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Sumlin has turned self into hot property

Houston Cougars head coach Kevin Sumlin
Kevin Sumlin has guided the Houston Cougars to a 35-16 record in four seasons.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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HOUSTON

Everyone wants a piece of the hottest name in college football coaching circles.

With every step University of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin took two weeks ago as his team entered Robertson Stadium before one of the highest-profile games in program history, he could feel it.

As screaming Houston fans lined the path on both sides of the “Cougar Walk,” they all wanted to touch the man whose undefeated and sixth-ranked team is in the midst of the best season in program history. The man who had the eyes of college football focused on this gritty commuter campus of nearly 40,000 on an overcast Saturday because of a visit by ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

At each step Sumlin took, the crowd reached to give him high-fives, to pat him on the back and to shake his hand. One woman bellowed, “I love you, coach Sumlin,” while others photographed the 47-year-old coach with their cell phones.

“He’s a hell of a coach,” says Steve Hoffman, a 1971 Houston graduate, who has had season tickets ever since. “I hope he stays.”

Houston faithful like Hoffman know to savor moments such as this one before the Cougars' 37-7 romp over Southern Methodist. They have seen the far-from-tradition-rich program on the tip of college football’s tongue before, like during their scoreboard-blowing Run-‘n’-Shoot era in the late 1980s and early ’90s, only to witness a crash to utter irrelevancy a few years later.

They know Houston (12-0, 8-0 Conference USA) and its video game-like offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Case Keenum can crash the BCS party for the first time in team history with a win Saturday at home against No. 24 Southern Miss (10-2, 6-2) in the C-USA championship game.

But beyond that, they also know nothing is guaranteed about the future of the charming Sumlin, who is being mentioned as a candidate for every significant head-coaching opening in college football, especially at programs scuh as Arizona State, UCLA and, reportedly, Texas A&M. He has talked with Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades about a contract extension and spoken positively about the school’s plans to build a new stadium and likely join the Big East.

“I haven’t talked to anybody about any other jobs,” Sumlin told FOXSports.com late Wednesday. “It wouldn’t be right to our fans and everybody else with everything that’s going on right now.”

But beyond this season, realistic Houston fans know it will be difficult to keep Sumlin, who has a 35-16 record in his four seasons with the Cougars. And those who know the former walk-on linebacker best insist he is only on the cusp of his coaching potential.

“He’s truly a can’t-miss,” says University of Texas at El Paso coach Mike Price, who gave Sumlin his first coaching job.

But it hasn’t always been that way for Sumlin. Born to educators in Brewton, Ala., just eight miles north of the Florida state line, he and his parents at one time lived in married housing at Indiana University while his father went to graduate school.

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Sumlin and his parents eventually moved to Indianapolis, where he attended Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School. At first, Sumlin thought he would play basketball at a mid-major school, perhaps Creighton, but those dreams quickly faded.

“Indiana basketball was a lot better than it was in the South,” Sumlin says. “Those guys are good.”

Sumlin instead turned his attention to football as a linebacker and tight end. He was also an accomplished student who had an opportunity to attend Army.

Sumlin went through the application process for West Point and even was nominated by US Sen. Richard Lugar.

But then-Purdue coach Leon Burtnett wanted Sumlin, even though he was undersized to play linebacker in the Big Ten and also lacked speed. Without a scholarship to offer Sumlin, Burtnett asked him to walk on.

Sumlin was also considering Dartmouth at the time, so when he decided to walk on at Purdue, his mother didn’t talk to him for weeks.

“She wasn’t very happy about me not going to West Point,” Sumlin says.

Leading up to Purdue’s first game of the 1983 season against Notre Dame, Sumlin practiced all week, but Burtnett decided not to suit him up and relegated the freshman to watching from the stands. After the 46-point home loss, an enraged Sumlin walked into the Purdue locker room and stared down Burtnett.

“I can play better than this,” Sumlin recalls thinking.

For Purdue’s next game at Miami, Sumlin made the trip. When one of the Boilermakers’ linebackers got hurt, Burtnett turned around and asked, “Who goes in next?”

“Well, Kevin goes in next,” an assistant replied.

