Kevin Sumlin trades Houston for A&M
Kevin Sumlin has been an up-and-comer in the coaching business for more than a decade. He drew positive reviews as an assistant coach at Purdue, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Sumlin knew his football and used his considerable people skills to make those around him feel better. He got his chance in 2007 to be a head coach at Houston and proved himself there.
Sumlin has been an up-and-comer, and on Saturday, he up-and-arrived at Texas A&M, in a marquee job running a program that has spent more than a decade stuck shifting from second gear to third and back again.
Sumlin is leaving a program where he went 35-17 (.673) and led the Cougars to two 10-win seasons in four years. He (and/or Texas A&M) will pay Houston a $600,000 buyout to do so. Sumlin is leaving to move upward in his line of work, because not all of us are Chris Petersen, who has made it clear that he will not leave Boise State unless someone presents an eviction order.
Sumlin is leaving because Houston is not Texas A&M, not even three days after Houston left Conference USA for the Big East and direct access to a BCS automatic-qualifying bid. But even as Sumlin signs a long-term lease on this luxury model with so many options standard (facilities, recruiting budget, 12th Man), he is aware of the advantages of the sedan he is leaving behind.
University of Houston president Renu Khator understands the value of athletics to the identity and recognition of the school. Sumlin liked working for athletic director Mack Rhoades, who has proved he can run a department and raise money. Sumlin had the full support of the administration and vice versa.
"All those things add up to the kind of support that you're looking for as a coach in the third- or fourth-largest city in America," Sumlin said this season, "arguably one of the greatest high school football-playing states in the country. There's a lot of talent. The thing we can do is keep winning, and we'll see what happens with this conference stuff."
As Sumlin moves from what would have been the Big East to the Southeastern Conference, he will coach at a school that has clumsily fired its past three head coaches (Mike Sherman, Dennis Franchione, R.C. Slocum). They don't all pull the oars in the same direction in College Station.
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Word of Sherman's firing leaked so quickly that athletic director Bill Byrne had to deliver the news on the phone to Sherman as he sat in his car in the driveway of a recruit's home. That put the dis in dysfunctional.
Byrne, a capable administrator for three decades, got embarrassed. "I'm extremely disappointed someone felt empowered to tell the media of this sensitive information before our head coach was informed," he wrote in his weekly Web column Thursday.
In the world of coaching, where meters register the slightest tremor in the power brokerage of an athletic department, the shenanigans in College Station made the needles dance. One head coach I bumped into this week during the College Football Hall of Fame celebration said that going to Texas A&M might be "career suicide."
Sumlin, in discussing his future earlier this season, said, "Tough jobs with high expectations are rough on coaches. Tough jobs with not-high expectations, those are different. But guys never leave [those jobs]. And like Coach [Steve] Spurrier says," -- Sumlin raised his voice an octave to get Spurrier's raspy tenor -- "'The really good jobs, they don't give those away. Guys like me just try to hang on to them until they get rid of us. You think I'm gon' quit? They'll have to run me out of here.'"
The Cougars' 12-1 season put Sumlin in position to move to a marquee job. Houston's move to the Big East afforded him the chance to be picky. If he didn't find what he wanted, he still would coach in an AQ conference.
Sumlin showed little interest in Arizona and rebuffed Arizona State. Having coached against UCLA this season and last, Sumlin knew what kind of players the Bruins had. But UCLA's facilities need updating, and so does the mindset of its athletic department, which combines the efficiency of a publicly funded bureaucracy with the spending habits of a have-not. As Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times wrote Wednesday, "UCLA is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a months-old requisition order for new goalposts."
Sumlin spoke to UCLA and decided to put his chips on being able to sell himself to Texas A&M. By making the sale, he gained the distinction of shepherding the Aggies into the SEC. Sumlin will arrive in College Station with many advantages. He coached there for two seasons under the resident legend, the aforementioned clumsily fired Slocum. Sumlin stays in his natural recruiting base, the rich soil of Texas, and will have first dibs on any Texans who want to test themselves against the SEC.
Instead of losing players to Texas Tech and Baylor, which Sumlin did at Houston -- they had an AQ bid to offer; he didn't -- Sumlin can offer college football at its highest level. In the end, the up-and-comer got the job he wanted, and Texas A&M got the coach it wanted. Let's see how smoothly the oars hit the water.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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