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the gregarious and gifted Kevin Sumlin proves to be the perfect fit at Texas A&M
by Homer Jacobs
12th Man Magazine
From the big recruits to the big cigars, from the inner city to outside the Loop, college football’s Everyman definitely can relate.
After all, his smile is universal, his style so complete.
Indeed, Kevin Sumlin is the cool coach with the sizzling touch these days, as he tries to lead the Texas A&M football program to unprecedented heights going forward.
But even in leading the Aggies to a sparkling 11-2 record last season with an upset of top-ranked Alabama and guiding A&M to a 5-2 record heading into the Vanderbilt game, Sumlin remains as even-keel and grounded as ever.
The former walk-on linebacker at Purdue still lights up the room as he always has.
- WR Mike Evans
“He’s just a regular guy who treats everybody the same,” says A&M associate athletic director for football Justin Moore. “He’s like that with everybody in the office. He doesn’t act any different than the lowest staff member.
“He walks around the hallways, and you can hear him laughing and joking…he’ll peek in the G.A.’s office and sit down and (talk) with them for 10 minutes. Head coaches just don’t do that.”
Sumlin’s charisma oozes through the hallways of the Bright Football Complex, from breaking the tension in a staff meeting to wowing recruits and their parents on official visit weekends.
The week before the Alabama showdown in September, Sumlin’s calm was so evident before the storm.
“My biggest takeaway was his ability to relate to everybody,” said Bruce Feldman, the CBSSports.com writer who was imbedded with the A&M program in the days leading up to the clash with the Crimson Tide. “And I’m talking about the 17-year-old recruit, the bluest of the blue-chip recruits, the big-time athlete, the Johnny Manziel guy, the offensive linemen, the defensive linemen, the rich boosters, the media and, maybe more than anything, his assistant coaches.
“I’ve been around a lot of programs, and I’ve never seen a program or any team as loose and not bogged down for a big game as his team before the Alabama game. To see that first-hand was really eye opening. I came away feeling like this guy is brilliant when it comes to just managing people.”
Sumlin’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant at Washington State in 1989. Head coach Mike Price had put together a star-studded staff that included Joe Tiller and Bill Doba, who both were formerly on the Boilermakers’ staff and had coached a gritty linebacker from Indianapolis.
The rave reviews about this engaging, up-and-coming coach piled up, and Price quickly hired Sumlin as a graduate assistant and coach of the junior varsity team (allowable back then by the Pac-10). Sumlin had strict instructions in leading the junior varsity squad: Prepare a young quarterback named Drew Bledsoe to play for the varsity halfway into the season.
Fortunately, Bledsoe was not injured—a fire-able offense for a young G.A.—and he found his way to the varsity lineup. And Sumlin’s coaching star began to shimmer.
- DB De'Vante Harris
“There was no doubt after meeting and talking with him that he was going to be special,” recalls Price, who is retired from coaching but closely follows Sumlin’s career. “He can walk into a room and get everybody’s attention. He was articulate, smart, outgoing and friendly.
“He went up (the ladder) so quickly that I never got a chance to hire him back. He’s big-time, and I’ve always felt that way. He has remained humble and appreciative. He’s not a big shot. He has a great air about him because of his personality, his smile and his good looks.”
While Sumlin made coaching stops at Wyoming, Minnesota and Purdue, his first big break likely came when he was scouring the recruiting fields of Texas. He was quickly turning heads across this state as he and the Boilermakers began to convince Texas kids to head north to the Big Ten.
Former A&M coach R.C. Slocum became so alarmed at the number of top Texas recruits from the Houston Chronicle Top 100 who were considering Purdue that he asked his assistant coaches who was this recruiting ace raiding the state of Texas for the Boilermaker program.
The hotshot was Sumlin, and Slocum was then introduced to the bright-eyed assistant at the national coaches convention after the 2000 season. It was an encounter that would ultimately lead Sumlin to Aggieland as an assistant coach in 2001 and later as the head coach a decade later.
In Sumlin’s second season as wide receivers coach on Slocum’s staff, the Aggies began the 2002 season with lackluster offensive performances under offensive coordinator Dino Babers. After scoring just three points against Virginia Tech in the third game of the season, Slocum had seen enough and demoted Babers while handing over play-calling duties to Sumlin.
A&M proceeded to score 30 points or more in six of its next seven games, stamping the resurgence with a 30-26 win over top-ranked Oklahoma at Kyle Field.
Unfortunately for Slocum and Sumlin, the Aggies stalled to close out the season, losing two straight games to Missouri and Texas.
“I think Kevin was holding out on me when he was coaching for me,” Slocum said with a laugh recently as he witnessed Sumlin’s offense purr through the SEC in 2013. “I wish he had broken out the whole package.”
The 6-6 season would mark the end of the Slocum era, but fortunately for Sumlin—and the A&M program 10 years later—the Aggieland experience had been a positive one.
- Justin Moore, Associate AD/Football
After spending five seasons in the Big 12 on Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma and while at Houston as the head coach, Sumlin always kept an eye on the Aggies.
The maroon blood had never stopped flowing.
