This is a rare weekend for Texas football fans—two Lone Star state teams competing in the NFL Playoffs. In a nod to one of the state’s favorite pastimes, this week’s Lone Star Listens features author S. C. Gwynne, journalist, editor, and historian. His most recent book, The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, celebrates the men who reinvented football, including former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. Gwynne talked with us about his books via email last week.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Sam, you’re a come-here, not born-here, Texan. What brought you to the Lone Star State?
S. C. GWYNNE: Yup, I’m a Connecticut Yankee who went to boarding school in Pennsylvania, college in New Jersey, and grad school in Maryland. I adopted the place, or it adopted me, I am not sure which. I came to Austin in 1994 as Magazine’s Southwest bureau chief. As the years went by kept trying to get me to move and I kept saying no and eventually I went to work as executive editor at Texas Monthly, which was an excellent career move.
Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get into writing?
I wanted to be a writer when I read a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “A Diamond as Big the Ritz.” I read it once in high school and once in college. I loved all of his stuff but especially the stories. So I guess it is F. Scott’s fault.
I attended a graduate fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins under John Barth. My thesis was a novella. I published a few short stories after that. My first real job in journalism was as a business reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. I was thirty-two years old at the time, having pursued mini-careers as a French teacher and an international banker.
What was your first big break as an author, and how did it come about?
I wrote a piece about international banking for Harper’s. At that point my career went from zero to sixty in about five seconds. Nothing like a Harper’s clip to get you in the door.
About your books: For our readers not familiar with Empire of the Summer Moon, would you describe it for them?
Empire is about the Comanche indians, a sort of force of nature that determined much of what happened in the American Southwest.
Why do you think the story of Quanah and Cynthia Ann Parker continues to hold the interest of Texans so strongly?
Because the story of what happened to the family is so astounding, and because it links with the larger story of Comanche power.
For our readers not familiar with The Perfect Pass, would you describe it for them?
If you turn on your TV today, you will see a football game with a lot of passing. Tons of it in the college game. Thirty years ago there was no such thing. My book is about the man who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the passing revolution.
Do you have any theories about why Mike Leach fell out of favor with Texas Tech administration, or is the news that we read all there is to that story?
In part it was that during the 2008 season — Mike just suddenly became much bigger than Tech. That probably sounds strange. But it put all sorts of strains on relationships out there and I do think it affected the events that led to his dismissal. I don’t mean necessarily to say that Mike’s ego got too big for Lubbock . . . but Mike himself was suddenly a nationally celebrated figure in a place where that had not happened before. There were already tensions with the administration; this just put a new level of pressure on those issues.
How has journalism and publishing changed since you began in this business?
OMG. Where do I start? How about: journalism is going extinct. It’s all dying. All going away, the sea is washing over all traces of my past, my career. Everyone is going bankrupt. Publishing I know less about but I think it has changed less and does not face extinction. Yet.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Writing is about hammering the disparate facts of the universe into hard, compelling narratives. You need to tell stories. Just dumping a lot of data into a book or an article is not being a writer. You have to make sense out of it as a story. You must entertain the reader.
What’s next for Sam Gwynne?
I am working on a new book about the last year of the Civil War. I became very invested in the subject after spending four years on my Stonewall Jackson biography. I am having fun diving back into that world. A world, I might note, that bears no trace at all—amazingly!!!! — of Donald J. Trump. I am happy to leave him to others.
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Praise for S. C. Gwynne’s A PERFECT PASS
“Along with his protégé Mike Leach . . . Mr. Mumme revolutionized their sport in ways that, frankly, dwarf the legacy of Billy Beane and his gang from Moneyball.” —Wall Street Journal
“The most entertaining book on football this decade.” —Allen Barra, Dallas Morning News
“If you are a coach, a manager, an entrepreneur, an executive, an MBA student, etc. looking for a real life example of thinking way outside the box and changing your industry or field completely, then The Perfect Pass is the book for you. Read it, digest it, and then apply it to your life’s work.” —Texas History Page
“Excellent sports history . . . an inspiring reminder that great ideas don't automatically permeate the existing ideology. Sometimes a devoted few must pursue their principles with diligence, even if they don't get the glory.”—Publishers Weekly
“It is undeniable that the Air Raid, the fast passing game, and the frequency of the forward pass are now imprinted on football, especially, as Gwynne notes, on the college level though also in the NFL. That makes his subtitle all the more fitting, for undeniably, the two coaches changed the game—and brought glory to their institutions. A superb treat for all gridiron fans.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A rousing tale of innovation finding success in the face of the gale-force winds of convention.”—Booklist
“When we played against a Hal Mumme offense, our defense had to be changed dramatically. You had to throw away everything you knew or you were going to get beat. Every offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator in football better study this book to find out why.” —Jerry Glanville, former NFL and college head coach
Sam has a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University and a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under the acclaimed novelist John Barth. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, the artist Katie Maratta.