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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Sumlin has given A&M energy boost it needs as it enters brutal SEC West

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Sumlin wants to change the atmosphere in College Station. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M)  
Sumlin wants to change the atmosphere in College Station. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M)    

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Pads are popping all over Texas. It's 1:23 p.m. on a balmy late February day and several college football programs in the Lone Star State have already kicked off spring football -- even if spring technically doesn't start for another month. At Texas A&M, where the Aggies won't get on the practice field for another five weeks, the real action is in the staff room of the massive Bright Football Complex.

Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies' new hope to resurrect a proud football program that, truth be told, stopped being a powerhouse before the old Southwest Conference went belly up some two decades ago, sits tipped back in front of a long, rectangular board table in a room littered with maroon leather swivel chairs. To Sumlin's left are staffers Justin Moore, an associate AD for football who came with the head coach from his previous job at Houston, and Matt Watson, the Aggies long-time equipment man. Across the table are two men in sport coats. One looks to be in his late 30s. The other in his mid 60s.

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"The reason you guys are here is we gotta do something about the feel of this building," Sumlin says, as he glances around the room and pauses for a few heartbeats. "This feels old and stiff and cold -- everything is dark. I'm always going around flipping on lights. This has to reflect that we have a younger staff. This building should be a tool for teaching and recruiting."

Both men across the table smile, nodding their heads with a look of understanding.

"Oh, we get it," says the older man, who heads a Tulsa-based architecture firm that has done branding work for major college programs. "That's all what the West End Zone project [at Oklahoma State] was all about -- getting good coaches and players, and keepin' 'em."

Sumlin and Moore have hosted a few similar meetings with companies looking for the Aggies business over the previous few weeks. Other firms the new Aggies have brought in have done renovation jobs for the Dallas Mavericks and Colorado Rockies.

The lights dim. The younger man across the table, armed with his laser pointer, begins a presentation on the screen in the front of the room. The show begins with a few slides of Oklahoma State's football complex. "This is what 50 years of neglect gets you," the younger man says looking at the Before photo.

He clicks through to a second image, showing the fruits of Oklahoma State mega booster Boone Pickens' funds. "And THIS! is what vision, leadership and money will get you."

Now the nodding heads are on Sumlin's side of the table.

The guys who did the Oklahoma State renovation are here because Sumlin and his staff at Houston had heard plenty of their recruits gush about Oklahoma State's facilities when they would come to visit Houston. The coaches had also toured the Cowboys' place and came away similarly awed.

They understand that it's not a coincidence that Oklahoma State's rise occurred about the same time as the program started to look big-time too. But unlike where Oklahoma State was a few years ago, the Aggies do not require a massive, structural overhaul. The Aggies football stadium, Kyle Field, stacks up well against any other venue in sports in magnitude and in atmosphere. Kyle Field is big-time. The football complex? Well, if you've been to a few of their SEC rivals, you can tell right away, the Aggies set-up is sorely lacking in wattage. It feels outdated. The Bright Complex has plenty of high-end furniture, but the place just feels stuffy, stale. The building has more of a vibe of an oversized law office than somewhere you'd expect to run a powerhouse college program or woo blue-chip recruits.

What Sumlin is really looking for, as the program makes the big leap into the rugged SEC, is more along the lines of branding and graphics overhaul. In short, the Aggies football complex needs a makeover.

Sumlin's comments to the design guys over the next hour of their presentation range from detailed questions == "Are those chairs and tables anchored down? No arm rests on those chairs, huh?" == to observations == "I like how you added that 'Cowboys' on the ceiling of that hall. That made the whole deal. It could've been kinda boring."

"We don't do boring," says the 60-something year-old.

