University of Kansas

Can the Air Raid make the Jayhawks fly high?

Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart passes to a receiver during the first half of the spring game in April. Cozart will lead KU’s spread offense this season.
Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart passes to a receiver during the first half of the spring game in April. Cozart will lead KU’s spread offense this season. Associated Press

The man who changed college football is on the phone from Jackson, Miss., a 63-year-old college coach sorting through the final days of the offseason. He is looking back, gazing inward, trying to explain how a small-college coach in Iowa and a pirate-loving lawyer transformed the way the game is played. How a simple offense without a real playbook changed the game you watch on Saturdays.

Some of this story is known, he says. Most of it, in fact. But if you want to know the secret — if you want to know how a spread offense called the Air Raid revolutionized a sport, how the game of college football got itself in such a darn hurry — you first must listen to a story about Don Henley.

Yes, that Don Henley.

“You know the lead singer of the Eagles, right?” Hal Mumme says.

In the next moment, Mumme, the coach at Division III Belhaven University, breaks into a story from more than two decades ago, from the early 1990s. Mumme was watching VH1, a show on the Eagles, who were in the midst of a reunion tour. Back in the 1970s in Texas, Mumme says, he would cruise around in an old rusted beater, listening to Joe Walsh on the guitar and Glenn Fry doing his thing, and he was mesmerized by the sound. It was so distinct.

“You knew it was the Eagles,” Mumme says.

On that day in the early ’90s, Mumme heard Don Henley explain the process, how the band discovered its sound.

“He said: ‘We have a great capacity for boredom,’” Mumme says. “They would go (into the studio) and they would take the opening bars and the opening chord of the song, and then they would play it. And then they’d play it again, and they’d play it again.

“So that’s what we do,” Mumme continued. “I think that’s why the Air Raid offense works. I have a great capacity for boredom.

“That’s why we don’t need a playbook.”

In the decades since Mumme designed, engineered and unleashed the Air Raid Offense on football fields, a venerable list of coaches, analysts and football poets have tried to describe its potency and understand its effectiveness. It has been called Basketball on Grass and Backyard Football. It was been called a great equalizer, and among a certain segment of defensive coaches, it has simply been called weird — sometimes with an expletive or two attached.

Its original engineer describes it like this: “It’s always been an attitude.”

The attitude began nearly three decades ago, when Mumme was a high school coach in Texas with a genuine obsession with a wide-open offense being used in Provo, Utah. In the years since, it has spread from the cornfields of Iowa, to a small town in southern Georgia, to a basketball-mad school in the SEC. But Mumme’s Air Raid — and its various evolutions and incarnations — has gained its strongest foothold in the spread-happy confines of the Big 12 Conference.

As the 2015 season approaches, the number of Big 12 schools running a version of Mumme’s offense has increased to seven. Put another way: While nuclear offenses have reached every corner of football from Oregon to Ohio State, the Big 12 remains the land of Air Raid disciples, a group of offensive mad scientists cranking up the pace, widening the splits and turning games into a 60-minute track meets.

“I look at Hal as the Godfather of it all,” says Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who in the offseason hired offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, a former Texas Tech backup quarterback and Air Raid aficionado.

Want proof of its potency? Crazy numbers are everywhere, but perhaps start here: In the offseason, when Stoops was researching the country’s top offenses of 2014, he noticed that six of the top 13 in total offense were from Mumme’s coaching tree. The list included TCU, which went from 88th in the country in scoring (25.1 points) to second (46.5) after coach Gary Patterson hired two Air Raid acolytes before last season.

“It’s guys that aren’t afraid to do it differently,” says West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, an early adopter who played and coached under Mumme.

The latest Big 12 team to turn to the Air Raid tree is Kansas, which hired David Beaty to rebuild a crumbling program that has gone 12-48 in the past five seasons. In the previous three years, Beaty had served an apprenticeship at Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin, who had unleashed terror on the SEC with his own version of the offensive attack. So when Beaty went looking for an offensive coordinator, he sought out California assistant Rob Likens, who had spent years working under coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, two former Mumme assistants.

If you sort through the Big 12 — from Baylor to Texas Tech to Oklahoma to TCU — you will find similar lineages and Mumme connections. At KU, Beaty and Likens have promised an up-tempo, hair-on-fire system — a scheme that will bring “fun” football back to Lawrence. They are hopeful their version of the Air Raid — the Hawk Raid? — can provide an early trampoline of sorts for a long rebuild.

But football offenses are fluid devices — living, breathing extensions of the minds that put them down on paper. So to truly understand the Tao of the Air Raid, and how it evolved into the scheme du jour in the Big 12, it’s best to start with its origin.

That’s where the Division III coach on the phone from Mississippi can help you.

▪ ▪ ▪ 

On an early morning in the late 1970s, Mumme picked up a newspaper and started scanning box scores. Mumme was in his late 20s, still a lowly offensive coordinator at Moody High in Corpus Christi, Texas. Even then, Mumme liked thinking differently, pushing the envelope when he could, and on that morning, he saw a strange result.

