching career in the mid-seventies, and that's when they really started getting hot. Gifford Nielsen, Mark Wilson and those guys. I just thought Coach Edwards did more with less on a regular basis. The rap on BYU for a long, long time before he became coach was, "the kids all go on missions, so you can't ever build a program." He just found a way to do more with less.

As they got good, they got better players, but they resisted the temptation to become conservative. I think that's why they ended up with players like Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer and all those guys.

SH: Who do you see now that you enjoy watching, when you have the time? Who does something now that you find fun to watch?

HM: I still find our stuff fun to watch. If I was going to run the ball, I'd do what Paul Johnson does at Georgia Tech. I'm kind of an all-or-nothing kind of guy. They're fun to watch.

SH: If you were going to run it, you'd just run it seventy times a game.

HM: Oh, yeah. I love watching all those teams that do that: Georgia Tech, Army, Navy, all of them. I might not be the best guy to ask that, since I have this mentality that if you're at a place that isn't supposed to win, you have to live on the edge or you'll have no chance of winning. If you do something in the extreme, and you do it really, really well, and you rep it all the time and that's what you do well, when teams play you they're going to have to play in the extreme. And you're good at it because you do it all the time, and they only practice it for that one game.

You may not have the physical advantage, but you have the mental advantage going into a game. You never think you're out of it. That's always been my philosophy. Because you're so good at the extreme, one or two times a year you can go to the opposite because people overplay it so much. One or two times a year, we have a really good game rushing the football. One or two times a year, Georgia Tech will have a really big day throwing the football. It doesn't happen a lot, it happens when people give it to you. That's the way I like playing.

SH: Do you think a top 25 program, one that doesn't necessarily live on the edge, can be successful playing within the Air Raid?

HM: We're gonna find out, because Kevin Sumlin is the first guy in our little group who can go around in his area and recruit the top 25 players. We're gonna find out, but I always thought you could. Leach and I used to talk about this all the time when we were at Kentucky. We'd look at all these guys being signed in the SEC. The top teams in the SEC are always recruiting the top ten or twenty players in the nation, and we were recruiting the top two hundred. We always thought we could.

Mike had the same setup at Texas Tech. There were always five or six schools competing for your recruits in the state, and he's sort of in the same position at Washington State right now. I think Kevin's the first guy who runs Air Raid who has a chance to do that. So we're going to have a pretty good object lesson. I always thought if you got better players you'd just get better at it. Coach Edwards once told me that the reason BYU won the 1984 national championship is because they resisted the temptation to become conservative after they started getting better players.

SH: Do you think that urge had something to do with BYU's decline later?

HM: You have a system. You don't take the system apart because you signed a good tailback. You sign a better running back than the one you had before, and you make them fit into the system. But he's still better than the guy you had before. You have to get good players, but once you get them you have to know what you want to do with them.

The other thing that happens is recruiting gets easier. When you do what we do, you always know what you're looking for. If you're one of these guys who changes offensive systems every two or three years, then your recruiting changes. Your quarterback's got to be a different player in the zone-read offense than he would be in the Air Raid. Same thing with every other position.

SH: At the D-II level, what adjustments do you make that you might not have to make at the D-I level?

HM: It's never changed. I've been a head coach in every single division, and it's never changed. I did the same things at Kentucky that I did at Iowa Wesleyan College.

SH: At Kentucky, you saw the SEC up close. How is it different from a coach's perspective?

HM: There's really only two positions that count. At the top of the BCS, there's cornerbacks and defensive ends. Those are the only two positions I think that have a huge impact on what we do where you have to worry about it. I didn't change what we did, we just found ways to adjust. We could go play Alabama, and they'd have two corners who if they wanted to could get up in your wide receivers' faces, press them, and shut them out. You have to find ways to adjust for that.

They'd always have these defensive ends in a racehorse stance who'd rush Tim Couch, or Jared Lorenzen, and they were taller than me in their stance. They were huge.

SH: For the X's and O's geeks who will read this, how do you do that? Besides punting?

HM: We're not much into punting. As far as wide receivers, you've got to find a weakness in that corner. There's no perfect corners out there. They'll give up something, you just have to find out what that is. You've got to rely on your reps, too. That guy may be a great player, but he's only worked against your offense for three days. You do it all the time, but you've got to count on your reps taking over.

On the D-Line, it becomes a matchup between your tackles and the ends. You have to find a way to handle them. We would chip them with backs, stuff like that.

SH: Favorite venue in the SEC?

HM: When we beat LSU in Death Valley in 1998, that was a huge win. They were in the top 20, and Kentucky hadn't won down there in a long time. That's a real hard venue to play in, but all the SEC venues are hard to play in, so it's hard to narrow it down to just one. That one probably stands out the most. Beating Alabama at home was good, too, because they hadn't beaten Alabama in 75 years. That was a huge win.

SH: What do you think about paying players in general?

HM: In theory it's good, and it's probably not really good in practicality. Whatever you do for those football players, you're going to have to do for the women's volleyball players and everybody else. Those kids work just as hard, and put just as much blood, sweat, and tears into it. The laws are such that they're just not gonna let you do that for one group of athletes. You're only looking at the top 70, 80 schools who could afford to do that.

SH: What's your favored playoff scenario?

HM: I kind of like getting to the postseason at the end of the season. Bowl game, fine, playoff, fine. The inherent problem with a playoff is that right now the only people who understand it are the basketball and baseball people. If you want to have a wide-open playoff like Mike's saying, fine, but you're going to destroy the bowls. You've got to move the season one way or another. You're gonna finish in January, or you're going to start the playoffs right after the season's over.

