Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin enduring headaches, enjoying spoils of coaching Johnny Football

Dan Wetzel

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – There's rarely a dull moment when it comes to coaching Johnny Manziel. This could tire a man out. Or invigorate him. Or, it could leave him noting that outside a summer 2012 arrest following an off-campus fight, Manziel's "mistakes" are mostly harmless and often overblown.

Besides, as Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has discovered, there may be a valuable life lesson to be gleaned from watching how a kid prone to error, be it big or small, reacts to said stumbles.

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"I told somebody the other day I'm going to use this technique on my wife," Sumlin said in June while sitting in his office overlooking the Aggie campus.

"He's extremely hard on himself, especially in games," Sumlin continued. "He makes a mistake and you're mad at him and you're ready to go over there to get something straightened out and he's over there berating himself and apologizing to his teammates and telling them how bad he is and saying, 'I can't believe I did that.'

"By the time I leave I'm the one who is saying, 'Hey. It's going to be all right.' He's so hard on himself, I end up trying to lift him up. That's how he handles things.

"So that might work at home, right?"

Sumlin laughs at his own joke and this 48-year-old is a man who owns a deep, bold laugh. A laugh that seems to be used regularly of late. 

Johnny Football can occasionally be Johnny Drama but the pairing of redshirt freshman quarterback, a first-year BCS-level head coach and a program making its first run through the toughest conference in the country – each one doubted and bursting onto the scene after minimal fanfare – proved to be the most potent combo in college football the last year. 

No, A&M didn't win the national title – "We finished third in the SEC West," Sumlin likes to remind his players who might be basking in the glory of an 11-2 season. 

Still, a year ago the Aggies were being ripped for having the gumption to believe what wasn't working in the Big 12 would in the SEC. 

It's been an astounding reversal of fortune, and the role Manziel, the dynamic talent/personality, and Sumlin, the ideal coach to maximize such a unique player, can't be understated. This is the seemingly overnight sensation, the hottest coach of the hottest player of the hottest program in America.

Sumlin took over here in 2012 after a successful run at Houston only to be met with the crushing reality of how the Aggie program was perceived on the recruiting trail.

"There were three real issues you were fighting," Sumlin said. "You had a coaching staff that showed up from a non-BCS program, so you're dealing with that. You're dealing with the perception in recruiting that the type of offense that we run was not conducive to national award winners or the ability to play pro. All of that while transitioning into the toughest league in the country from a program that had been .500 for the last 10 years.

"[Rival coaches told recruits] all the time, 'You're going to get your brains beat out. Why are you going to go there, it's not going to work.' "

It hit home when in Sumlin's first couple weeks he made two recruiting pitches to players in Houston that he thought would believe in A&M and its fresh new coach. 

"One was a kid whose dad played here and one was a kid who's younger brother played baseball with my son," Sumlin said. "I knew them. I knew the moms. And their exact words were, 'We're going to wait and see.' And over time those other programs couldn't wait [and offered the players scholarships]. So they went there. We're going to play against them. 

"So you've got a guy who went to school here and lived by me in Houston and didn't send his son here. And you've got a family that I know personally and they know me, we're right here, and they're not coming.

"Right then, you think, 'We've got some real work to do.' "

Eleven wins, including one at Alabama and a blowout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, a Heisman (Manziel), an Outland Trophy (Luke Joeckel), and a No. 2 pick (Joeckel) in the NFL draft later, how often are the three "issues" coming up now?

"Not often," Sumlin said, and there again is the laugh.

Texas A&M's 2014 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 5 nationally by Rivals.com. It doesn't just contain a slew of elite Texas prospects – although there are seven in-state pledges ranked as four stars. 

Maybe most telling is the verbal commitment of Kyle Allen, the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the nation, who hails from Scottsdale, Ariz. He turned down Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, USC and every other glamour program to become an Aggie, here in rural, heat-baked central Texas.

This feels like not just a run of success for A&M but the start of an entirely new era. 

Sumlin points to a combination of reasons. The move to the SEC. The star-power of Manziel. The exciting offensive and defensive schemes. The rallying of former students and fans.

Mostly though, he says, it's the wins. 

"I think the SEC effect is real but it wouldn't be nearly what it is if we had not had the success we had the first year," Sumlin said. "There were a number of people, prospects and people who won't admit it publicly, that said, 'We want to wait and see what happens.'

"The perception was when I took the job that moving to the SEC was a huge mistake." 

In many ways, Sumlin was the ideal coach for this kind of a transition – the combo of a coach/program getting tossed into deep, unchartered waters, forced to find a way to thrive, including managing the sometimes chaotic life of his best player. 

Sumlin attended Purdue on an academic scholarship and didn't go out for the football team until he was a sophomore. He watched the Boilers' season opener against Notre Dame from the stands. After the Irish won 52-6, Purdue coach Leon Burtnett declared almost all jobs open via a scrimmage.

