Earlier this week, while writing about UGA freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, I vaguely touched on the so-called “honeymoon phase” in college football, when new head coaches (like UGA’s Kirby Smart) have a short window of time to make bold moves with personnel or game management, while automatically garnering 99 percent approval from their respective fan bases.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin makes for an interesting honeymoon case study, as well.
Upon taking over the A&M program four years ago, the Aggies were coming off a middling 7-6 campaign — highlighted by the dismissal of head coach Mike Sherman (booted before the bowl) and early NFL departure of quarterback Ryan Tannehill (a first-round pick with the Miami Dolphins).
Oh, and 2012 just happened to be the inaugural SEC campaign for new members Missouri (East division) and Texas A&M (West).
No pressure there.
In theory, the 2012 season should have been a rebuilding one for the Aggies; and by extension, Sumlin seemingly had time to settle into his new surroundings and develop the program for the long term — minus the fans’ super-sized anticipation of conference championships and major individual honors.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the steady rebuild.
After a nondescript opener against Florida — his first collegiate start — quarterback Johnny Manziel soon took the college world by storm, amassing 5,000-plus total yards and 47 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. Within this individual success, A&M subsequently plowed through SEC stalwarts Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State and top-ranked Alabama (the eventual national champion), along with an impressive bowl rout of Oklahoma in Year 1.
The Aggies’ dream season accomplished four things right off the bat:
1) It made Manziel a household name in America, even before he captured that year’s Heisman Trophy. (The Alabama upset took care of that.)
2) It brought a ton of exposure to Texas A&M’s vaunted offensive line, which included high-end NFL draftees/prospects Jake Matthews (first-rounder with the Atlanta Falcons), Cedric Ogbuehi, Germain Ifedi (a callow freshman then) and Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 (Jacksonville Jaguars).
3) It spurred a reported $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, raising the century-old stadium’s capacity size to 102,512.
4) It boosted the coaching profile of Sumlin, who had quickly become a rising star within the college and pro ranks (perhaps a few NFL offers).
Fast forward to the present: Sumlin has won 25 overall games in the last three seasons. However, the Aggies only have an 11-13 mark in SEC play during that span, resulting in desultory divisional finishes of fourth, sixth and fifth place, respectively.
The head coach’s recent struggles go deeper than wins and losses. There’s also a minor perception of the House of Sumlin being in disrepair:
a) Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray — a pair of highly touted QB prospects out of high school — announced their intentions to transfer before the Aggies’ bowl game (vs. Louisville). As such, A&M had to ride third-stringer Jake Hubenak, who performed admirably against the Cardinals (307 yards passing, two TDs).
b) Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital “mutually parted ways” after the 2015 season, despite Sumlin’s regular public praise of Spavital’s work. (On the flip side, the Aggies ranked just 71st nationally in scoring offense.)
c) This week, Allen attributed A&M’s current rough patch to an undisciplined “culture” that began with Manziel (and perhaps Spavital, to a degree). The overriding message, from Allen’s perspective: Team rules simply didn’t apply to Johnny Football.
In fairness to Sumlin, the Allen/Murray exits paved the way for Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight’s transfer to A&M; and who knows, maybe Hubenak was destined to become the Aggies’ cornerstone quarterback all along.
Plus, it’s worth noting: Oklahoma legend Barry Switzer (one of three head coaches to win an NCAA championship and Super Bowl trophy) endured a three-year slump of just 23 wins from 1981-83, before rallying the Sooners to a national title in 1985.
Sumlin’s No. 1 foible with the Aggies: He may have started out too hot in 2012, thus establishing a bar of high-ceiling expectations that would be impossible to meet every year, while housed in college football’s most prestigious (and daunting) division.
Instead, Sumlin might have been better off following the advice of a coaching legend from back in the day: Lose all your rival games in Year 1, and then go upward from there. The fans will think you’re a genius.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.