Back on The Sidelines: Meet these 3 XFL coaches
For three professional football coaches each at different points in their long football odysseys – one on the rise, one more than a decade in, and one in the twilight of a lengthy and impactful career – the XFL has provided an outlet to do the one thing they love most in this world.
Teach the game they treasure so.
Their paths to this point could not have been more different.
One, an up-and-comer not too far removed from his own playing days, whose playing career didn’t look all too different from the young men he’s now coaching.
Another, blessed with a playing resume of which most XFL players could only dream and a star-crossed coaching career that would be the envy of any nomadic hired gun.
And a third, arguably the most famous of the three, the architect of one of the most popular and innovative offenses ever to see the field, simply happy to be able to spread the Gospel of the ‘Gun.
For all three, the XFL has been all they wanted. More importantly, all they needed.
Hal Mumme needed a platform.
The Air Raid offense is his baby, born in 1986 at Copperas Cove High School in Texas and bred into arguably the most successful passing scheme in college football. Now it has found its way into the NFL, with his coaching tree extending its branches throughout the game as Mumme begat Mike Leach who begat Kliff Kingsbury who begat Kyler Murray.
Across a now 45-year coaching career, the 67-year-old Mumme has stayed true to his child, nurtured it, watched it grow. All along, he wanted to see how it would fare at the professional level, executed exactly the way he wanted it to be executed.
He found a willing partner in Stoops, Ah You’s former head coach at Oklahoma, now the head man for the Dallas Renegades.
Mumme had been out of the coaching booth for one season in 2019, and that was more than long enough for him. He'd coached every year since 2003, three years after he was fired from Kentucky. After that, there were stints at Southeastern Louisiana (?) and New Mexico State (??), McMurry (?!?) and Belhaven (?!?!). Before then, there were gigs Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State.
Anywhere to deploy the Air Raid, a pass-heavy and sometimes pass-only onslaught predicated on quick throws and mismatches across the field.
He turned down NFL coaching overtures that would've required him playing by their rules, coaching their way, "like coaching tight ends or something."
He would rather have quit the game altogether than deign practice the Wing-T.
“I just like coaching in general, but I've always wanted to run this offense at a professional level,” he said. “This was the first opportunity. I’ve been involved in two other spring leagues and both went under, but this has been something really fun so far for us.”
Mumme uses that word often – “fun.” You don’t hear that too often in a professional football setting, much less major college ball.
That’s what got him started with the Air Raid in the first place. In the mid-1980s, he said, the best skill position talent was nowhere near a football field, preferring the basketball court or the baseball diamond or the soccer pitch. Football was losing its grip on the public conscious, Mumme insists, at least in small-town Texas, and he needed a hook.
“I’ve always had this idea of how you should play, and the way we played made it fun for the players, and I think that’s why people wanted to do it, too,” Mumme said. “So many coaches have coaches under their own coaching trees, but everyone has stayed true to this system. We wanted to have a better way to play the game.”
Mumme wants to make one thing clear: Though the Air Raid is his baby, he does not claim to be the father.
“I never claim to have invented anything,” he said with a laugh. “I stole from the masters before me. Lavell Edwards and Mouse Davis and a myriad of others. I like to say we're like Nabisco. They didn’t invent cookies, they just figured out how to package them well.”
C.J. Ah You needed a fixed address.
“I was one of those guys on an NFL roster where I didn’t know if I’d have a job,” he said. “I lived in a Candlewood Suites my first four years. You just never know.”
The defensive line coach for the New York Guardians, Ah You was once one of these guys. In the trenches. Nasty. Hungry. He’s still only 37 years old and, frankly, if the Guardians are light up front one Saturday or Sunday afternoon, they won’t have to dip into the free-agent pool. Ah You could probably strap ‘em up tomorrow.
If any coach in the XFL can relate to his players, it might just be Ah You, a seventh-round NFL Draft pick-turned-practice squad player-turned-five-year-NFL-vet. He’s who most XFL players want to be.
“For some guys, this is their last stop, and for others, it’s another step to further opportunities,” he said. “You never know. That’s the great thing about this league, and why it’s such a necessity. You can go anywhere from here.”
Ah You remembers what it was like wanting just one more chance. He was selected with the 239th pick of the 2007 draft by the Buffalo Bills, released by the team in September of that year and quickly scooped up by the then-St. Louis Rams practice squad. He lasted with the team for a half-decade, playing in 33 games and starting four of them, finishing his career with six sacks, 41 tackles and a forced fumble.
Never once did he feel secure.
In 2012, after being released by the Rams in March, Ah You ached for another opportunity. He kept training the whole year, ready for another shot that never came.