“He really enjoyed his time here when he was assistant, and he always knew it was a special place,” said Moore, who was hired by Sumlin as director of football operations at Houston six years ago. “Anytime we were watching highlights in the locker room at Houston, he would always have an interest in what A&M was doing. You could always tell, even if he was keeping it to himself a little bit, that he thought this place was special.”
Former A&M receiver Terrence Murphy, who came to A&M the same year Sumlin arrived as an assistant, said he always knew Sumlin would return to A&M one day…this time as the head coach.
“I told him on the phone in 2007 that he’d be the head coach at Texas A&M,” Murphy added. “At the time, he wasn’t even a head coach yet but still an assistant at OU. I told him he was going to be the head coach at Texas A&M and told him to write that down. He said, ‘Man, I don’t see that happening. I’m not even a head coach anywhere right now.’”
He is now, and Sumlin has quickly become one of the hottest coaches in the game.
While there were countless doubters pontificating about A&M’s sure demise in the SEC, Sumlin quietly balked at all the naysaying. He was ready for the big job in College Station, forming his own coaching philosophy after stealing nuggets from coaching legends like Stoops, Slocum, Price and Tiller.
And with his arrival in Aggieland, Sumlin brought a confidence and swagger to the A&M program that had been missing for the better part of 15 years.
There was a culture change, as well, as Sumlin introduced flashier uniforms and a hipper team entrance. With the SEC logo emblazoned on all team gear and refurbishments dressing up the Bright Football Complex, Sumlin attacked brand management like a marketing guru.
His offense was cutting edge, too, as it continues to shred the vaunted defenses of the SEC.
“He’s come in and done some cool things for our university,” Murphy said. “How many times have you seen a coach come in and change America’s perspective of Texas A&M? The SEC played a big part in that, but if Coach Sumlin doesn’t come here we don’t see Johnny Manziel in the light that we saw him; I don’t feel we have the success in the SEC in our first year. There are a lot of things he’s done for us, and he wanted to be here. That’s what was the most important thing to me.”
Recruits certainly want to join the Sumlin show, as A&M likely will sign a top-10 class for the second straight year. If Sumlin isn’t flying to a recruit’s game in a maroon helicopter, he’s wowing families in his office with a 20-minute spiel that shows off both his charm and his candor.
- Bruce Feldman, CBSSports.com
“I can see why they’re doing so well in recruiting,” Feldman said. “I’d be surprised if any kid who did take a visit that (Alabama) weekend committed some place else.
“If he stays there five years, I’ll be surprised if they don’t win at least one national title. I know how well he’s recruiting, and I know how well he can coax performances out of his athletes.”
Sumlin quickly won over the locker room when he first arrived at A&M, engaging in typical banter with his guys. His post-game celebrations—complete with major waterworks—have become must-see videos for Aggie football fans.
He meets with players to decide which uniforms to wear, what music to listen to at practice and which movies to view on a Friday night. And in keeping with his family values, he doesn’t grind down his coaching staff, giving his coaches time off Thursday nights and Friday mornings to spend with their families.
“He’s loose, and he’s a player’s coach,” said wide receiver Mike Evans. “He understands what we’ve been through because he’s been there before. He knows how to relate to us, and he’s just a great guy.”
A&M players talk freely of Sumlin’s openness and straight-shooting style. And everyone—coaches and players—is held accountable in a Monday team meeting and video session dubbed, “The Truth.”
“I only know one way to do things,” Sumlin says. “You try to be honest with your guys and try to be who you are. Young people are hard to fool, so you need to be yourself. If you’re not yourself, in times of turmoil or times when there’s undo pressure and the real you comes out, if it’s something they hadn’t seen it can scare a lot of folks.
“Our coaches do a great job of communicating with our players. I try to do that. From that standpoint, players know where I stand with our team all the time. We don’t play any mind games. I’m really honest with them, sometimes brutally honest. Because of that, they know where it is and where they stand. I think that alleviates a lot of problems. Because of the communication, you can keep moving forward without a hidden agenda. And I think that builds trust with the young guys. And once you lose (trust), you might never get it back.”
With Sumlin’s success at A&M come the natural questions about his longtime coaching future. The NFL has reportedly made overtures toward Sumlin, and with each major job opening in college, Sumlin’s name invariably pops up on the search list.
But Sumlin is building a special program in College Station, and his fondness for all that is Aggieland remains incredibly strong.
“It’s not just another job to him,” Murphy added. “It’s not a steppingstone. He wants to raise his family here, and he’s really got a connection to our university.”
One that could keep him in charge of Aggie football for a long time. And how cool would that be?
- Nov. 13 - Yes, Sir (Kevin Sumlin)
- Nov. 6 - Never Say Die (Travis Labhart)
- Oct. 30 - Do-It-All Deshazor (Deshazor Everett)
- Oct. 16 - The Right Move (Cedric Ogbuehi)
- Oct. 9 - Maroon Machine (Aggie Offense)
- Sept. 23 - One Cool Customer (Malcome Kennedy)
- Sept. 11 - Family First (Jake Matthews)
- Sept. 10 - Conversation Topic
- Sept. 4 - The Rock from The Island (Mike Evans)
- Aug. 28 - Rising Son (Toney Hurd, Jr.)
- Aug. 14 - Big Ben (Ben Malena)