Texas A&M, one of the top teams in the country that year, had been upset by BYU.

“I don’t know what that guy in Provo is doing,” Mumme remembers thinking. “But I want to find out.”

That guy in Provo was legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who was building the Cougars into a consistent power on the strength of a wide-open passing attack. For Mumme, the BYU passing game would become a perpetual muse, his football Moby Dick. In the ensuing years, Mumme would bounce around the college ranks, spending time at West Texas A&M and getting a close-up look at BYU during a stint at UTEP. When the UTEP staff got run out in 1985, Mumme took a head coaching job at Copperas Cove High School, a downtrodden program in a military community near Fort Hood, Texas.

Mumme says the roster at Copperas Cove was always turning over, with families moving in and out of town. The only constant was the losing. But the move to Copperas Cove offered two advantages: Mumme was free to run whatever offense he wanted; and now that he was out of the college ranks, BYU’s Edwards was much more open to sharing his schemes and secrets.

“I spent a lot of time (at BYU) studying and I’d bring it back to Copperas Cove, and I put it in,” Mumme said. “I’d tweak it. I’d play around … I just found it so exciting and so addicting.”

In those days, the I-formation was king. Power running games dominated the sport at the high school and college levels. But Mumme saw possibility in the BYU system’s three- and four-receiver sets. Slowly, the offense took shape. Mumme had his offensive linemen line up with wide splits, stretching the defense laterally. He started running most every play from the shotgun formation. He stopped flipping the formation, because it was one less wrinkle a player had to master. He desired a simple system where players could “throw and catch,” where his team could rep and rep and rep and find its sound. If that meant throwing the ball 60 times a game, so be it.

In time, Copperas Cove started winning games, knocking off traditional powers. And in 1989, Mumme moved on to Iowa Wesleyan, a tiny college in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Mumme likes to joke that Iowa Wesleyan had to hire a high school coach from Texas, because no coach from Iowa would take the job.

“It was such a bad job,” Mumme says.

The resources were limited, but Mumme again set out to implement his system. One of his first hires was a BYU graduate from California. The job, according to Mumme, was multi-faceted: The new guy was to work as offensive line coach, equipment manager, video coordinator and sports information director. It paid $13,000 a year.

The new assistant was Mike Leach. He had never played college football and had recently graduated from Pepperdine law school.

“We also had him teach two business law classes at night,” Mumme says

In Leach, Mumme found a kindred soul, a young coach who shared an obsession with the BYU system and scoffed at convention. He also found a rising star. If Mumme was the Godfather of the Air Raid, Leach was prepared to become its Michael Corleone.

“He was mainly a lawyer,” Mumme says. “But I hired him because he was smart.”

In the early days, Mumme and Leach would spend mornings drinking coffee at a breakfast place called Dickie’s Prairie Home. They would sit and talk about football, drawing up plays on napkins, discussing concepts. They pulled ideas from a Canadian Football League team, turning their entire offense into a two-minute drill.

“We were changing the geometry of the game,” Leach said in his book, “Swing Your Sword.”

At Iowa Wesleyan, which had recently endured a winless season, the innovative offense would lead to a 10-win season and playoff berth. The victories — and eye-popping offensive numbers — continued as Mumme and Leach moved to Division II Valdosta State in 1992 and Kentucky in 1997. But before Mumme and Leach left the Iowa cornfields, Leach authored the offense’s most important attribute:

Its name.

In those days, Mumme says, Leach was still toiling in his side job as the program’s sports information director. He was determined to get Iowa Wesleyan into the local papers, and he was constantly pitching ideas to national reporters at USA Today.

“He came into my office one day,” Mumme says, “and he said: ‘We need a name for our offense. We need something catchy that we can call our offense. It would help us with these newspaper guys.’

“I said: ‘What do you have in mind?’

“He said: ‘Air Raid.’”

In other tellings of the Air Raid story, it has been said that the offense earned its tag during the duo’s high-scoring days at Kentucky. But Mumme is certain of this: The name of the most popular offense in the Big 12 was born from the mind of Leach.

▪ ▪ ▪ 

The play is called Mesh, and its genius lies in its simplicity. Mesh, as it has become known, features multiple receivers on the outside and a shallow cross over the middle, where two receivers run what is widely called a “rub route” — or pick play, depending on your perspective. The play also offers options. A receiver on the outside runs a corner route. A running back releases right, into the flat.

If one play defines the Air Raid ethos — if one play serves as a bread-and-butter staple — it’s Mesh. Mesh, Mumme says, puts players in space. It forces a defense to make decisions. It uses most of the field. And it is simple. The quarterback just has to make a choice.

In 1991, Iowa Wesleyan faced Harding University in a battle between two top-10 teams. Iowa Wesleyan ran more than 100 plays and threw the ball 86 times.

“We completed 61 of them,” Mumme says, “but we ran Mesh 52 times.”