“Kevin Sumlin?” Burtnett said. “Damn, don’t we have anybody else?”

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Apparently not, because not only did Sumlin go in, he ended up starting every game the rest of his Purdue career. He made the Big Ten All-Freshman team and was also named to Sports Illustrated’s All-America walk-on list that season after making 91 tackles.

“Kevin was like a coach on the field,” says retired Washington State coach Bill Doba, Purdue’s linebackers coach when Sumlin played. “He was a general out there telling everybody where to go and what to do.”

And he was quite outspoken. Sumlin once went into Burtnett’s office and told him he didn’t think a member of the coaching staff was doing his job well enough.

“I think you need to talk to him,” Burtnett recalls Sumlin saying.

“I’ll tell you what you need to do, you need to turn around and walk out that door,” Burtnett replied. “You stick to playing football. Don’t ever come back in here talking to me about coaches.”

As Burtnett tells that story, nearly 30 years later, he laughs about it.

“He’s always been that way,” says Burtnett, now director of player personnel and quality control under Sumlin at Houston. “He’s always been a leader.”

While Sumlin played at Purdue, he always told Burtnett the same thing after every season.

“You’re going to try to replace me,” Burtnett recalls being told by Sumlin.

Burtnett always tried to bring in a linebacker better than Sumlin but was never successful. By the end of his career at Purdue, Sumlin was the program’s fourth-leading career tackler and is still seventh all time.

“Kevin was really smart,” Burtnett says. “He studied the film and everything. Even though he was a little small and didn’t time out as good as you would want — he played faster than that.”

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Mention Sumlin’s name to retired Wyoming and Purdue coach Joe Tiller and he laughs merrily.

“This guy should be forever indebted to me,” Tiller says.

When Burtnett was fired at Purdue during Sumlin’s senior season in 1986, Tiller also ended up losing his job as the Boilermakers’ defensive coordinator. After a stint at Wyoming, he left in 1989 to be offensive coordinator at Washington State under Price.

Shortly after Tiller had taken his new job, he got a call from Sumlin. In the 18 months since he had graduated from Purdue, Sumlin worked as a small-group insurance underwriter for American United Life Insurance in Indianapolis.

He worked with actuaries and set the rates for renewals at a time when rates were skyrocketing.

“It wasn’t very fun,” Sumlin says. “And even worse I wasn’t very good at it.”

One day while at AUL, Sumlin attended a retirement party for a longtime employee. It was a first-class event, which Sumlin enjoyed, but as he sat there, he realized that could be him in 40 years.

“I don’t know if I want to do this,” Sumlin recalls thinking.

Shortly after Tiller was hired at Washington State, Sumlin called his former defensive coordinator and was hopeful he would recommend him to be a graduate assistant. But Tiller had always been hesitant to recommend someone unless he knew that person.

“I didn’t give a guy a recommendation because we drank a beer together in a bar once,” he says. “Some guys do that, but I don’t.”

Yet Tiller knew Sumlin and had been impressed by him while at Purdue.

“You know this guy with his personality and good people skills, he probably would be a good recruiter,” Tiller recalls thinking.

So Tiller recommended Sumlin to Price, who hired him as a graduate assistant in 1989.

“From the moment we hired him, I knew he was something special,” Price says. “He had a great personality, was super smart and had a great ability to work with people.”

But when Sumlin first arrived at Washington State, he had some maturing to do, Tiller recalls.

“He was a kid at heart,” Tiller says. “He enjoyed life. He enjoyed a good party as well as he enjoyed a good football game.”

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As a graduate assistant, Sumlin learned plenty about the importance of making good decisions while also fetching coffee for the assistants and setting up the projector so they could watch film. He started out working with Doba, then Washington State’s linebackers coach.

But not long after, Sumlin wanted to work with the offense and moved to the other side of the ball.

“It was a smart thing Kevin did,” Doba says. “He tried to learn the entire game.”

While a graduate assistant at Washington State, Sumlin was so poor he couldn’t return home one Thanksgiving and spent the holiday at the home of Doba, who was recovering from neck surgery. To make extra money, Sumlin worked odd jobs in the summers — one year he and another graduate assistant built a house on the Snake River, and the only way to get to it was by boat, Doba says.

