Better to Burn Out
I remember listing in the 1998 UK football media guide that my favorite thing about coach Mumme was that he takes calculated risks. I always believed him to be a guy who would rather blaze brightly and burn out quickly than one who faintly flickers but fades away slowly.
The Kentucky football team finished the 1996 season 4-7. In 1997, we finished 5-6. The two records may have differed by only a game on paper, but they differed by an entire universe in our hearts.
Coach Mumme, from the heart of Texas and then recently of Georgia, brought a little southern swagger north with him to Kentucky in 1997. He exuded self-assurance-subtly at first, then stronger as the years-and his quarterbacks-passed, and this, to a degree, was what we needed. I always thought he was a master psychologist among us players: He made us believe-in him, but more importantly, in ourselves.
He did this by getting dirty with us, by becoming like us. He was a hands-on coach, unlike his precursor. And he had a system that would allow us to be, or seem, at least, competitive in the Southeastern Conference.
He was always hopeful, always on the offensive, his brilliant offensive mind always churning. He was never down, or, at least, he never let us see him down. He didn't believe in setbacks, defeat, giving in, or the appearance of giving in. He never believed in not believing in the possibility of a positive outcome, even if he didn't know precisely how that outcome might be achieved.
This, and he, was an unbridled breath of fresh air. Unorthodox, interesting. Yet he was also green, and he knew it. He knew we did too. And, therefore, he didn't try to hide his green-ness from us, nor would he have, I believe, even if we didn't (somehow) recognize it. That earned him points with us. Good or bad, he was true to himself-through the end.
As I said in the first installment of this biographical sketch on Hal Mumme, the task of writing about a former coach is difficult. Attempts at absolute objectivity are futile, just as they would be if one were trying to write objectively about one's father. (And through the course of a college football career, a typical player spends more time with his coach then with his father or any other relative.) As a football player, there is a strange kind of love, an unmistakable form of attachment, and an owed sort of respect for one's coach that make an objective separation seem almost inappropriate. As a journalist, however, utterly abandoning interest in impartiality is as foolish as being overtly biased.
This piece is not meant to be an expose, a character commentary, or a commercial. Rather, my aim-and my wish-in these few words (like those in part one), is to provide a balanced abstract, through subjective recollections, that adds new hues to coach's colorful time at the University of Kentucky. Most, including this writer, would say that it was a good time-a time that revitalized Kentucky football in the minds of players and fans alike, and a time, even though now passed, that forever changed it.
And it was a time that ended, sadly, abruptly. Without goodbye, but with many questions. Most of those inquiries, I suspect, will die with time, though coach Mumme's legend, whatever you perceive it to be, will not.
At the first team meeting after our much-improved 1997 season, coach was addressing the team in his typical down-to-earth fashion. The subject: goals for 1998. The first goal, which was always his first goal, was to win the conference. The next goal was to go to a bowl game. We all thought making a bowl was very realistic. But then coach surprised us with saying that he didn't just want any bowl-because any bowl was mediocrity. No, he wanted us, he expected us, to go to a New Year's Day bowl, something Kentucky had only previously done under the guidance of Bear Bryant.
Everyone agreed with coach, because he was the coach and what he was saying was appealing. But he may have been the only true believer in the room at that moment.
A couple days later, we came in to the training center and found new T-shirts in our lockers. They read, in bold caps, FOCUS, across the top. Underneath was the date 1/1/99. Simple in design, this T-shirt embodied both our goal and how coach Mumme proposed we reach it. To make and remake this point, those shirts were the only ones we were permitted to work out in. Osmosis.
Brandishing our team goal literally across our chests took courage on coach's part and consequently gave us more of it. Before the season many people were questioning the sanity of those T-shirts; after the season, people were selling them on the street corners for fans to wear to the Outback Bowl. Vindication.
All those stories about coach drawing up plays in the dirt are, largely, true. I saw him do it several times. And I always chuckled, not with surprise but with pleasure, when those plays worked-even during a scrimmage when Tim Couch tossed a 30-yard dart up the hash mark at my own expense.
I believe coach liked the fact that he was painted in the persona of a gunslinger, because that's who he was, and still is, I hope. I can easily see him galloping around the 1870s with Wyatt Earp, shooting from the hip first, asking questions second, and rising from obscurity to superstardom on the speed of his draw.
That description, ironically, also sounds a lot like Jesse James.
Most likely, though, coach Mumme would have hung out in San Antonio, not Tombstone or Dodge City, if he had lived in the 19th century. He enjoyed military history, and he enjoyed sharing history with us. And the team, predominantly, enjoyed hearing it. (Typically, the lesson was given after practice with us on a knee sweating profusely and huddled around coach Mumme, in his sunglasses and Panama Jack hat, like he was a campfire.) He was particularly fond of the Alamo (which makes sense, him being a Texan and a motivator of men), and told tales of the Alamo with meticulous vigor.
But then, he could talk on most any topic, not just history, with skill. He was not so much a good lecturer or speechmaker, but he was a talented storyteller. He had a quick wit, which I always enjoyed; it was sometimes dry, sometimes not, but usually right on. He knew well his topic and/or tale. Plus, coach Mumme had personality, though this trait was not always right on, and, in fact, sometimes rubbed people very wrong.