Nearly 25 years later, Mumme can’t turn on the television on Saturdays without seeing a team run some variation of Mesh. But when divulging the play’s creation, Mumme is quite honest. Just like most of Air Raid, it came from BYU’s old playbook.

“I didn’t put my own spin on it,” Mumme says, “I just copied it verbatim.”

So it was, six years later, that Mumme and Leach brought Mesh to Kentucky. Together, they faced a rebuilding job at one of the SEC’s worst football destinations. Kentucky was a basketball school with inherent disadvantages in football: its stadium was small by conference standards, and the state didn’t provide a natural recruiting ground. But in retrospect, the conditions were perfect for what was to come: The Air Raid was about to go national.

From Mumme’s first game at Kentucky — when quarterback Tim Couch threw for 398 yards in a 38-24 victory over Louisville — the offense began to make believers out of traditionalists in the SEC. One of those believers was a young defensive coordinator at Florida who had a hell of a time stopping the Air Raid when the Gators faced Mumme and Leach. The assistant was Stoops, and when he was hired at OU coach before the 1999 season, he convinced Leach to come to Norman and implement the offense there.

“They led the league in first downs, they led the league in time of possession, led the league in third-down conversions, all things you need to do,” Stoops said. “Even if you’re not scoring, you’re moving the ball and you’re taking away opportunities from the other team.”

One year later, Leach took his own coaching job at Texas Tech and compiled a staff that included Dana Holgorsen, Sonny Dykes and Art Briles. From there, the wave began to form. Fifteen years later, Holgorsen is at West Virginia, Dykes at Cal, Briles at Baylor. Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, a former quarterback under Leach, is entering his third season at his alma mater. Another former Tech quarterback, Sonny Cumbie, is helping run the offense at TCU.

“Boom,” Holgorsen says, “It just started to spread.”

The evolution has continued. A few years ago, Mumme says, Holgorsen implemented a zone-read running attack that dramatically changed the offense. Other coaches, like Leach, are still throwing the ball 60 times per game. But the central concept and attitude remains the same, as do many of the sets and plays.

Which begs an interesting question: The Air Raid was designed to be an equalizer for less talented teams. But if everybody is now running it, what does that mean for a school like Kansas?

“Back then, we had a schematic advantage,” Holgorsen says. “There isn’t any schematic advantage now. There’s not. There’s nothing I can do, offensively, that Kansas or TCU or Baylor or Texas Tech or Oklahoma or Oklahoma State can’t do, because it’s all the same offense.”

▪ ▪ ▪ 

Likens stepped onto a KU practice field earlier this month and began installing his own version of the Air Raid offense. The process took three days — an old trick picked up years ago from Mumme. On the fourth day, the players repeated what they learned on Day 1.

In certain moments, with five quarterbacks spread across the field, the drills don’t look so different from what was once run at Kentucky or Texas Tech. Likens, who spent the previous two seasons as a receivers coach at Cal, wears sunglasses and a baseball cap, calling out instructions as the quarterbacks and receivers work on the drill.

Likens is hesitant to use the Air Raid tag. As a young coach in the early 1990s, he worked at North Alabama, a rival of Valdosta State, and to him, the Air Raid remains the offense that Mumme and Leach ran then.

“It’s evolved so much since then,” Likens says. “It’s not quite the same offense.”

The tag can also create a misperception. Nine years ago, when Likens worked as an offensive coordinator at Central Connecticut State, his offense led the Division I-AA in rushing yards. Just because an offense is part of the Air Raid tree doesn’t mean it won’t run the ball.

But the attitude is familiar. Beaty has promised an up-tempo system at Kansas, and he remains committed to the mission. During preseason camp, Beaty was asked if his team’s talent deficiencies would affect the the Jayhawks’ offensive game plans. Wouldn’t a rebuilding team like Kansas be better off slowing the game down?

“We won’t shorten the game,” Beaty says. “That’s not how we play the game. We’re going to continue to stay who we are because that’s how we practice every day.”

The Jayhawks will crank up the tempo. They will spread the field. They will apply pressure to the defense. They will likely run Mesh a few times, too. They will, in Beaty’s words, run an offense that traffics in fun, in constant energy.

“Back in the day, football was two hours of intense war,” says Likens, who comes across as likable even while screaming at his players. “You were looking over your shoulder (while) coaching. The players got chewed out. You got chewed out. Everybody was getting chewed out. Now, it’s like, you’re going so fast … you don’t have time to be so intense. So it seems like it’s a little bit more upbeat, a little more energetic, a little more fun.”

This, Mumme says, is part of the Air Raid attitude. Like Don Henley and the Eagles, you rep and you rep and you rep, and you master what you can. Pretty soon, you find the right sound.

“You go to Kansas,” Mumme says, “and you do it with the right attitude, that we’re going to attack, that we’re not afraid to try new things … it’ll draw the players that can make a difference.”

Reach Rustin Dodd at Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.