  

On the field, the Aggies sure could use a makeover as well. Since 1996, they have finished in the top 15 just one time (1998). Sumlin's predecessor Mike Sherman went 15-18 in Big 12 play before getting fired. The coach before him, Dennis Franchione, had a 19-21 league record and didn't lead the Aggies to a top-25 finish once in five seasons before getting canned. Enter Sumlin, who takes over as the Aggies are moving into a tougher conference that has won six straight national titles. They'll make the jump into the most brutal division (the SEC West) in college football while breaking in a new starting quarterback (Ryan Tannehill is projected to be a first-round draft pick in April); a new starting running back (Cyrus Gray is also NFL bound after consecutive 1000-yard seasons); and having to replace most of their defensive line and secondary.

The program does have some intriguing potential, though. Sumlin has a firm grasp of that, having spent a few seasons in College Station as an assistant under R.C. Slocum, the last Aggies football coach to have significant success at College Station. There is big booster support to rival any in the SEC. There is a lot of tradition, from the 12th Man to the Corps of Cadets. "This is not a wine-and-cheese crowd," he says. "This is the home of the 12th Man. They know what noise can do."

The Aggies also are sitting in the middle of some of the most fertile recruiting soil in the country.

Sumlin inherited an excellent group of offensive linemen, too. All five starters return, including the junior tackle tandem of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews who have already turned NFL scouts' heads. That's a nice foundation to build the offense around. There are also three former five-star tailbacks on the 2012 roster and a go-to receiver in Ryan Swope. There are four promising quarterbacks ready to battle for the starting job. Three of the four QBs are dynamic dual-threat guys, which would be an intriguing change in the system that Sumlin and his 32-year-old offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, a budding star in the coaching business, are bringing over from Houston, where they had the nation's No. 1 offense in two of the past three seasons.

"I'm excited to see what we have," says Kingsbury, sitting front of a board covered with dozens of plays scrawled in sharpie. "We wanted all four of those quarterbacks at Houston but they came here."

The Aggies defense is also undergoing big change, shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3. "People are going to try to run it down our throats," Sumlin says matter-of-factly. "We have to line up and be able to stop the run right now."

Given their inexperience up front, that doesn't sound promising. "We've gotta get better fundamentally, no doubt about that," says Mark Snyder, the new defensive coordinator. "We gotta become more vertical up front, get up the field. I keep telling the kids, it's the old Miami mentality -- get vertical!"

The other challenge is to become more physical, says Snyder, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator who is excited to work with former Boise State defensive backs coach Marcel Yates. "There'll be no finesse corners here. (Yates') DBs at Boise were very physical, and that's good, because it's not touch football in this league. To me, it's the Big Ten with more athletic players."

The players seem to be buying in. Sumlin is pleased about the commitment his new team has shown in the offseason conditioning program under strength coach Larry Jackson, another staffer he brought with him from Houston. Better still, the Aggies haven't had one player quit or leave amid the transition. That is a rarity these days when coaching turnover tends to lead to substantial attrition under the proverbial "culture" changes.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but the attitude has been great," Sumlin says. "I told 'em, 'A lot of you guys didn't sign up for me. I know that, but we know what we're doing. Trust us.'"

  

The Aggies' arrival in the SEC has been met with a collective eye roll by the league's sizable fan base. That is as much a reflection of the conference's dominance as it is the Aggies mediocrity over the past decade. The 47-year-old Sumlin, a former Purdue linebacker, returns to College Station with a sterling rep among his peers. In four seasons at Houston, he went 35-17 while leading the program to its first bowl victory since 1980. In 2009, he was a finalist for the Paul "Bear" Bryant National Coach of the Year when he led the Cougars to a Conference USA West Division crown and a final record of 10-4. In 2011, he led Houston to a 12-1 mark before leaving for College Station.

"He has such charisma with the players," says Kingsbury, a one-time New England Patriots QB, when asked what makes Sumlin such a good head coach. "He's very real to them. They know he's accessible. He treats them like grown-ups and they want to play hard for him."

The staff Sumlin assembled is impressive. In addition to a sharp pair of coordinators, Sumlin also snagged, among others, Stanford's special teams coordinator Brian Polian, Yates from Boise State and Clarence McKinney, his ace recruiter from Houston.