Still, people could relate to him, and he could therefore hold almost any audience-from athletes to the elderly. And because this was so, and because he professed faith, Jimmy Carter, then UK's punter and president of its chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), asked coach to speak at an FCA meeting one fall Wednesday night in 1998.
He spoke about Christ and Christ's contemporary, the Jewish priest-turned-historian Josephus, but beyond that, I don't recall the specifics of coach Mumme's talk. But I do remember being impressed. And so was the packed room of more than 250 people.
He didn't stand before us and preach. Instead, he sat just in front of the crowd, trying to become one with the it (just like he started off doing with the football team), and looked across at the audience just above the small frames of his reading glasses propped at the end of his nose-like a professor. And as a result, I felt like the students in attendance became much like the football team, huddled around him and awaiting his next word.
In the course of his talk, he slipped and said "damn," and he said "hell" one time each and very casually. These are words not typically spoken at FCA meetings, especially not spoken by the speaker. But that was the football coach, the Texan in him coming out, and although he excused himself, he didn't seem embarrassed by the use of his everyday speech. I just chuckled.
After the meeting, I told coach that I enjoyed his talk because it was very genuine, very him. He again asked for forgiveness for using four letter words to illustrate the Bible. But I don't think that he was greatly sorry. Because throughout his message he was true to and truly himself, and I had never, nor never have since, known him to apologize for that.
Quarterback Controversy #3
I believe the decision to demote Dusty Bonner in the spring of 2000 marked the beginning of coach
Mumme's descent from the crest to the trough of his Kentucky football wave. Actually, the decision itself was not the issue, but the way coach handled, or rather, mishandled it, was. Simply put, I felt then that coach did not conduct the decision with class, or tact, at least: He said Bonner had won the quarterback job but then later gave it to Jared Lorenzen without warning-to Bonner or to anyone else.
Of course, like anyone else, a coach will have his favorites (and the reasons why are irrelevant); that's perfectly fine-he's a human being. And also like anyone else, a coach is entitled to change his mind, another something all humans do. And that's what coach Mumme did. He believed that Lorenzen would give the Cats the best chance to win-and in the long run, he probably will. But casting Bonner aside seemingly nonchalantly just wasn't good for the program.
My feelings have changed somewhat since the spring of 2000, however. I can see that, even though the means by which he disclosed his decision remains coarse, coach may have been truly acting in the best interest of Bonner after all. Look at it this way: Coach Mumme knew that Bonner wasn't going to get any playing time in 2001 because Lorenzen would be the starter (and coach rarely plays back-up QBs). Therefore, coach gave Bonner the option (or forced him, some might say) to transfer at the end of the semester. In transferring, Bonner could regain the opportunity to play the game, albeit at the Division II level; nonetheless, playing was an opportunity Bonner wouldn't have had if he'd remained at UK. So in essence, coach's springtime demotion of Bonner was helpful to Bonner because coach didn't waste Dusty's time (and talent) by keeping him in the pen as a back-up that would likely have not seen many snaps for the rest of his career.
Of course, all Bonner did at his new school was win the Harlon Hill Trophy, D-II's equivalent of the Heisman-while Lorenzen and the Cats choked on a 2-9 hairball. So, even though it now is increasingly possible to (re)rationalize that coach acted in the best interest of Bonner by demoting him suddenly, it seems less rational to believe such a decision gave the team the best chance to win.
In the media, coach Mumme has been scrutinized since the scandals about his staff broke late last year. And since his resignation, he has been crucified. That doesn't surprise me-his relationship with the media greatly deteriorated this past season. Still, I am not glad for it, or for him.
Am I glad that he left? No. Was he guilty of anything? Maybe. Should he have left? Yes. For his ship, one he inherited four years ago filled with leaks of disunity and disloyalty, was sinking. He had altered the atmosphere on that vessel from that of a tense battleship to one of an aircraft carrier crossed with a Carnival cruise liner, which was good for a time, but got out of control. Guys began by bringing camcorders to training camp that first year after Curry's departure, and they ended up, reportedly, bringing cell phones and Play Stations to road games just before Mumme's. Although, to his credit, coach kept his word and removed several troublemakers from the team, he was not a rough-shod disciplinarian. As I've stated, he was always himself, and that (being a restrictive disciplinarian) seemed just not to be him-but it ended up not being good for him either. So, he did the right thing and went down with his ship. Right, but not noble, given the sketchy circumstances that swirled in the waters around him.
But he will rise again. He'll "play the next play," just like he coached us to do. He has the desire, the charisma, and the intelligence. Plus, he has a taste for it all now. I wouldn't be surprised to hear of him popping up as an offensive coordinator coming soon at a major college program near you.
Then again, I would neither be surprised to hear of him moving to the Caribbean to fish the years away with his boom-box buddy Jimmy Buffet.
Part I of Zurch's essay on Mumme is archived at www.aceweekly.com [February 15, cover story].
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