LLANO, Tex. — Strange thing about being a head football coach: unless you’re among the top four or five in college or pro ball, you might want to buy yourself a NASCAR firesuit for Christmas, because you’re sitting on burning coals.
Consider Les Miles and his decade at LSU– following Nick Saban, no less. Miles wins a national championship, almost wins a couple more, never goes worse than 8-4.
Led by a rampaging running back, Leonard Fournette, who was mid-season favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, LSU was 6-0 before losing to Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. There’s really not a chump in that bunch. The worst team that beat them, Arkansas, is a 13-point favorite in the Liberty Bowl.
Yet there were people on the university’s governing board who wanted to fire Miles, thinking he’s washed up at 62. The loss to Saban at Alabama and the subsequent national ranking of 21st amounted to an unbearable disgrace to some in what passes for ivory towers in Baton Rouge.
So Miles had to win the last home game of the season to save his job.
And wouldn’t you know it, the coach who did the Mad Hatter the inadvertent favor of losing to him in that fateful finale is now losing his grip on the head coaching post at Texas A&M.
Kevin Sumlin is college football’s seventh-highest-salaried coach at $5 million a year. He’s that expensive because his services are much in demand. USC put in a bid for him. When the Green Bay Packers two years ago needed pointers on how to defend the zone-read, the place they went to school was College Station.
And the irony there is that Sumlin is more renowned as an offensive mind than a defensive one. He was among the pioneers of the spread offense, as an assistant coach at Purdue when Drew Brees quarterbacked there.
When Johnny Manziel – already known as Johnny Football – graduated from high school, he chose A&M not because it was the sort of party school he wanted. Mack Brown didn’t want him as a quarterback, but he couldn’t keep the kid from partying at UT frat houses on weekends.
Manziel did recognize the advantage of A&M: he would thrive with Sumlin, who had been a quarterback whisperer not only for Brees but also for Sam Bradford at Oklahoma and Case Keenum at the U of Houston.
So, irony again, Sumlin is in trouble because in the past year three of his starting quarterbacks have left him. It’s been chaos ever since the departure of Manziel, not that he was some sort of island of serenity.
Kenny Hill was the Aggies’ starting quarterback for most of last season before being benched after a flurry of interceptions. In the subsequent off-season he transferred to TCU.
So Sumlin began this season with a 5-star recruit, sophomore Kyle Allen, starting at quarterback and another 5-star, freshman Kyler Murray, on second string.
But in the season opener, against Arizona State, Sumlin quickly went to the more mobile Murray as a change of pace. That pattern continued throughout the year, no clear No. 1. Murray threw five interceptions in two games and was benched in favor of Allen for the last two games of the season.
Even though he was No. 1 again, Allen was tired of the yo-yo. He announced two weeks ago that he was bailing. He left a tweet: “Trust is the one thing that prevents any relationship from breaking.”
The assumption was that Murray, whose father Kevin was a star quarterback at A&M, would be happy to take over at No. 1. But with Murray, as with Allen, there was a trust issue. The Murrays wondered if they could count on Sumlin to stand by his quarterback, come hell, high water, or turnovers.
Two days before Murray decided to leave A&M, he and his father met with Sumlin to discuss the player’s role for next season and also his decision to play baseball as well. Sumlin was not happy about his No. 1 quarterback squeezing out time for a second team sport. That was the situation that led Russell Wilson to abandon North Carolina for Wisconsin.
Murray could be heading to Austin. He considered UT as a recruit. He’s being encouraged by some Longhorns, including, surprisingly, another freshman quarterback, Jerrod Heard, who tweeted: “Come dance with the good fellas.”
So now Sumlin’s quarterback is Jake Hubenak, a junior-college transfer. He’s the only scholarship quarterback left on the team. He will start in the Music City Bowl against Louisville on Dec. 30.
Sumlin admits he mishandled the all too critical position. The Ags rank 47th in total offense, and Sumlin said, “If there’s anybody to blame for that it’s me.”
Others agree. Media reports have circulated that A&M chancellor John Sharp is considering firing Sumlin. Sharp said that story is “a fairy tale.”
Still, there’s no question some of the Aggies’ main boosters are unhappy with Sumlin. The team’s 8-4 record, combined with a 4-4 SEC performance, is not considered worthy of a school as prideful of its football as this one.
But is it time for a reality check? Texas A&M is not Notre Dame. Hell, Notre Dame is not Notre Dame. Not as we once knew it. This is the New Parity of college football. Forty bowl games, losing teams in bowl games. It doesn’t even mean much anymore that Miles and Sumlin are always in one.
College athletics has gone Wall Street. Coaches can’t afford to have a bad quarter. Being second best in the industry, any industry, is not good enough. The fans in Baton Rouge and College Station cannot accept their coach being not as good as Nick Saban.
So many of them want to dismiss a coach who beats the rest of his competition most of the time. Miles and Sumlin even beat Saban occasionally. Sumlin’s record at A&M is 36-15. Like Miles at LSU, he’s won more than 70 percent of his games,
How easy it is for the Aggies to forget Dennis Franchione. They might want to recheck the performance of Sumlin’s predecessor before they run him out of town on a bandwagon.