Kevin Sumlin was quickly headed on the path to coaching stardom four years ago — at least, that’s the appearance he gave when Texas A&M curb-stomped Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
The Aggies blended high-end talent with noticeable coaching acumen in that 2012 season. Sumlin’s arrival from the University of Houston could not have begun in a more auspicious manner.
Sumlin — projecting a well-earned confidence at the time — would exult on Twitter whenever he bagged a big recruit: “YESSIR!”
The coach had a right to be enthusiastic and full-throated. He appeared to be in the process of turning around Texas A&M football, shepherding the program through its move to the SEC from the Big 12, which is extra fascinating to contemplate during a week in which Big 12 expansion — and the diminishment of the University of Texas’s political clout — are both hot discussion topics:
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) May 5, 2016
However, any reason Sumlin had to be enthusiastic about his tenure in College Station has evaporated.
In bim-bam-boom fashion Wednesday night, Sumlin lost a number of pieces he was counting on to rebuild a future which currently stands in a place of pronounced peril:
Texas A&M last night:
5⭐️ QB decommits
Coach sent nasty subtweets
4⭐️ RB decommits
5⭐️ DB & a 5⭐️ WR both remove A&Mpic.twitter.com/HX7GPNf8dD
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) May 5, 2016
The truth and the severity of the situation at A&M are reflected not in grand, sweeping statements, but in simple declarations of facts.
Sumlin has watched Kyle Allen, Kyler Murray, and now Tate Martell move elsewhere in their search for an ideal college fit. He has now become immersed in a weapons-grade player-retention crisis in the 2016 offseason, after the latter stages of the 2015 season generated the same kind of tensions, heat, and — at the end — divorces.
The Martell decision to re-open his recruitment had to sting Sumlin and A&M, but what followed is what truly speaks to the dysfunction in College Station right now.
As noted in this news item at The Comeback, A&M wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead — who later claimed he wasn’t even talking about Martell — sent a tweet which caused more dominoes to fall:
The main domino was another A&M commit, receiver Mannie Netherly, who decided to decommit in response to Moorehead’s tweet:
— Mannie Netherly (@yovng_netherly) May 5, 2016
It’s one thing for a recruit to decommit simply because he arrives at a change of heart on his own. That happens, and moreover, these are 17-year-old human beings we’re discussing. Life as a teenager is bewildering enough as it is… or as it ever was (or both). Deciding where to play college football is an enormously weighty issue for any young man; it is only natural that a choice made one day won’t feel nearly as right or sensible the next. If Martell had left, the gut-punch feeling pervading the A&M program would have persisted and deepened, but the story wouldn’t have been about Sumlin so much as a bit of bad luck after the nightmarish 2015 season.
However, when Moorehead entered the fray — knowingly or not, it really doesn’t matter — and felt that 17-year-olds needed a thunderous sermon about loyalty, he made Sumlin part of the story.
Coaches hire assistants to help them on gamedays and the practice field, but they also hire them to represent the program and the coaching staff at large. When an assistant so visibly loses control as Moorehead did — no recruit’s change of mind is a crime; such a decision should never be met with the withering disapproval Moorehead conveyed in his tweets — it reflects poorly on the head coach.
When said head coach just finished enduring a season in which prominent skill players were constantly unhappy, and didn’t feel College Station was a comfortable place for their collegiate careers to end, something’s wrong beyond the immediate reality of players leaving the program.
The why of these departures becomes more and more a point of intrigue.
Kyle Allen, now at (ironically) Sumlin’s previous employer — the University of Houston — had a lot to say about his divorce from the A&M program. Aaron Moorehead’s comments — and their damaging effects — will only bring about many more inquiries from journalists across the country about the culture Sumlin cultivates within the walls of the Aggies’ operation.
Pete Carroll — to give just one representative example out of many — has struck gold as a coach not because of his schemes or his tactical acuity (at least not above all else). Carroll has become everything he’s become as a head coach because of the way he relates to players. It’s his central virtue and insight, the main source of his rise in the profession, the engine which has enabled his career to get off the ground. Carroll presides over an ultra-competitive environment, but players don’t get rubbed the wrong way. Even if they don’t win starting jobs, they’re happy to be part of a larger whole. More instructively, they know that because a spirit of healthy competition encompasses their work, they can accept it when players better than them are elevated to starting spots. They don’t resent that reality; they embrace it. If an injury or some other twist of fate occurs, Carroll players are always ready to play when asked.
Every coach must find his own way to connect with players, but Carroll represents the gold standard among football coaches today. Sumlin doesn’t have to be Carroll in his relationships with players, but it does stand out that he hasn’t even attained a basic level of competence.
If he doesn’t shore up the relational side of college football coaching soon, Kevin Sumlin won’t be able to practice that part of the craft again in the SEC.
At a lower-tier job, yes… but not at Texas A&M.
Decommitments are a problem, but it’s the problem beyond the problem which Kevin Sumlin must solve in short order in College Station.