“I imagine the place was stocked with beer or they wouldn’t have stayed long,” Doba says.

Doba recalls once stopping by to see Sumlin while he was working on the house and noticed the other graduate assistant wouldn’t budge from sitting on an ice chest.

It turned out the two had caught a large salmon and were worried the fish would jump out.

“I don’t think Kevin learned very much at Washington State, but he had a hell of a good time,” Doba says.

When Tiller left Washington State in 1991 to become coach of Wyoming, he hired Sumlin as his wide receivers coach for $18,006 per year, a contract Sumlin keeps in a frame. Sumlin’s good times as a graduate assistant were obvious when he arrived for his first assistant coaching job.

“He was one of the biggest wide receiver coaches in the country,” says Hawaii assistant Gordy Shaw, one of Sumlin’s closest friends and who coached with him at Wyoming and Minnesota. “He could have played the 3-technique at that point in his life.”

While Sumlin coached for Tiller, he also starred in what Tiller’s assistants called the noontime CBA, the Coaches Basketball Association.

“He thought he could play in the NBA,” Tiller says. “He liked shooting it and liked scoring.”

When Tiller used to watch Sumlin play in the CBA, he knew Sumlin would have that same offensive-minded mentality as a head football coach.

“They’re going to throw the ball around like it’s an NBA game and try to score 100 every game,” Tiller recalls thinking.

After two seasons at Wyoming, Sumlin was ready to leave and took a job as Minnesota’s wide receivers coach after now-Kentucky coach Joker Phillips turned it down. Shaw, who had left Wyoming for Minnesota, had recommended Sumlin for the position.

When Sumlin interviewed with then-Gophers coach Jim Wacker for the job, he was told it would pay $60,000 annually.

“What?” Sumlin replied.

Sumlin pretended to be shocked that the offer was so low, which was more than triple what he was being paid at Wyoming. Wacker countered by offering Sumlin an additional $3,000 per year.

“That’s how I learned to negotiate,” Sumlin says with a laugh.

At Minnesota, Sumlin was an immediate contributor. He hardly knew anyone on the Gophers coaching staff but immediately established rapport with his peers and the players. He was also insightful offensively, but then-Minnesota offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse couldn’t get over how people gravitated to the young coach.

“It was evident we had stumbled on to a diamond in the rough,” says DeBesse, now-offensive coordinator at Sam Houston State. “A guy who was still trying to figure out where he was going, but it was obvious that he was going places.”

DeBesse had so much confidence in Sumlin’s offensive expertise that he eventually moved another assistant coach out of the press box during games and replaced him with Sumlin. After the switch, Minnesota’s offensive productivity increased, which DeBesse credited to Sumlin.

“He was just good at seeing things,” DeBesse says. “He could see the big picture.”

Wacker, who died in 2003 of cancer, saw Sumlin’s potential, as well. He talked about it often, DeBesse says.

“We’re so fortunate to have landed Kevin,” DeBesse recalls being told by Wacker. “He’s going to be a great coach.”

When Glen Mason was hired at Minnesota to replace Wacker after he was fired in 1996, Shaw told Mason he should do whatever he had to do to keep Sumlin, who by then was married to a Minneapolis-area native.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mason told Shaw.

But Shaw explained Sumlin was already interviewing at Northwestern with then-coach Gary Barnett. Mason told Shaw to call Barnett’s cell phone, even though Shaw warned him Sumlin could be in the middle of an interview.

“I don’t care,” Mason replied. “Call him.”

Barnett’s secretary answered the call and Shaw told her Sumlin should call back as soon as possible. Barnett got the message and had Sumlin return Shaw’s call while in his office.

Sumlin asked Shaw if something was wrong and was told Mason wanted to talk to him.

“This really isn’t the time,” Sumlin told Shaw.

When Sumlin returned to Minnesota, Mason had promoted him to quarterbacks coach for the 1997 season. Afterward, Sumlin was approached by Tiller, then at Purdue, about returning to his alma mater as wide receivers coach.

