Breaking right: The perfect timing of Kevin Sumlin's rise at Texas A&M
DEC 31, 2013 1:00p ET
The year is 2011, and Kevin Sumlin has just experienced the only losing season of his career. He is at a football coaches convention and he runs into Joe Tiller, an old friend and mentor, the guy who got him his first four jobs in coaching.
Sumlin had gone 18-9 in his first two seasons at the University of Houston, then saw his third season fall apart when quarterback Case Keenum blew out his knee. When Sumlin spotted Tiller, he remembered something Tiller used to tell his coaches all the time: “Timing in life is everything.”
“Well, Coach, you’re right again,” Sumlin said.
“What’s that?” Tiller asked.
“We’re all about as good as that guy behind the center,” Sumlin said.
In six seasons as a head coach at Houston and Texas A&M, Sumlin is 54-23. He has had three seasons with at least 10 wins. He has coached two starting quarterbacks, and those two have been (1) the most prolific passer ever to play college football (Case Keenum) and (2) the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy (Johnny Manziel).
“He hit A&M at the right time,” Tiller told FOXSports.com. “But, also, I’ve seen guys go in and screw up great jobs. So, you know, it’s possible to not capitalize on the timing.”
The Aggies (8-4) play Duke on Tuesday in the Capital One Bowl and, speaking of time, it’s an interesting one for Sumlin and the Aggies. Manziel and star receiver Mike Evans are expected to enter the NFL Draft. Sumlin has coached on teams with Drew Brees, Sam Bradford, Keenum and Manziel at quarterback. And (although he tried like hell to get Manziel to go to Houston) the 2014 season will be the first in which Sumlin leads a team with a quarterback he signed.
He appears to be well prepared, having signed Kenny Hill, a Scout.com four-star quarterback in the 2013 class, and Kyle Allen, the No. 1 quarterback in 2014. But the period will nonetheless be a transitional one for Sumlin, who is often described as “the hottest young coach” in college football.
That isn’t so much a comment on his age – he’s 49, same as Urban Meyer – as it is a comment on what people perceive to be his as-yet unrealized potential. In other words, he hasn’t won a national title yet, but we think he will.
His record is by far the biggest reason for this, but his persona is not an insignificant factor. He chews gum on the sideline, which has the effect of making it seem like he is perhaps calmer than he actually is, as if he isn’t coaching against Alabama but rather making a slightly harder-than-usual decision at the RedBox kiosk. In his dealings with the public, he is charismatic and confrontational and occasionally condescending, in the manner of a great many alphas, but he has a fluorescent smile he uses to cushion the landing of heavy words.
It’s either cockiness or swagger, and Tiller says that’s him, but it’s also somewhat calculated.
“He’s probably picked up some of that stuff from Bob Stoops, I would think,” Tiller said. “I think he wants to project that for his players. He’s learned that over the years. He was also that way himself, as a player. I didn’t see the cockiness in him, but I’ve seen it in him as a coach. I think that’s been a learned behavior.”
Tiller coached Purdue for 12 years and had the most success when Drew Brees was the quarterback (of course), winning the Big Ten in 2000.
To Tiller, Sumlin is a friend old enough to casually insult without fear.
“He’s ugly and he has false teeth,” Tiller joked.
To most of the country, though, Sumlin came straight out of nowhere, taking over for Art Briles at Houston in 2008 and immediately winning eight games. In 2011, the Cougars went 12-1, a loss to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game saving the BCS from having to deal with a big Houston problem.
So then Texas A&M calls and Sumlin is pumped because it’s Texas A&M, which is going to the SEC, but also because Sumlin was going to get that Manziel kid he wanted, after all.
A year later, Texas A&M had beaten Alabama, Manziel had won the Heisman and Sumlin was signing one of those “we’re giving you a raise before somebody else does” contract extensions.
He did not come from nowhere, though, as much as it seems like it. He came from Brewton, Ala., but really he came from Indianapolis, the son of a high school principal, where he went to prep school with an eye toward the service academies. He played football, basketball and hockey in high school and decided to play football at Purdue even though the Boilermakers didn’t offer him a scholarship.
He started at linebacker all four years.
“He was a smart player, smart guy right from the get-go,” Tiller said. “He was athletic, he could run. Thought he could play in the NBA … Well, every football player does.”
From there, he followed Tiller around for a while, hooking on as a graduate assistant at Washington State under Mike Price, then as a Tiller assistant at Wyoming and Purdue, with a brief stop at Minnesota in between.
“Back in that era, we weren’t paying Sumlin-type money,” Tiller said. “I think [we] hired him for $25,000 a year. We didn’t have much money at the time, so we had to get some entry-level guys.”
From the beginning, Tiller was impressed with Sumlin’s intelligence and demeanor.
“He’s smart, he carries himself well,” Tiller said. “He’s polished. He almost has that West Point demeanor about him.”
That derived from his father, a longtime principal in the Indianapolis school system.
“Just visiting with Mr. Sumlin then and even after the fact, he was really a class guy,” Tiller said. “The apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
So when Tiller took the head coaching job at Purdue, he wanted to swipe Sumlin from Minnesota. Trouble was, Minnesota paid pretty well. As Tiller recalls, the selling point to Sumlin was that his dollar would go further in West Lafayette, Ind., than in Minneapolis.
“They roll the streets up at 10 o’clock at night in West Lafayette,” he said. “It’s cheap living. Probably as cheap as there is in the Big Ten.”
The offer had a contingency, though. Tiller had lost his wide receivers coach three years in a row, and he was sick of it, so he told Sumlin he had to stay at least two years.
“I thought it would be nice for those players if they had a coach at least two years,” Tiller said. “Hopefully a guy stays with you five years … (But) when you’re not paying a guy a lot of money, it’s real easy for somebody to hire him away from you.”
Though the money wasn’t huge, that Purdue job ended up being a big break. For one thing, it got him away from Minnesota coach Glen Mason’s antiquated offensive system and into the spread offense Tiller was introducing to the Big Ten. For another, Sumlin was coaching the receivers and, as it worked out, Brees was the one throwing to them.
Purdue played in the Rose Bowl in 2000. That would be Sumlin’s last season in West Lafayette.
“I thought it wouldn’t be long and he would be out of there,” Tiller said. “We didn’t have the money. That happened to me at Purdue.”
When Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, an old friend of Tiller’s, called about Sumlin, well …
“I knew A&M had a lot more money than we did,” he said.
He was there for a year, but Sumlin’s second big break came in 2006, when Bob Stoops promoted him from special teams/tight ends to offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, where he coached offenses led by Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford.
It was a good fit. OU had plenty of talent, and Sumlin’s experience with the spread offense made for some continuity at a program with a line of coordinators that included Mike Leach and Mark Mangino.
“He had learned about this one-back spread stuff early on at Washington State, because that’s what we were running with Mike Price,” Tiller said. “When I hired him at Wyoming, we were running the one-back spread, and of course at Purdue in the Big Ten we were running the one-back spread. He had a lot of exposure to that offense. A guy that’s a smart guy will pick things up.”
Then it was on to Houston, which had been running the spread, and where Keenum was beginning his second year. By the time Sumlin and Keenum were done together, Keenum owned every major NCAA career passing record.
Keenum was graduating from Houston, Manziel was redshirting at Texas A&M and the Aggies needed a coach. It was good timing.
Tiller was right again.