Kevin Sumlin knows real pressure, and being on Texas A&M's hot seat ain't it

HOOVER, Ala. -- Kevin Sumlin doesn't necessarily want your sympathy, but he does want your attention.

Sumlin's job is in danger at Texas A&M. We know that because his boss went on national television and said so in late May.

What the moment lacked in decorum, it made up for in shock value.

That's also why Sumlin deserves your attention. Up at the podium Wednesday at the 2017 SEC Media Days, the Aggies coach made a point to say Joe Tiller is sick. Sumlin later told CBS Sports his former boss, mentor and Purdue coach has cancer.

"Joe's not really doing good right now," Sumlin said. "Just keep him in your prayers."

Tiller is 74 now and beloved by just about everyone. In 10 seasons as head coach (1997-2008), he brought the modern spread offense to Purdue, the Big Ten and a lot of college football.

You might've heard of his quarterback on Purdue's last Rose Bowl team in 2000: Drew Brees, a small kid out of Texas who could really spin it.

A bunch of former Boilermakers went to the Tillers' Wyoming home earlier this month to help celebrate Joe and Arnette's 50th anniversary.

They all remembered him as did Sumlin on Wednesday. As a linebacker in the mid-1980s, Sumlin played for Tiller, then Purdue's defensive's coordinator. Tiller hired Sumlin as a receivers coach at Wyoming in 1991.

A bit of force-fed perspective back then helps Summy today.

"Joe Tiller said, 'If they [receivers] don't catch the ball, you're fired,'" Sumlin said. "And I was making $19,000."

For the record, that's real pressure watching your career flash before your eyes while trying to make rent in Laramie, Wyoming. That, while driving a rolling piece of crap called a Pontiac Fiero.

"Remember those things?" Sumlin asked about 1,000 clueless media staring back at time. About 990 of them really didn't remember Detroit's mid-engine travesty that was manufactured for all of five years in the 1980s.

" … where they caught fire and all that stuff in the back?"

Crickets.

"There was just as much pressure then as there is now," Sumlin continued. "I'm being honest with you. So like I told [my receivers], 'You better start catching the ball.'"

He was kidding, but Texas A&M AD Scott Woodward certainly was not. Woodward's call out came on the SEC Network's "Paul Finebaum Show" for the world to hear during the conference's own spring meetings.

"Coach Sumlin knows he has to win," Woodward said on May 30. "He has to win this year. He has to do better than he has done in the past."

Later that day, I cornered Woodward. He said he'd indicated the same thing about three times previously. But none of those -- Woodward was reminded -- was on national television coming basically unsolicited while appearing on the conference's own network.

Whatever the case, we had our official hot seat coach of 2017. That's what much of Wednesday was about as the Aggies made it through the media days car wash.

"There's nobody that puts more pressure on me than Kevin Sumlin," the coach said.

"Whatever is said, whatever is written is not going to effect my job," he continued.

"I don't know what the protocol is. Each year there is something new," Sumlin said of the Finebaum fireball that stoked the hot seat heat.

That, at least, was a classy way to go about it.

Woodward wouldn't be calling out his coach if a large swath of powerful A&M administrators and boosters didn't agree with him.

They don't want to hear that Sumlin has averaged almost nine wins a season. His 44 wins are the most at the school in 15 years.

They want another Heisman. They want another Johnny Football. They want an SEC West title, at least. They may have to wait a while in a division that shares traits with the NFC East.

Why would you think this year is going to be better? one reporter asked Sumlin.

"Because I'm the coach," he shot back.

Check back in November.

Sumlin probably doesn't need our sympathy. Any of us would take his $5 million salary and buyout, reportedly in the double-digit millions.

Fortunes and minds change fast in the SEC. The guy who coached Johnny Manziel to the Heisman and the Aggies to a win over Alabama five years ago has gone 8-5 three straight seasons.

That's a .613 winning percentage. That's also exactly what College Football Hall of Fame coach Gene Stallings averaged in his career.

But to some Aggies, it's how those records were achieved. Texas A&M has kicked off the last three seasons a collective 16-0. The Aggies have gone 8-15 the rest of the way since 2014.

"Every team goes through it," Aggies All-American wide receiver Christian Kirk explained. "They have injuries. You go through the SEC gauntlet. It's tough. It takes a [toll] on your body -- school, everything else.

"We're college kids at the same time. We get tired. That's not an excuse. We have to wipe out the excuses."

There is no magic number for Sumlin. If he wins nine but gets blown out by Alabama (again), who knows? If he wins eight again but breaks the Aggies' six-game losing streak to LSU, is that better?

The one-time quarterback whisperer will have a new starter for the fourth consecutive year. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is making almost $2 million per year. His defense finished 90th nationally last season.

But understand Sumlin knows real pressure. He's known Tiller since age 18 playing linebacker for Tiller's Purdue defense.

In one season, Tiller went from Purdue defensive coordinator in 1986 to Wyoming's offensive coordinator in 1987.

"How the hell does that happen?" Sumlin asked rhetorically.

Tiller told the kid back then: If you learn offense, you'll have a job forever. But it five years later as the Cowboys head coach that reality hit.

That's when Tiller walked up to his young receivers coach (Sumlin) and said, "If they don't start catching the damn ball all the time, I'm going to fire your ass."

"I immediately had the same conversation with the wide receivers," Sumlin said.

Out of that group came Ryan Yarborough, Wyoming's first two-time All-American. Out of that conversation came inspiration for Kevin Sumlin today.

"I just want to say publicly how much I appreciate what Joe's done for me not only as a player," Sumlin said those 1,000 media, "but giving me a start as a full-time coach.

"Just keep him in your prayers." 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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