A&M's Sumlin faces quite a balancing act

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
9:40
AM CT


More than ever in today’s world of the “look-at-me, push-the-envelope” athlete, if a coach can’t effectively manage those players, then he’s probably not going to be coaching very long.

At least, not at the highest level.

[+] EnlargeManziel/Sumlin
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin defended on Tuesday Johnny Manziel for the quarterback's actions at the end of the Aggies' win over Rice.
It’s why de-recruiting players often times is as important as coaching them.

Hotshot high school players are already rock stars when they arrive on college campuses, and occasionally, they morph into rock stars about as quickly as you can say, “Johnny Football.”

One of the trickiest parts in managing those types of players is that there’s a fine line between managing them and coddling them.

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is operating precariously in that margin right now when it comes to his lightning-rod quarterback, who just happens to be one of the most talented players in college football, not to mention one of the most polarizing, entertaining and doggedly defiant players all wrapped into one.

If Sumlin looks about 10 years older than he did a year ago at this time, there’s a reason.

On his way to winning the Heisman Trophy last season, Johnny Manziel was the driving force in elevating the Aggies to heights they hadn’t enjoyed in more than a decade.

Now, he’s on his way to driving his head coach crazy.

It’s a tough dilemma for Sumlin, whose cool, confident demeanor is one of the reasons he’s such a good coach and recruiter.

The last thing he wants to do is neuter Manziel and do anything to douse that inner fire and live-on-the-edge persona that makes him the player we all love watching on Saturday afternoons and the player opposing defenses dread having to chase around for four quarters.

As Sumlin noted Tuesday in speaking with reporters, it’s the coaches’ job to make sure they keep Manziel’s passion and emotion pointed in a positive direction.

But it was also obvious in the aftermath of last Saturday’s opener that Sumlin was nearing his tipping point when he benched Manziel following the 15-yard taunting penalty in the final minutes of the Aggies’ 52-31 win over Rice.

Sumlin wasn't just irritated. He was genuinely peeved, and it showed in the way he responded to questions about Manziel.

The first question in the post-game press conference was about how Manziel played in the second half, and it didn't take Sumlin long to bring up Manziel's "foolish" penalty and how such actions weren't "OK." He also had no problem offering up that Manziel was benched and that it wasn't merely a situation where he wanted to get another quarterback in the game there at the end.

Normally, Sumlin's one of those guys who plays it pretty close to the vest. But not last Saturday and not after countless conversations over the last eight months with a quarterback who's been as tough to reach sometimes as he has been to tackle.

Yeah, some of Manziel’s gestures during the game were a bit childish, and his continuing to jaw with Rice players after that late touchdown wasn’t the smartest thing he’s ever done, either.

But let’s face it. We see players every Saturday in college football doing worse.

The difference is that those players haven’t necessarily been counseled and re-counseled and then counseled again about their actions and the consequences of those actions, specifically how they impact their teammates and reflect on the entire program.

That’s the part Manziel doesn’t seem to get.

Still, for all the fuss over the way he acted on the field last weekend, Manziel's most egregious sin was the way he nonchalantly brushed past Sumlin on the sideline after Manziel was hit with the penalty.

Taunting a player is one thing. But not giving your coach the proper respect -- especially when that coach has been there for you every step of the way -- is the real problem.

Give Sumlin credit for not throwing his quarterback under the bus Tuesday during his press conference. He insisted that Manziel reacted the way he should have during what was an obvious tongue-lashing by Sumlin.

“If he would have responded (to what Sumlin said), it would have been a bad thing,” Sumlin said.

Again, Sumlin’s smart enough to not make an already tenuous situation worse. But any time your coach is instructing you, coaching you, counseling you -- even cursing you -- you stand there, look him in the eyes and listen.

You can bet that the other players on Texas A&M’s team are watching. Something says they’re also tired of having to answer for Manziel since he's remained off limits to the media for nearly a month. They might support Manziel publicly because that’s what savvy teams (and good teams) do. They never air their dirty laundry outside the locker room.

But at some point, enough’s enough.

Sumlin has made it this far with Manziel, who’s tested his coach and everybody else there at Texas A&M at every turn.

So he’s not about to throw up his hands now.

His responsibility is doing what’s best for Texas A&M’s football team, and what’s best for Texas A&M’s football team is making sure that he’s managing No. 2 and not coddling him.

If Sumlin can pull off that balancing act, here’s betting the reward will be well worth the headaches.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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