Dallas Morning News staff reporter Brad Townsend spent 90 minutes with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin for a feature that ran in todayâs paper. Hereâs theÂ wide-ranging interview, in its entirety, that touched on everything from Sumlinâs upbringing to his feelings on Saturdayâs SEC matchup against Florida.Â
Q: Can we start with your upbringing?
A: Born in Brewton, Alabama. I spent many summers there. We moved to Indiana when I was 3, I think. Actually lived in married student housing at Indiana University.
When we first moved there, my dad was going to grad school at IU.
Q: What did he study?
A: Administration. He was a high school coach in Alabama. When we moved to Indiana, he coached for a little while longer and got into administration. He was dean of students at the high school and assistant principal. He was actually assistant principal at another high school while I was in high school, a school that we played.
Q: What influence did you parents have on you?
A: I would say that my parents, mom and dad had a direct effect on me. I donât have any brothers and sisters. And my grandparents influenced me, because we would spend Christmas time and summers back in Brewton, Ala.
And my mom is from Milton, Florida. I would spend time with both sets of grandparents. Â It was a different style of life. I would fish all the time, be in the outdoors a lot, whether it was in the Gulf, deep-sea fishing, or in lakes and rivers, which was different than living in Indianapolis.
Mom and dad being educators, that was important. That came first.
And because of athletics, I was able to meet a lot of different people. My dad coached me, was either an assistant coach or head coach, in either football or basketball or baseball from 6 years old up. At baseball, he was the head coach at 6. Football, he was an assistant, basketball same thing. He exposed to me all different sports. He kind of stepped out of it after I got to 9 or 10, he let me choose what I wanted to do. I played all three sports through high school.
Being a coach and coaching different sports in high school, he would give me advice or talk to me before or after games and give me advice about a lot of different things, not just athletics. School or problems or anything like that.
I think as I got older, when I was in junior high school, him being the dean of students, dealing primarily with discipline, he saw a lot of things that some parents see and some parents donât see. Thatâs all he saw.
It was extremely hard to pull the wool over his eyes (laughs), because thatâs what he did. He dealt with high school guys who were trying to break the rules. Whether he was the dean or the assistant principal.
Q: So you tried?
A: No, it wasnât even worth it.
In recruiting, when Iâm at a high school, I go see the guidance counselor, but I always go see the assistant principal â" the guy with the walkie-talkie, because heÂ knowsthe ins and outs of the kids in school. Thatâs the guy who knows whoâs doing what in the school. Itâs that way today, still.
Thatâs my dad.
Q: What was your motherâs influence?
A: My mom seems very quiet to people when they meet her. Very old-fashioned, but she was very vocal to me, about academics, about life, even sports.
There were some things that shocked me when I was young. Youâd expect your dad to say something. Nothing would affect me more, maybe once in a blue moon if she had said something to me about effort, like âYouâre better than that. â She didnât raise her voice or anything.
My parents sacrificed a lot for me just to make sure they put me in really good situations academically, things that I didnât agree with at the time. Even the high school I went to. Looking back on it, it was the right decision, but at the time, I wanted to go to a different high school. I wanted to go to the public high school.
It took some time for me to tell them that it was the right thing for me. It took a while to admit it. But it was.
Q: How would you describe your high school?
A: Brebeuf was a Jesuit School. Small high school. When I went to school, I think there might have been 500 kids there. I think I might have graduated with a little over 100, maybe between 100 and 105 seniors.
Q: Was it regimented?
A: No, it was just the opposite. When I went there, they had gotten away from wearing uniforms. We were on a flex schedule. Itâs a college prep school. Classes met at different times. It was like college.
It was a very progressive learning atmosphere.
There were a lot of people there that shaped me. At the time, Father OâBrien was a guy who was an assistant principal there, took control of the school and told everybody what to do. He passed away, but I did have the good fortune of, when my son was baptized by him later on, at the high school.
Q: Which son?
A: Jackson (who is 10). Itâs kind of crazy, about a month after that, Father OâBrien passed away.
Iâm just a person who thinks things happen for a reason. We were trying to make it work, and it worked out. And then that happened.
Q: Why did you choose to go to Purdue?
A: I actually went on the Business Opportunity Program. It was an academic scholarship situation.
I got there and was going through the program. I actually watched football the first season, missed it.
Q: You sat in the stands at games?
A: I missed football and really thought I could do it. Had a number of friends who I had played with or against in HS or knew that were playing.
I decided to come out in January. Told my dad. I went through the spring/winter conditioning program in Jan-Feb. Then they gave me a uniform to go out in spring football. Did OK, nothing special. Stayed in the summer, went through two a days and thought I was in the two-deep.