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Tiller had been so upset when Sumlin left Wyoming for Minnesota that he didn’t talk to the young coach for two years. But if Sumlin wanted to be an assistant at Purdue, Tiller asked that he commit for at least two years.

Sumlin took the position and continued to be a force recruiting in South Texas. His efforts in the Lone Star State had gotten the attention of then-Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum.

The veteran coach had noticed many of the recruits on the state’s annual top 100 lists were visiting Purdue and insisted on finding out who was recruiting in Texas for the Boilermakers. It was Sumlin, who made a name in the state while recruiting.

Slocum tried to hire Sumlin twice before he finally accepted a job as Texas A&M’s wide receivers coach in 2001. The next season, Sumlin received a late-night call from Slocum after the Aggies’ third game, a 13-3 home loss to Virginia Tech in which they had only 156 yards of total offense.

When Sumlin saw the name Richard Slocum flash up on the caller ID, he thought he was being fired.

“You need to be able to come in here tomorrow and be ready to go because there might be a change made,” Sumlin recalls Slocum telling him.

The next day, Sumlin was promoted to offensive coordinator. Texas A&M averaged 33 points per game the rest of the season, but Slocum was still fired after a 6-6 campaign.

Sumlin then landed at Oklahoma as an assistant and rose to co-offensive coordinator. When then-Houston coach Art Briles left for Baylor after the 2007 regular season, Dave Maggard, the Cougars' athletic director at the time, called around in search of the brightest young coaches.

Sumlin was always mentioned. So Maggard called Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who didn’t mince words when asked about Sumlin.

“He’s ready,” Maggard recalls being told by Stoops.

After Maggard hired Sumlin, several people asked, “Is this one of those affirmative-action hires?”

“It’s the hire of somebody who is the absolute best candidate,” Maggard replied. “This guy will do a tremendous job here. He will be a star.”

Until Maggard had already made the hire, he didn’t realize Sumlin had become the first black head football coach at a Football Bowl Subdivision program in Texas.

“He’s done what I thought many, many people felt at that time in the history of the University of Houston was unimaginable,” Maggard says.

Sumlin inherited a program that had been on the rise and made three straight bowl games under Briles. Keenum was then a redshirt freshman, but the Cougars had discipline problems.

In Sumlin’s first spring at Houston, he familiarized himself with his players by running them through circuit drills. During one of the sessions, a player complained, “Coach is tripping. This ain’t the Big 12.”

In his first season, Sumlin ended up having more than a dozen players leave and also had to endure the disruption of Hurricane Ike. But he still ended up with an 8-5 record, which included a win in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Cougars’ first postseason victory in 28 years.

“It was really hard,” Sumlin says of the situation he inherited at Houston.

Sumlin had a 10-4 record his second season before dropping to a 5-7 mark last year after Keenum suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Cougars’ third game.

Before Keenum’s injury, there was talk of Houston crashing the BCS last season, but Sumlin knew his team was still a year from being much improved defensively. He thought his team would actually be better this season, even though he didn’t expect to have Keenum, the FBS career record holder in total offense, passing yards and touchdown passes.

But once Keenum was granted a sixth year of eligibility in January, Sumlin knew his team had the potential for this season’s undefeated run. This season, the Cougars lead the nation in total offense (613.3 yards per game), scoring (52.7 points per game) and passing yards (449.7 per game).

“If Case was going to be healthy, we could win a lot of games,” Sumlin says.

And while Houston fans know there’s usually a price to be paid for that success at a non-powerhouse program, those surrounding Sumlin during the “Cougar Walk” two weeks ago weren’t thinking about it. After the coach had made his way through the crowd, a Cougars fan talking on a cell phone reached out to shake Sumlin’s hand.

When Sumlin took his hand, the fan smiled almost as if he were in disbelief. By the time he turned around to look at the coach again, Sumlin was gone.

The fan, like those before, had gotten a piece of Sumlin. When other schools inevitably come calling, they will want more than a piece.

They will want it all.

Tagged: Virginia, Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, Washington, Washington State, Houston, Wyoming, Texas A&M, Texas, Case Keenum, Mike Price

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