Turning around a program that has been in a tailspin for a long time isn't easy. It's become too cliche to talk about "changing the culture." But what needs to happen often starts with overhauling the mindset, and how that takes places can be in a variety of ways. Some subtle. Some not so subtle. It's also easier to do with younger players than older ones because their habits aren't so defined, or in some cases, calcified.

"We've got some pretty clean canvases right now," Sumlin says.

What exactly has been the Aggies' problem of late? Ask 10 people around College Station and you'll probably get 10 different answers. No program in the country has struggled more in crunch time, though. In the past three seasons, the Aggies were 5-10 in games decided by 10 points or less. In 2011, they lost five games in which they had leads in the second half.

Asked how much conditioning was part of the problem, Sumlin scratches his chin. The easiest thing for any new coach is to point fingers at the previous staff, but the program's dreadful record in close games is unavoidable. "Well, to rule out conditioning, you gotta be crazy," he says.

Sumlin moved the start of spring football back to March 31. Some college teams are already done by then. His reasoning was three-fold:

 To give his new coaching staff a chance to come together;
 Get a good start on recruiting;
 Give [Aggies strength coach] Larry Jackson a chance to affect conditioning.

All three factors are on track, he says. The biggest attention-grabber so far for the Aggies fan base has been the buzz the new staff has created among recruits. They already have a dozen commitments, and most are from highly-touted prospects. The best of the bunch could be Isaiah Golden, a prized 300-pound defensive tackle, who could help solve some of the concerns with the D-line.

  

At Houston, Sumlin's first priority on the makeover there before the 2008 season was remodeling his office, the meeting rooms and lobbies of the reception area. The reason, he explains to the Oklahoma designers as they tour other parts of the Aggies football building: the lobbies are the first things recruits and players see when they enter a football program. They set the tone. They make an impression. They impact energy. Sumlin's office is the place where he tries to reel in a prospect and convince the kid's family that his school, his program, is best for the recruit. It's also where he meets with the players he inherited from the former regime and he wants them comfortable with him and his personality.

A hounds-tooth hat Sumlin was given when he was voted as a finalist for the Bear Bryant Award is one of the few personal items in his office that looks more apt for a law partner than head ball coach. "My first thought when I walk in here is I'm either going to take a deposition or give one," Sumlin says. The space itself is good, but the walls, save for a bank of four TVs, are barren. There is much sprucing up that needs to be done.

Some of the renovation, such as a new 19,000-square foot, football-only weight room, are already in the works. (Sumlin says it'll be ready by Aug. 1)

In addition, Sumlin and his right-hand man, Moore, a former Aggies pitcher, explain to the designers the entryways inside the complex on the ground floor are too cramped. It's never a good thing if you're hosting a bunch of recruits on a Junior Day and they all get bottle-necked as soon as they enter Aggies Football.

The first floor of the Aggies football complex, where the offensive and defensive units of the team also meet, are beyond spartan. They're just bland. Maybe the previous coaching staff wanted to minimize any possible distractions in their position rooms. Whatever the reason, the look needs to be changed. "Maybe it's not a big deal, but it is to me," Sumlin says. "This is your learning environment."

The crew that did the Oklahoma State overhaul had a theme. The lower level, which was branded to be more lively and vibrant, was geared for the 17 and 18-year-old players. The upstairs level, where the coaches' offices are, was catered more to grown-ups with black granite and stainless steel. Lighting and signage are a must. The Aggies' football tradition rivals just about any program in the nation. Only you don't get a great sense of it walking around the building. You just know that the school's color is maroon.

After another hour or so, while Sumlin led his guests all over the Bright Football Complex to the Aggies impressive indoor track stadium -- complete with one of the country's few hydraulically banked tracks -- and into Kyle Field, the tour wraps up back where the meeting started, inside the Aggies' staff room.

"O.K., so when are you hoping to get something back to you?" the older man asks.

"As soon as possible ... " Moore says.

"Tomorrow," interjects Sumlin with a chuckle. "I got recruits coming in."


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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