And then he realized: He was burnt out. The game coursed through his veins – his father, Charles Sr., played for BYU, where Ah You began his career before transferring to Oklahoma, and so too did his brother Matt; his uncle, Junior, is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, as well – but he was ready for a break. He dabbled in training, in real estate. Didn’t stick.
It took a couple years, but by 2015, Ah You was ready to get back in the game, and he joined Bob Stoops’ staff at his alma mater, becoming the special teams quality control coach for the Sooners. The next season, he was plucked by Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason to be the Commodores’ defensive line coach, and he spent three years in the SEC.
In 2019, he jumped at the chance to join Kevin Gilbride’s staff with the Guardians.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity, where I was able to coach at the pro level, but also able to learn,” he said. “I keep adding to my knowledge of the game with NFL-caliber coaches. It was an opportunity that I had to take.”
The on-the-job training has been a boon to Ah You, who might have another three decades of coaching in him.
“When I first got hired to do this, I was just around with some buddies saying, ‘Where was this when we were coming up?’” Ah You said. “There's no question, if this league was around when I was playing? I would’ve played. Everyone is on the same playing field. Everyone here is hungry for an opportunity, whatever that opens up for them. They all want to continue their careers in some aspect.”
And that includes the coaches, too.
Jerry Fontenot needed a break.
A 15-year NFL career had bled into a decade-long NFL coaching career, and before he knew it, his little girls had grown up in the blink of an eye. He'd missed so much.
When Mike McCarthy retooled his Green Bay Packers coaching staff in 2015, firing Fontenot as tight ends coach after three seasons - his final three of 10 with Green Bay, after serving as assistant offensive line coach (2006-10) and running backs coach (2011) - the former stalwart center for the Chicago Bears saw it as a chance to rejigger his priorities.
“When I was let go from Green Bay, my family had stayed in Chicago and I was commuting in during the offseasons,” the Los Angeles Wildcats offensive line coach said. “At that point I felt like I’d missed out on a lot of family time. I wanted to re-acclimate, to be in the father role and the husband role. Pretty soon, they were ready for me to get out of the house.”
During his half-decade hiatus from football, Fontenot was still involved in the game, working as an NFL Draft consultant, helping prepare prospects for the mental rigors of the gauntlet to come. “Not necessarily giving them the answers to the quiz,” he said, but showing players what NFL coaches wanted to hear.
“NFL coaches have a nose for guys who are trying to BS them,” he said.
With former teammates and coaches sprinkled throughout the game, Fontenot periodically dropped in on practices and chalk-talk sessions, hoping to get a feel of “what the climate was out there.”
He entertained feelers to join staffs full-time, but the fit wasn’t right. His was not a pie-in-the-sky pursuit. He’d already been to the coaching mountain top, winning a Super Bowl with the Packers in 2010, lasting a decade on NFL sidelines.
“I figured it’s more about who you’re coaching with and working with,” he said. “I didn’t get an opportunity to coach with a staff I was familiar with until this came available. (Wildcats head coach) Winston (Moss), we knew each other in Green Bay, worked together for 10 years there. He knows what to expect from me. I know what kind of a man he is, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. When he asked me to come on board, I was all in. I couldn’t think of a better guy I wanted to coach with.”
Fontenot calls his time so far with the Wildcats “a breath of fresh air,” far from the external pressures of coaching for arguably the most football-mad fan base in the NFL.
Like Ah You, Fontenot is also approaching his time in the XFL with a bit of humility, hoping to siphon off the wisdom of a coaching staff with ample professional and college football expertise, including Moss, the Packers’ long-time assistant head coach, and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, an offensive guru with five decades of NFL and major college experience under his belt.
“It's really been a benefit for me to be at this point in my career and to learn from some guys who’ve been around longer than I have, and from younger guys, who have a new style of coaching,” said the 53-year-old Fontenot.
At home in a coaches room with so many other erstwhile NFL veterans, Fontenot has rediscovered his passion.
“It's a more personal appeal, as opposed to the NFL model, which is in place for a reason,” he said. “The NFL is driven by a lot of forces we don't have to contend with. It's much more of a grass-roots thing here. It carries over into our relationship with our players. They’re very appreciative about hearing stories of my playing days. Or, at least, I can say they tolerate it.”
Three coaches, at three different points in their lives, with three very different paths to the XFL.
For each of them, it has been a winding journey, with ups and downs, like all other treks.
Will theirs find them back in the NFL, or in Mumme’s case, offered the opportunity to take his wares to another level?
They are unsure. All they know is, for now, they are happy, and they are doing what they love.