Kevin Sumlin can win a press conference. Texas A&M’s new football coach showed that Monday, flashing some of the charm and charisma that has made him a successful recruiter.
“I’m not coming here to lose,” a smiling Sumlin assured A&M fans and administrators during a half-hour session with media members.
In four seasons at Houston, Sumlin finished with more than twice as many wins (35) as losses (17).
But can he beat a Top 25 team from the Southeastern Conference? Can he put together a defense capable of winning a game when his spread offense is struggling to collect first downs, let alone touchdowns, in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa? Is he really an upgrade over predecessor Mike Sherman, another offensive guru whose team scored plenty of points but posted a 6-6 record in a season that began with a Top 10 ranking and BCS bowl expectations?
The answer to all three questions is the same: We’ll see.
No one truly knows because Sumlin, as coach of a Conference USA school, has not been asked to tackle the type of weekly challenge he’ll face in the SEC. Nor has A&M, which will be SEC-bound in July.
By the time the 2012 season starts, A&M will be playing in a conference that is home to the last six BCS national champions. It will play in the West Division, home to both participants in this year’s BCS title game: No. 1 LSU (13-0) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1).
“It’s a big step for us and it’s a big step for him,” said John David Crow, the Aggies’ 1957 Heisman Trophy winner and former athletic director. “I think he’ll be alright. I really do.”
Are you sure?
“The only thing I’d say is, ‘We’ll see soon,’” said Crow, who admitted he was approached during the coaching search by “some people that ... wanted someone else.”
That doesn’t mean Sumlin is the wrong guy to be taking the helm in Aggieland. He has more of a proven track record as an FBS coach than Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops had when Stoops took over the Sooners’ program in 1999. And that move has worked out nicely for OU, where Sumlin spent the 2003-07 seasons as an assistant on Stoops’ staff before taking over the Houston program.
But there is no getting around this fact: Sumlin’s last two teams at Houston faced exactly one Top 25 opponent. And the Cougars lost in decisive fashion to No. 24 Southern Mississippi, 49-28, in this year’s CUSA championship game.
The Dec. 3 loss spoiled the Cougars’ 12-0 start and caused Monday’s coronation in College Station to be delayed long enough for A&M athletic director Bill Byrne kicked the tires on at least two other candiates (Georgia’s Mark Richt, Boise State’s Chris Petersen) who opted to stay in their current posts.
Rest assured, Sumlin _ who is 1-0 in career matchups against Top 10 opponents (Houston beat then-No. 5 Oklahoma State, 45-35, in 2009) _ will have ample opportunities to prove his mettle against ranked opponents in the SEC. And he embraces the challenge.
“At any championship level ... you have to win close games,” said Sumlin, who will be taking over a team that lost five games by a touchdown or less in 2011, including two in overtime. “How do you do that? It’s practicing in those situations. It’s decisions you have to make with feel, and I have experience in that. I think the ability to get over the hump there is going to be the first thing (to address). That type of culture, you recruit that.”
Byrne said Monday that Sumlin has agreed to a five-year contract, with a base salary of $2 million per year. Sumlin, a former A&M assistant under R.C. Slocum (2001-02), will not coach either Houston or A&M in its bowl game. Instead, he will focus on protecting his 23 inherited commitments _ and adding new ones _ in a recruiting class ranked No. 6 nationally by Rivals.com.
Sumlin said he plans to adapt his coaching style to the more defensive-minded SEC and recruit players “to that philosophy.”
“We’re going to be diverse in what we do,” Sumlin said. “We’re going to do what’s necessary to win.”
All of that sounds good in theory. But Sumlin will have no more games against Tulane, Rice, Memphis or UAB on future schedules. He’ll trade those for matchups against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas.
A&M linebacker Sean Porter, who broke a verbal commitment to Sumlin’s Houston team to sign with A&M, believes his new coach is equal to the challenge.
“He believed in me and he got there before all the big schools,” Porter said, reflecting on his recruiting history with Sumlin. “It’s a small world. I guess we had to meet up somewhere down the line. He’s all about winning and it sounds to me like he knows how to win those close games we couldn’t figure out how to win this year. That excites me a lot, to learn from him and learn his ways.”
If Sumlin’s ways can translate to the SEC, A&M just made a heck of a hire. If not, expect the A&M coaching carousel to spin again in another four years, as the Aggies seek to find stability in a football program that won its last conference title in 1998.
Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.
_ Jimmy Burch