Out of Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin can just be a damn good coach again for Arizona
It may have been impossible for Sumlin to meet the expectations set for him in College Station
In the middle of Kevin Sumlin's final Texas A&M season, a successful prominent coach asked me, "What happens if I go 8-4?"
The question was rhetorical. That coach -- who didn't want to be identified -- was referring tangentially to Sumlin, the same guy who was introduced as Arizona's new coach Tuesday.
Sumlin's career has basically averaged out to one big 8-4 record -- 86-43 (.666) over 10 seasons. The rinse-wash-repeat nature of three straight eight-win seasons at Texas A&M from 2014-16 is also a major reason he was fired on Nov. 26, 2017.
That day I spoke to him, 8-4 came out of the prominent coach's mouth like a sour lemon. He was wondering about his own job security. If winning two-thirds of your games isn't good enough, well, what has the coaching profession become?
We all know it's a case of perspective and expectations, of course. Sumlin never duplicated his first season at Texas A&M. In 2012, he won 11 games, beat Alabama and Oklahoma and coached a Heisman winner in Johnny Manziel. It never was that good again at A&M, but it was never really that bad, either. When Sumlin departed the SEC, only Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Gus Malzahn had better career winning percentages.
That's where the expectations and perspective come in.
Sumlin's situation was more unique.That's more than silly. That's borderline unethical.
"It was tough," Sumlin told me Tuesday. "Trying to be consistent, trying to be upbeat all the time, trying to be honest with your staff can be draining when that information is out there."
How's this for perspective? Sumlin has the second-best career winning percentage of any coach coming into Arizona as any coach exiting Arizona since 1937. The only coach better in that time span was Jim Young, who won 70 percent of his games from 1973-76.
It's impossible to label Sumlin a failure at Texas A&M, but the administration there did its damndest to make him feel like one.
The pep talk Sumlin needed came from a trip to the American Football Coaches Association of America coaches' convention earlier this month. Sumlin just went to hang out. There were friends, starting with West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. Sumlin found out there were other opportunities (coach in the NFL) and plenty of advice (sit out a year and do TV).
Finally, he came to a conclusion.
"Hey, I do know what I'm doing. People do respect [me]," Sumlin said. "Since third grade, there has been only one year since I haven't been involved in football. These five, six weeks is the longest vacation I had."
What you saw at Arizona on Tuesday is generally how the rest of the nation outside of College Station, Texas, feels about Sumlin. There seemed to be a collective embrace at the press conference from a college community that just wants a guy to make the U of A proud.
Sumlin is that guy -- an accomplished, straight-ahead, no-nonsense, more-than-capable head coach.
Those are career legacies. So is Sumlin's pretty much stainless NCAA compliance record.
The fact remains: Texas A&M has an outsized opinion of itself. That isn't necessarily bad. In fact, it's quite common among fan bases. See, Tennessee. Sure, A&M has a championship pedigree. Well, actually even that is debatable. The program hasn't won a conference in 20 years. Its only national championship in the wire service era came in 1939.
Going to the SEC raised the program's profile but also solidified a cruel reality. Texas A&M starts most seasons behind Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the SEC West. Until it gets to the top of that ultra-tough division (and conference) that just always will be.
You want to talk expectations? In nine days, A&M will owe Sumlin $10.5 million on his buyout. He will make a total of $14.5 million in his new deal at Arizona.
"I don't know that the bar has been raised [in the profession]," Sumlin told me. "It depends on where you are. It's where you're expectations are. It depends on the school. There are a lot of outlying factors. It depends on your administration, the consistency or inconsistency."
Arizona's expectations are lower. It has a more reasoned perspective than A&M. In many ways, it is still mostly a basketball school. There is virtually no championship legacy in football. Arizona is the only program from the old Pac-10 that has never been to the Rose Bowl.
That's an embarrassing red letter. A coach of Sumlin's ability also can change that rather easily, especially since Rich Rod didn't leave the cupboard bare. Quarterback Khalil Tate is an emerging talent. Sumlin is one of the game's better quarterback coaches (see above).
As far as recruiting goes, there has to be a renewed recruiting emphasis in California and Texas. In-state, let's just say as long as Sumlin is at Arizona and Herm Edwards is at Arizona State, it's advantage Wildcats.
Sumlin is still a damn good coach. He may not have won the right games at the right time, but who has recently at A&M? Sumlin's .662 winning percentage with the Aggies (51-26) is the second-highest for a multi-season coach at the school since Dana X. Bible in 1928.
Sumlin is still a damn good coach. An 8-4 campaign is still a heck of a season. Just remember to approach both subjects slowly when you remind him.
"That's not the first reaction you have when somebody tells you you're [fired]," he admitted. "In fact, it's the opposite reaction."
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