Coach Kevin Sumlin and his prolific offense made Houston a power in Conference USA.
His next challenge will be trying to replicate that success in the Southeastern Conference, the country’s toughest football league, as Texas A&M’s new coach.
Sumlin was hired as the Aggies’ new coach on Saturday, less than two weeks after Mike Sherman was fired following a disappointing 6-6 finish.
The Aggies (6-6) are scheduled to play Northwestern (6-6) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston on Dec. 31, with A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter serving as interim coach.
It will be the Aggies’ last game as a Big 12 team before moving to the SEC next season.
”(We) spoke to many worthy and qualified candidates, but my decision, which was made in consultation with president (R. Bowen) Loftin, kept leading me to Kevin,” athletic director Bill Byrne said. ”I believe he is the right person to lead our football program into the Southeastern Conference. First of all, Kevin is a terrific person. He is also one heck of a recruiter and he will put together a great staff.”
It will be his second stint at the school after working as an assistant under R.C. Slocum in 2001-02.
”I am very excited about the opportunity to serve as the head football coach at Texas A&M University,” Sumlin said in a statement. ”Having coached there before, I understand the culture and embrace the commitment by the 12th Man regarding Aggie football. Aggieland is a special place and I look forward to working with the young men in the football program and recruiting the type of players we need to be successful in the SEC.”
Slocum, A&M’s coach from 1989-2002, raved about Sumlin.
”Kevin Sumlin is very respected in the coaching profession,” Slocum said. ”He is an excellent recruiter, a solid coach with a lot of experience, and a great person. He will do well as head coach of the Aggies.”
Sumlin, who was Houston’s first black head coach, is also the first black coach at Texas A&M.
”The hiring of Kevin Sumlin is a great opportunity to build on the solid foundation left by Coach Sherman,” said former Texas A&M linebacker Steve Solari, who played for the Aggies in the early 1990s. ”Hiring the first African-American head football coach at A&M is a momentous occasion.”
Speculation intensified that Sumlin would move about 100 miles northwest to College Station when A&M fired Sherman after he went 25-25 in four seasons.
Sumlin told the Cougars that he was leaving in an emotional meeting on Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars (12-1) play Penn State (9-3) in the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 2 with assistant Tony Levine serving as the interim head coach.
Sumlin, 47, went 35-17 in four seasons with Houston, and the Cougars routinely ranked as one of the nation’s highest scoring teams.
He was on campus on Friday to join in the celebration of Houston’s upcoming move to the Big East.
”When you have a head coach, the one thing that you ask is that you leave the program in better shape than what you inherited,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said. ”And there’s no question that Coach Sumlin did that.”
Houston won its first 12 games this year and was in line for a Bowl Championship Series berth this season until losing at home to Southern Mississippi in the C-USA championship game.
Despite the loss, Sumlin remained a hot name to fill just about every high-profile coaching vacancy available. Reports linked him to Mississippi, Illinois, Arizona State and UCLA, in addition to Texas A&M.
The Aggies entered this season with 18 returning starters and a top-10 ranking. They were expected to contend for the Big 12 championship and be a factor in the national title hunt, but then lost early games to Oklahoma State and Arkansas after holding double-digit halftime leads.
A&M won three in a row after the first skid, but a three-game losing streak, which included two overtime losses, ensured the Aggies of a mediocre season. The low point of the season came when Texas A&M ended its more than century-old rivalry with Texas with a 27-25 loss at home on Thanksgiving.
Byrne said he met with Sumlin on Saturday morning to finalize the offer. Details of his contract were not announced, pending approval by A&M’s board of regents.
An Indianapolis native, Sumlin played linebacker for Purdue in the 1980s before beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Washington State in 1989. He worked as an assistant at Wyoming and Minnesota before returning to his alma mater to work as an assistant coach under Joe Tiller while Drew Brees starred for the Boilermakers.
Sumlin moved to Texas A&M in 2001 to work for Slocum as an offensive assistant. Slocum was fired after the 2002 season, which included a victory over then-No. 1 Oklahoma.
Terrence Murphy was a receiver for the Aggies when Sumlin worked for Slocum.
”He really cares about the players as individuals and that makes you as a player want to give everything you have for him,” Murphy said. ”This is a great decision by Texas A&M.”
Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops then hired Sumlin in 2003 as a special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. Sumlin was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in 2006, and a year later, Oklahoma ranked fifth in scoring (42.3 points) and 19th in total offense (448.9 yards per game) on its way to the Fiesta Bowl.
Houston hired Sumlin in December 2007, and Sumlin vowed to use what he learned from Stoops to build up the Cougars’ program.
After the loss to Southern Miss, Rhoades shot down a media report that Sumlin would be hired as the next coach at Texas A&M. Rhoades promised to do everything in his power to retain Sumlin, whose contract ran through the 2015 season.
Ultimately, the rumor proved to be true.
Sumlin will officially be introduced at a press conference in College Station on Monday. Houston, meanwhile, will begin its search for Sumlin’s successor, with its own new conference and the promise of a new football stadium to sell.