The Air Raid Chronicles: Part 1 - The Origins


For the past three years, under head coach Dana Holgorsen, the West Virginia football program has seen vast offensive success using an air raid offense that transcended the game and invigorated a conference where West Virginia is a member institution today.

Now, takes an in-depth look at the offense from the coaches that created it and still continue to innovate while teaching the scheme. Belhaven University head coach Hal Mumme, Washington State head coach Mike Leach, Colorado School of Mines head coach Bob Stitt and West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson weigh-in on moments from the past as well as the simplicity and intricacies that impact the West Virginia air raid offense today.

Editor's Note: This is part one of a three part series on the air raid offense.

The Origins

When head coach Hal Mumme and his offensive coordinator Mike Leach arrived at Iowa Wesleyan in 1989, they knew they had to do something different than what was done by the previous regime.

Iowa Wesleyan came off of its worst season in ten years going 0-10 in 1988.

"You have to understand with the Air Raid stuff, a lot of the elements had been out there and I never felt like I had designed super plays," Leach said. "Everyone has got good plays. It's really how you package it."

In order to find what would work best with the personnel they had at Iowa Wesleyan, Mumme and Leach surveyed different offenses from around the country.

"It was a pretty dynamic time in football. BYU was rolling and throwing the ball like crazy. That had a big influence. Then you had Jack Elway and Dennis Erickson's three-step (drop) passing game and then you had the run and shoot. It all kind of converged," Leach said.

Generally, Mumme and Leach wanted to put their players in the best position to succeed while trying to rebuild after a 0-10 year.

"It's a real flexible offense, but you have to have players in any offense, you can't have a bunch of lame players," Mumme said. "That being said, if you can have basic talent or even less talent than some folks, it is a great offense to run because, it is so flexible."

In addition to the increased emphasis on the pass in the college game, they saw where their passing game could be more effective.

"If you summarize it, BYU attacked the whole field in a fashion throwing it. Then the wishbone which was extremely effective at Oklahoma and Air Force. That was about distribution where everyone touches the ball," Leach explained.

"From that standpoint it was harder for defenses to keep track of people so really we just wanted distribution and wanted to attack the whole field."

Iowa Wesleyan finished 7-4 in 1989, as Mumme and Leach turned the program around.

A year later, after starting his college playing days at St. Ambrose, a young wide receiver named Dana Holgorsen transferred into the program after his former high school coach, Leach, had convinced him to play at Iowa Wesleyan.

Simplifying Everything

An Air Raid offense can be installed in as little as three workouts. The philosophy of 'less is more' applies directly to what the coaches of the system believe in.

In his second year at Kentucky, Hal Mumme only installed seven plays for the first game of the season against in-state rival Louisville. In the contest, Mumme's Kentucky team scored 68 points.

"We never even had a playbook to be honest with you," Mumme said.

Whenever a new play is put into the system, all the coaches that teach it, including Holgorsen, believe it best serves the players on the team to take a different play out.

The offense relies on player instinct and timing in order to move the ball up the field. The less players have to think, the quicker the offense can move to tempo against the defense.

"As an offensive coach it's really easy to want to continue to add to your menu. You want to add a play that you think is good, but then you get to a point where your players can't execute anything," Stitt said. "You've got to keep your menu down."

While West Virginia tries to return to the offensive power it was in 2011 and 2012 after a lackluster 2013, the staff is simplifying everything, trying to ease the minds of players so they can use their natural talents.

"We've probably dumbed it down more going into this year than we have in a while," Dawson said.

"If you try to do so much stuff, you're dividing your reps and you have people doing too many things. The better you can get at doing three or four things, the better you'll be when you get out there on Saturday."

We're Smarter than You

Around college football and even in the NFL, it is no secret that coaches believe in the system that they run. Even as much as those coaches believe in their own concepts, they may admit faults in their schemes or suffice when an opposing defensive coach outsmarts them.

On the other hand, coaches of the pass-happy air raid offense do not. They believe their system is firmly superior to the opponent's scheme.

"If I though it wasn't adjustable to defenses, I'd probably run something else," Leach said.

"It's adjustable to every defense and occasionally someone will stop you that has superior players. People will say it's some cat and mouse thing that stopped you. Well no. They stopped you because they are bigger, stronger, faster and smothered you."

Washington State finished fourth nationally in passing during the 2013 season, and Leach had other years while at Texas Tech when his offense has been nationally ranked in passing or total yardage.

Mumme, who was at SMU last season, agreed with Leach in the fact that opposing scheme isn't the problem, but better personnel is the issue. Mumme believes only one kind of defense can slow his offense.

"The kinds that have bigger and better players than us," Mumme said.

At West Virginia, 2013 was a down season for an offense coached by Holgorsen. Typically Holgorsen-led offenses average over 350 passing yards per game. In 2013, WVU only averaged 262 passing yards per game.

Juggling quarterbacks and dealing with a lack of continuity between offensive starters was more to blame than the opposing defense most of the time.

"Defenses that tackle well, cover well and get off blocks well give us problems," Dawson said.

Either due to ego or pure confidence, the idea of an opposing defensive coach outsmarting their schemes, is one thought never to cross any of the air raid minds.

"There is a misperception outside of football and football coaches, that football games are like some episode of the Roadrunner where you got Wile E. Coyote trying to figure out some scheme to stop and fool the other guy with some tricks," Leach said. "It's really not like that, it's just an exercise of who can execute the most precise with the talent level that they have."

TOMORROW: Part 2 - The Innovation - will look at moments in time that changed affected the air raid, including the real story behind the 'touchpass' with Bob Stitt.

NOTES: To get more insight from Mike Leach, he has new book out called, Geronimo - Leadership Strategies of an American Warrior. To get more insight on the air raid, Hal Mumme helped author Rob Kiser put together a book called, Stretch the Cornfield.