Do these two very different coaches hold the keys to Kentucky football relevancy?
When Kentucky’s football Wildcats take the field in Nashville in just over one week, Cat fans will get the first look at the bi-product of a unique cocktail of football ingredients. With the hiring of Mark Stoops, AD Mitch Barnhart made the first substantial commitment to establishing a true defensive identity in modern Kentucky football history. Stoops, fresh off a season in which his Florida State Seminole defense finished second nationally in total defense, was hired to bring a physical, no-nonsense brand of football to the Bluegrass. With the hire, it appeared the Kentucky program was inclined to mimic the Nick Saban model of coaching. (Elite defense, focus on special teams, conservative offensive attack) However, that assumption took somewhat of a left turn with the hiring of Neal Brown as offensive coordinator. Brown is a direct heir of the wild and wonderful Hal Mumme era in Lexington, and looks to run nearly the same offense that Hal did, only in fast forward. Clearly, there is some degree of dissidence in style between the head man, on old school, smash-mouth football coach, and his offensive coordinator, an Air Raid 2.0 offensive innovator. So how will it all come together? If the two divergent styles mesh, the Cats may have something revolutionary on their hands. A traditionally stout Stoops defense combined with an explosive Air Raid offense would truly be a thing of beauty. But are these entities mutually exclusive? A look into some other programs that worship at the church of Mumme may provide some insight.
First, let’s take a look at the Commonwealth’s own Air Raid legacy. Hal Mumme did not focus on the defensive side of the football during his four year tenure with the Cats. Actually, let me rephrase. Hal Mumme held in utter disdain the notion of focusing on the defensive side of the football during his time at Kentucky. Defense was a necessary evil that interrupted those precious moments in which his offense had the opportunity to exhibit his brilliant offensive mind. Hal was paid to trot out offenses that threw the ball and scored, and in the early days of the regime, when Tim Couch was slinging the ball to Craig Yeast and company, that was good enough. The goal was to outscore the opponent rather than stop it, and if the opponent happened to score a few more touchdowns than the Cats, Hal could just crank up the Jimmy Buffet music, kick a couple of on-sides kicks, and move on to the next game. Eventually, however, the newness wore off, and no amount of passing attempts or fake punts could camouflage what was simply a flawed strategic approach. Fans grew weary of seeing opposing offenses move undisturbed up and down the football field. While Mumme’s offenses perennially led the SEC in passing offense, his defenses routinely finished at the bottom of the pack. Of course, these results were produced at Kentucky, a program that has endured more than its share of struggles regardless of system. Have other Air Raid-style attacks had more luck marrying their systems with legitimate defenses?
Though Mumme himself has slipped into the abyss of fallen division one football coaches, his coaching progeny have thrived. Head coaches like Mike Leach, Dana Holgerson and Sonny Dykes have utilized Mumme’s system to light up scoreboards across the country. The proliferation of the Air Raid, the origins of which Kentucky fans were fortunate enough to witness first hand, has now had a major impact on the college football landscape. Unfortunately, in most of those places, Mumme’s defensive deficiencies have tagged along as well. Below we look at a few notable Air Raid attacks and their offensive and defensive numbers from the 2012 season:
LOUISIANA TECH (Sonny Dykes, wide receiver coach under Hal Mumme at Kentucky)
*Number 2 nationally in total yards (577.9 ypg)
* Number 120 (last) nationally in total defense (526 ypg)
TEXAS A & M (Kliff Kingsbury OC, former QB at Texas Tech under Mike Leach)
* Number 3 nationally in total yards (552.3ypg)
* Number 56 in total defense (389.3 ypg)
WEST VIRGINIA (Dana Holgerson, played under Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, OC at Texas Tech under Leach)
* Number 9 nationally in total yards (518.5 ypg)
* Number 107 in total defense (469.6 ypg)
TEXAS TECH (Neal Brown OC, played WR for Mumme at Kentucky)
* Number 15 nationally in total yards (501.4 ypg)
* Number 39 in total defense (367.3))
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY (Mike Leach, OC at Kentucky under Mumme)
* Number 98 in total yards (359.5 ppg)
* Number 81 total defense (425.9 ppg)
MURRAY STATE (Chris Hatcher, QB under Mumme at Valdosta, QB coach under Mumme at Kentucky)
*Number 5 in the FCS division in total offense (484.4 ypg)
* Number 118 (out of 121) total defense (513 ypg)
So what do we learn from the numbers? First, sixteen years after Mumme brought the Air Raid to Lexington, the offense still works. Aside from a rough debut year for Mike Leach in Pullman, every other branch of the Mumme coaching tree detailed above finished in the top fifteen nationally in total yards per game. Holgerson and Kingsbury both led offenses that averaged more than 40 points. Sonny Dykes averaged 52 at Louisiana Tech before being named head coach at Cal. On the “glass half empty” side of things, the defenses predictably struggled ,surrendering an average of 449 yards per game. So the Mumme pattern appears to hold. Do these numbers doom Kentucky to porous defenses for so long as the Air Raid is implemented as Kentucky’s offense of choice? Not necessarily
Of the teams detailed in this post, none were led by a head coach with the defensive resume of Mark Stoops. (The closest might be Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, who had the most competent defense of the sampled teams.) For college football fans, the name “Stoops” itself yields images of defensive prowess. But Mark Stoops is more than just a carrier of an esteemed family name. Even prior to presiding over a single game as a head coach, Stoops has repeatedly proven his defensive chops at the major college level. As defensive coordinator at Arizona, he inherited a defense that ranked 109th nationally the year prior to his arrival. Over his his six years as the Wildcats’ Defensive Coordinator, he steadily and consistently improved the defense. In both of his last two years on the job, the Wildcats ranked in the top 25 nationally in total defense. (By comparison, Kentucky has averaged finishing 73rd nationally in total defense over the last 25 years, and has finished inside the top 40 only once.) When Stoops moved on to take over the Defensive Coordinator position at Florida State, the once- mighty Seminoles were struggling as well. Florida State was one of the worst defensive teams in America in 2009, the year prior to Stoops’ arrival. By his final year, FSU’s defense ranked number 2 nationally, and gave up fewer yards per play than any other team in the country. Based on his family name, and the defensive wizardry he has demonstrated to this point, if there is a coach who can somehow take the Air Raid system, and intertwine it with legitimate defense, it may well be Mark Stoops. And Stoops needs to look no further than his own brother to provide the blueprint.
The historical scenario that most closely-resembles the current framework at Kentucky is Oklahoma’s 1999 staff. At that time, Bob Stoops, who held a similar defensive pedigree at the time of his hiring as Oklahoma head coach to that which brother Mark holds currently, hired offensive coordinator Mike Leach away from Kentucky. Using Leach’s version of the Air Raid, and Stoops’ defensive know-how, Oklahoma finished in the top ten in both total offense and total defense. The following year, when Leach moved on to Texas Tech, Stoops used the same formula to win a national championship.
Will the Oklahoma model, which the Cats have seemingly adopted, lead to national championships at Kentucky? Perhaps not, but it will be fascinating to see if Stoops can continue to develop great defenses while Neal Brown unleashes his version of the Air Raid offense on the SEC. If Stoops can follow that trail blazed by his brother, Wildcat fans will be in for a unique blend, and unprecedented football success.