You're going to give up crowds after a while. It's just impossible for fans to keep following you, week after week, to all these venues. You basically have to get airplane tlckets and reservations in six days. I know this, because I've done it at the NAIA and D-II playoffs. You get a couple of weeks into it and the crowd that follows you turns into family and friends. At bigger schools it might not be that pronounced, but it's going to be a problem for you.

SH: What level of a playoff do you like?

HM: I kind of like the plus-one model because you're only affecting four schools. It gets down to money for your athletic department. When I was at Kentucky, I asked one of the assistant ADs how much we'd make on the basketball championship game. (Rick Pitino was playing for it in my first year there.) I was shocked at how little it was. They told me, "if we go to a New Year's Day bowl we'll make all kinds of money, but the NCAA takes all the money from basketball." In football, you basically have a city that says, "here's a couple of million dollars to play for us" to two teams. It's a much better deal.

And conferences split that money up between teams, so you have all these teams going to bowls. Then you get this huge pot of money at the end of the year to divide between the teams. I can't see them dismantling the bowl system because of that.

SH: Do you think D-II has a better playoff system than FBS?

HM: Yeah. They've got a lot of things, rules about transfers, etc, that they don't get enough credit for.

SH: Like what, for instance?

HM: If a kid transfers from an FCS school, he has to sit out a year, but he can play immediately at a D-II school. We have a graduation rate, but we don't have the rather cumbersome APR.

SH: What about restrictions on player transfers? Would you restrict a player from transferring?

HM: Nah, I've never done that. I wouldn't do that unless he was really a bad actor. I would only deny a kid if he were in trouble with the law or something. Usually that just comes out, and no one takes them. I've always thought you have four or five years to get your degree, and they'll do it wherever they want to. They're like any other citizen.

SH: Does your defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn still coach barefoot?

HM: [giggles] He won't wear any socks. He's kind of sensitive about that, because he's always worn socks when he coaches. There's this myth that he coaches barefoot, but he doesn't really do that. I'm glad he's with me, because he's a genius on defense.

SH: You two are kind of similar in that a lot of the schemes you introduced are now considered commonplace.

HM: Neither one of us have a playbook. We've kind of done this on the run. He's so good at it. I played him eight times in my career and only beat him once, so the best thing for me to do was hire him when I had the chance to hire him.

SH: What makes the 3-3-5 so hard on an offense?

HM: First of all, it's very much like our offense in that it's an attitude. It's more of an attitude than it is a playbook. You get kids convinced you're going to make all these spectacular plays by putting pressure on an offense, and it turns into days where your offense can't do anything because they're afraid the free safety's gonna blitz right up the A-gap on them, or they're going to send those safeties off the edges.

Joe Lee can beat you on Tuesday. You're sitting there playing on Saturday, but on Tuesday you've got your kids trying to pick all this stuff up. By the time they get to Saturday they can't do anything except show up to the game and possibly finish warmups.

SH: You were in NCAA trouble at Kentucky.

HM: That was like going to the dentist. That was not fun.

SH: How do you handle that as a coach? Do you think it's possible to compete in the SEC without running into some kind of NCAA trouble at one point?

HM: I don't really know the answer to that. i could offer up some observations, but it'd be nitpicking on that school or this school. I think it's difficult in any FBS situation -- not just in the SEC -- to not break some rules. The rule book is like tax code. There's a rule for everything. It's impossible not to break some.

Then it becomes, "did you do it on a regular basis? And who was involved?" Every case becomes individual. You have to take responsibility and rebound from it. That's my only advice to anybody: go tell the truth, and get out of there when you're done.

When that happened at Kentucky, we had about three or four months of headlines where my name was above the fold, and usually it was not very flattering. And then when it was all over I remember getting a call from my lawyer. We'd done the big inquisition at Indianapolis, and about two months later they inform me that I'd been found not guilty. There was about a quarter of an inch announcement in the transactions at the back of USA Today about it.

It's one of those deals. Go do what you do, tell the truth, and it usually works out. But it's not fun.

SH: What do you want to accomplish now?

HM: I've been a head coach at six different colleges, and I'm really having fun here. I tend to like the job I'm at the best, but it's very fun to be the David in the David and Goliath story, and that's what we get to do. The people here are great, there's a great recruiting field right around us, and we don't have to go very far to get players. The only thing I haven't done in my career is stay someplace. That's what we're trying to do.

SH: My last question: what do you read? What do you listen to?

HM: I'm reading The Alamo and Beyond by Phil Collins. If you're a history fan, you should buy that. Phil Collins actually owns the largest collection in the world of Alamo and Texas Revolution artifacts. Like, he's got two of the three Jim Bowie knives. He's got the sword James Butler Bonham had at the Alamo. All this is in his basement in Switzerland.

Our professors here at McMurry run State House Press, and Phil contacted them about doing a coffee table book about all his artifacts, and their journey through a century and a half of history into his hands. That's what I'm reading right now. I do like to read, mostly history and politics. [A photo of Mumme with Collins is here -- Ed.]

SH: Leach is big into classic rock. I don't know what Holgorsen's tastes are.

HM: Dana's probably got some hip-hop deal going on. I'm a [Jimmy] Buffett fan, have been for a long time. Leach is a big Buffett fan, too. I'm into classic rock, too. I can branch out a little bit. I like Nickelback.

SH: You might be one of ten people in North America who would openly admit that.

HM: I know, but about two decades ago I was one of the 10 people who would admit they like Buffett.