Beyond the Boxscore
Houston Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin set to leave: Texas A&M and Arizona Statecome calling
Kevin Sumlin gave the University of Houston everything he had, delivered more than anyone could have expected in the end—one of the great non-automatic qualifier school seasons of all-time if the Cougars can finish. Now, he's probably out the door with the big schools, the big money, the bigger prestige and, most importantly of all in this remade college football landscape, the bigger conferences, calling.
That's how it works in college football. By all indications, Sumlin played the game with more integrity and honor than many of his peers. Don't blame the player if you don't like your place in the game.
The University of Houston simply isn't in position to keep the hottest head coaching candidate in the country.
For all the strides made at U of H, the athletic program is not at that point yet. Not with Arizona State running hot after Sumlin with all that Pac-12 money, making it clear that he is the man they want at nearly $3 million per. Not with Texas A&M firing Mike Sherman on Thursday and setting its SEC sights on Sumlin too.
Art Briles bolted Houston for Baylor. It looks like Sumlin will leave for Texas A&M or Arizona State at worst. That's progress.
Sorry, but bolting a dying Conference USA for the Big East, the one automatic qualifier conference that could be in danger of losing its automatic BCS berth, isn't enough to compete with either of those opportunities.
This doesn't mean that UH athletic director Mack Rhoades won't do his best to convince Sumlin otherwise, that he won't be creative, that he won't pull out all the stops.
But only a fool would bet that Sumlin will still be wearing Cougar red when the 2012 season rolls around. Which shouldn't take away from the excitement surrounding Houston hosting the Conference USA Championship Game Saturday, one win away from a BCS bowl berth.
Several UH fans have told me that's what they feel is happening—that the sudden likelihood of losing Sumlin threatens to sap the joy from the school's big moment. That's hogwash though. This is still Houston's time to shine, still the Cougars' stage.
Now, Houston doesn't just have Case Keenum, the sixth-year senior quarterback who's become a national curiosity and a legitimate Heisman threat. It also has the hottest head coaching candidate in the country.
It all raises the profile for the University of Houston, even if it's for the guy who ends up replacing Sumlin. Art Briles bolted Houston for Baylor. It looks like Sumlin will leave for Texas A&M or Arizona State at worst.
That's progress. UH is leading its successful coaches to better and better jobs. That makes it a more attractive job to the next hot coach on the rise. And Cougar fans need to drop any indignation about the program being considered a stepping-stone spot right now. All but a dozen programs in the entire country are stepping-stone jobs in one way or the other.
Look at the most successful college coach in the country. Michigan State served as a stepping-stone job for Nick Saban to land the head coaching job at LSU. One could argue that even LSU played a stepping-stone role in Saban taking over at Alabama (the Crimson Tide didn't target Saban for what he did with the Miami Dolphins).
It happens to the best of programs.
To get mad at Sumlin for this — or even just to grow despondent over this reality — is sillier than Hanson's new MmmHop beer.
Deserves This Chance
Sumlin may end up coaching the Sun Devils, but he's no devil. Just a smart, good guy who did a masterful job in game planning for his team, motivating his team and selling his team to an often still-doubting Houston area this season. The fans at Robertson Saturday (many who let's face it, weren't there in September) shouldn't break into a standing ovation when Sumlin sprints onto the field because they're moved by some desperate, last-minute attempt to sway him to stay.
They should do it to show appreciation for all he's already done.
Check out one of the motivational videos Sumlin showed Case & The Coogs this season, the ones he endearingly posts on YouTube to help make UH fans feel more like program insiders. Or watch how he is at the Ragin Cajun for his live Monday night radio show, with his enthusiasm and belief transferring to everyone in the building. Or better yet, remember how Houston turned a close game with Tulsa into a rout after Sumlin and his staff's halftime adjustments.
This guy's the full package. What, you really thought he was going to remain UH's secret?
After that Tulsa win — the one that turned when Sumlin coached fearless and went for two fourth downs where convention called for punts — I wrote that Texas A&M would be going after him soon if was at all SEC smart. Now Sherman is gone, shown the exit for taking the most talented team in the state of Texas and somehow coaching it to a 6-6 record, and the Aggies are coming for Sumlin.
It hardly takes a genius to follow this script.
The Time Is Now
You can get mad at Sumlin if No. 6 Houston (12-0) loses to No. 24 Southern Mississippi (10-2) at home Saturday with everything on the line. But you can't be upset with him if he decides to leave.
Expecting Sumlin to want to follow up on the storybook is unrealistic. Keenum is gone after this season and everyone saw how quickly things changed without him last season. This young Houston defense should be even more improved in 2012 (which is one of the reasons UH defensive coordinator Brian Stewart might be a smarter choice to follow Sumlin than many Cougar fans would think). But the University of Houston will not be threatening to crash the BCS party next season, probably not for several more seasons to come.
Now Sherman is gone, shown the exit for taking the most talented team in the state of Texas and somehow coaching it to a 6-6 record, and the Aggies are coming for Sumlin.
The 47-year-old Sumlin might never be more in demand than now, with so many big-time, big conference sleeping giant programs desperate for a turnaround man to believe in.
Texas A&M is an incredible job. The new coach there will have a large say in determining the program's SEC legacy. Win there and you're legend.
Arizona State might be a harder job to get fired from, offering a smoother ride in a conference that's not quite as swallow-your-own as the SEC, but one flush with more cash than it knows what to do with. That back-and-forth between an Arizona Republic reporter, other Phoenix-area reporters and a Houston Chronicle reporter over whether ASU's really offered Sumlin the job already is nothing but silly semantics. The Sun Devils have made it clear to Sumlin that he is their choice.
No one is ever actually officially "offered" a head coaching job until they've already agreed to take it in today's ultra-paranoid, must-save-face sports world.
Several programs hang on Kevin Sumlin's whim right now. And you know what? He's earned that. Don't be mad at him because he's good.
If you think this ruins the University of Houston's moment, that's on you. That's your baggage. Houston wants to be a national power football program?
Well, welcome to the game.