Sumlin did enough to be invited to travel with the team to eventual national champion Miami the next week. "They said, 'You're going to go on the trip but you're not going to play," Sumlin said. "I was one of the guys on the sideline, waving the towel, yelling to people, 'You're lucky I'm not in there.'" 

Miami took an early lead. About out of options, Sumlin, a linebacker, got sent in.

"All of a sudden they call my name and it's like, 'Whoa,'" he said, laughing. "I may not even have had a mouthpiece. I wasn't even taped. They said I wasn't going to play. 

"I went out there though. It's Saturday night, in the OB as they say, [Orange Bowl]. I remember the huddle breaks and I look up and it says, 'The City of Miami welcomes you to the Orange Bowl.' I turn around and look, and there was Bernie Kosar, the Blades brothers, Alonzo Highsmith. Yeah, it was all that." 

Purdue lost 35-0, but Sumlin did well enough in his baptism by fire. He wound up leading the team in tackles that year and was twice named honorable mention All-Big Ten during his career.

After nearly two decades as an assistant coach, Sumlin was named head coach at Houston in 2008. After splitting the first two games, the city of Houston was hit by Hurricane Ike, forcing the team to flee campus and move a game with Air Force to SMU's stadium in Dallas.

It was originally scheduled for noon. Then forecasts had the massive storm making landfall sooner than expected, which would cause wind and rain all the way up to North Texas. So late on Friday night, the kickoff was changed a non-football hour of 9 a.m. Saturday.

"Guess who that favors?" Sumlin joked. 

The school where the cadets get up at dawn and march everyday? 

"Yeah," he laughs. "It was 9:30 at night and we had coaches running around, knocking on players' doors saying, 'You have to go to sleep now, we're eating at 5:30 a.m. and we're out the door at 6:30.' We're driving over to the stadium, rain is hitting the windshield of the bus, guys are talking about what's happening back in Houston, 'What about my parents, what about my dog, what about my girlfriend.'

"We get to SMU. There are 50 people there. Maybe. A couple moms and dads and the administration of both teams. Before the game I'm out on the field and no one is there. I think, 'Where is everybody?' 

"I walk back in there and all the players are watching the news on TV in the locker room. They're watching the hurricane hit Houston. It's too late. We're in trouble."

Needless to say, Air Force won, on the last play. The city of Houston was crushed with storm damage and no power. The football program decided to stay where it was, getting the Dallas Cowboys to allow it to use an empty Texas Stadium for practice.

"The place is abandoned, we had no tackling dummies, there's nothing, "Sumlin laughs again. "We're practicing there [while] they were giving tours through there. 'Who are you guys?' This is where you start to question yourself as a coach."

The Cougars started 1-3, not exactly how Sumlin imagined his coaching career would begin.

Houston eventually returned to normal, only more focused. They finished on a 7-2 tear, even beating Air Force in a bowl game rematch. By 2012, Sumlin had them at 12-1. 

So dealing with wild challenges and unexpected hurdles?

"Everything is a learning experience," he said. "These types of things change you."

With recruiting rolling, media attention at an all-time high and the upcoming season perhaps the most anticipated in Texas A&M history, Sumlin is suddenly dealing with an unexpected challenge – managing against hype and overconfidence.

It's a far cry from a year ago, when he went to SEC media days and felt all the questions were about why the Aggies believed they even should have been granted membership. They've proven their worth. They still have to play the games though. 

"We're trying to win in the hardest league in the country," he said.

Some speculation has him in the NFL soon. Sumlin brushes that off, noting the joy of coaching at this level.

"I was lucky to grow up in a two-parent home and a lot of the guys I deal with now don't have that," he said. "Winning is important but it's really important to impact people's lives. That's the reason I love college football for some crazy reason. From 18-23, 24, you have guys who go through a lot and you can help develop them not just as players but as men. And I think that's really important right now."

Front and center on that idea, it would seem, is Manziel. Is Johnny Football easy or difficult to coach?

"Both," Sumlin said. "How's that for an answer?"

Probably accurate.

"Everybody who talks to him knows that he's serious about things," Sumlin said, noting Manziel is back on campus for summer school and spent most of his time training this offseason. "And anybody who hears him talk knows that. I know, he's made plenty of mistakes, but he's young. That's part of growing up and getting there. It's never been done in college football, a freshman winning the Heisman.

"I was at the Heisman deal, in the back room, there were a lot of guys who said, 'Boy, I'm glad we didn't have [the internet] when I played.' There'd be a much different perspective of a lot of guys.

"But that's all part of it. That comes with the responsibility. We all know we did things at 19 and 20 that we'd like to take back and we wouldn't do again."

Except the part about beating 'Bama, of course.

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