Sitting in his office this spring, deep in the heart of Texas, Kevin Sumlin didn’t want to discuss what kind of season he needed to remain the head coach of Texas A&M.
“I never put a number on anything,” Sumlin said. “That’s what you guys [the media] do.”
On Tuesday, “you guys” essentially extended to Sumlin’s boss, athletic director Scott Woodward. When asked to discuss Sumlin’s job security on “The Paul Finebaum Show,” Woodward flatly stated, “Coach knows he has to win and he has to win this year.”
And so there we go, it isn’t even June yet and we have first official hot seat of the 2017 college football season.
Why Woodward felt the need to put that out there is anyone’s guess. It’s certainly honest. Sumlin makes $5 million a year to coach at a program with every imaginable resource, including a $485 million expansion of 105,000-seat Kyle Field. Three consecutive 8-5 seasons just aren’t enough.
Having it on the record though provides rivals a negative recruiting card to play against the Aggies, which doesn’t make Sumlin’s job any easier. It also ratchets up pressure on every game, could do damage on the team internally and all but begs for columns like this to be written.
Especially because of this: Chip Kelly is going to serve as a college football analyst for ESPN this year.
Yes, that Chip Kelly. The Oregon Chip Kelly, the 46-7 college record Chip Kelly, the no-longer-hot NFL coach Chip Kelly that will loom over every single job opening all season.
After getting fired by San Francisco (after getting fired by Philadelphia), Chip Kelly didn’t take a job analyzing the NFL as his main gig. He chose college, which means he’s headed back to college. Not since Urban Meyer was perched behind a microphone for one season has this desirable of a free agent been sitting there.
With Kelly’s show-cause sanctions for NCAA violations now expired, he’s an overwhelmingly enticing hire – Kelly’s involvement in any rule breaking will quickly be forgotten as ADs and alums dream of that old Ducks offense coming to their campus. That’s even true in the Aggies’ case, when much of the trouble came from Kelly recruiting in Texas. It doesn’t matter. No one really cares about the NCAA rules.
What school is going to get Chip Kelly is one of the five biggest storylines of the season, right up there with who makes the actual playoff and wins the championship. He can change a program overnight. There are plenty of programs dreaming of being changed. Half the coaches in the SEC alone have to be nervous.
Sumlin can change a program overnight also, of course. Whether he will or not remains to be seen. He’s a good coach though (he went 12-1 in his final season at the University of Houston), a good recruiter and a good man. He’s a guy who was never given much in this business (a walk-on at Purdue) and isn’t going down without a hell of a fight.
He led the Aggies into the SEC five years ago with many experts expecting significant struggles. Instead, with Johnny Manziel at the helm, A&M ran up an 11-2 record complete with a statement-making victory in Tuscaloosa. A&M immediately became the hot team in the state of Texas – drawing in recruits, donations and construction cranes.
Over in Austin, they are on their third coach since.
Despite fielding competitive teams dotted with incredible talent – Myles Garrett just went No. 1 overall in the NFL draft – they haven’t been able to get over the hump of late. They look good until they don’t. The problem isn’t easy to diagnose.
“Last year was extremely disappointing,” Woodward told Finebaum. “We were as highly ranked as [No. 4] and got up there and played very well, hard competitive games and fell off like we’ve been doing. And we were very disappointed, very disappointed as a program both coach and I, and I just want to make darn sure we’re going to get it right. … We have to do better than we’ve done in the past.”
Sumlin doesn’t disagree.
“Every year we are here we want to compete for a championship,” Sumlin said back in the spring. “We get in the mix and then we haven’t been able to finish. And so, obviously that is a big objective of ours, to finish the season. We’ve been able to finish games but not finish the season.”
Finish the season … that’s the equation here, too.
In the old days, like a decade ago, coaches were generally given a chance to finish the season before being fired. You could recover from an early loss. If everything was going sideways, sure, you might announce a coaching change in mid-November, but there was no rush. The coaching derby didn’t start in earnest until after Thanksgiving.
Not any more. LSU canned Les Miles in September last year just to get on with the search. He had won them no less than a national championship. Freeing up the AD to start working on who is coming next without having to play some secret back-channel game is helpful when feeling out prospects. It’s part of how, back in 2004, Florida, which fired Ron Zook in October, was able to outmaneuver Notre Dame for Meyer, then the hotshot coach at Utah. Two national titles ensued.
This is particularly true when it comes to Kelly, who doesn’t have to play a similar game that a sitting head coach would – issuing statements about how he’s focused on his current team and hasn’t talked to anyone (although his agent is 12-pages deep into the proposed contract). He can go after any job he wants. The big-time school able to go all in on Chip Kelly may have the advantage here.
“[There is no] objective data [or a specific number] of wins and losses,” Woodward said of how he’ll make a decision. “That’s not going to be the way I look at it. It’s going to be a lot of subjectivity brought into it. How we win? What we win? How we do it?”
Which makes A&M’s opening weekend trip to UCLA … pivotal? And you better blow out the cupcake opponents. Then there is Arkansas in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 23 and Alabama at home on Oct. 7 and … well, it may still only be May, but for Kevin Sumlin there is officially no time to breathe easy.