We were playing Notre Dame in the first game. The week right before the game, I was told that I wasnât going to play. And at that time, you sat in the stands.
I had told a number of people that I was going to play. I was really embarrassed, because there were people who were looking for me.
We ended up losing to Notre Dame, handily, but I did go in after the game, Coach Leon Burnett was extremely upset. The rules were different. He said that basically the play was so poor we were going to come back and scrimmage Sunday and Monday.
We were playing Miami the next week, which would win that yearâs title.
So Sunday and Monday scrimmage, the guys that he thought showed they deserved were going to play. I went home and got some rest, scrimmaged, Thursday my linebacker coach told me that I was going to go on the trip, but wasnât going to play.
So I told my dad. Obviously he couldnât make it to Miami on short notice. Itâs not like we had a bunch of money laying around. I think thatâs the only game he missed while I was at Purdue.
So I went and I was one of those guys on the sideline with a towel, yelling and screaming. Saying crazy things like âyouâre lucky Iâm not in there.â
You know how those guys are â" the guys that never play.
Q: Trash talk.
A:Â This is in the â80s, too, at the height of it. This is Eddie Brown and the Blades brothers.
Then a guy got hurt. All of a sudden, something else happened, someone was limping around.
I saw the coaches get together. The linebacker coach said something to the head coach and he just shook his head.
I donât know what the time was, part-way through the second quarter, they called my name and told me to go in the game.
I went on the field. Itâs just different. The year before, I was watching these guys on television. So Iâm out on the field, Iâll never forget being in the huddle. Itâs just different because the guys you practice with and the guys do things in the game, thereâs different looks in peopleâs eyes.
You see some guys who are concerned, some guys who are ready to go, some guys are getting beat up. Brock Spack was in charge of the huddle. Heâs a head coach now, at Illinois State.
He called the defense. I just remember looking up and it said, ââThe city of Miami welcomes you to the Orange Bowl.â It was a night game, it was on ABC.
I just looked up there and I was like, âWow.â I always think about that when I think of freshmen. It was kind of a slow-motion situation. The huddle broke and I donât even know if it was Kosar or Testaverde, one of those guys.
Really, the next thing I knew, it was halftime. It was just a blur. Things were just happening. I sat there and they were going, âHey, youâre doing fine.â
Kind of a funny story, we got back and we pulled up to the school, I can remember talking to Rod Woodson who was a freshman at that time, you talk about a difference in mindset. I was like âWow.â Rod Woodson said, âYou know, if thatâs the best team in the country, you know what, Iâm going be all right.â But he had played the week before. He ended up being right.
Q: Did the Miami experience teach you an early lesson that the best players should play, a lesson you use today?
A:Â Weâve done that. In Houston, we about 13 walk-ons that we gave scholarships to. Patrick Edwards (now a Detroit Lions receiver) was one. The best players play. The guys that try to execute what we ask them to, at the best of their ability, and consistently, are the guys that are going to play _ whether we recruited you, whether you walked on.
We didnât even know Patrickâs name. He was from Hearne, Texas. We just called him Hearne. Dana (Holgorsen) said, âYou know, this guy from Hearne is pretty good.â I said, âWhatâs his name?â
I was on defense at Purdue. Another guy I played with was Mark Jackson, one of the (Broncosâ) Three Amigos. He was a walk-on and Purdue and a free agent in Denver. So there you go.
Q: After college, I understand you went into the insurance business.
A: I was kind of just out there for a little bit. There was a guy named Jerry Semler, I think he had five or six kids go to Purdue, ran a company called American United Life. They put me into the group insurance underwriting program.
Over time, it was a good job. It was everything that you wanted. But then after a year or so, I went to a retirement party of a guy up in one of the top floors. I kind of looked at it. Everybody was happy and I was happy for him. Then I said, âYou know what? Thatâs me in 30 years.â
Thereâs nothing wrong with that, but Iâll keep going up floors and maybe Iâll get an office like that, which is fine. Thereâs nothing wrong with that. It just kind of hit me.
I became motivated to do other things. I made a few phone calls about being a graduate assistant and going to grad school. I didnât know what I wanted to do at that point, I just knew this was a great opportunity, it just wasnât what I wanted to do.
A lot of people, including my parents, were like, âWhat?â
I called Joe Tiller, Ray Sherman, coach Burtnett. JoeÂ was the defensive coordinator at Purdue. Ray was the receivers coach. Coach Burtnett, he actually got fired my senior year, but he was with the Colts with Ron Meyer. I made some phone calls, saying âHey, Iâm looking to get back in this thing, maybe G.A., help out, I donât know if I want to coach, go to grad school.
It was really to buy myself time to figure out what the hell of was going to do.
I didnât know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didnât want to do. To me, being a graduate assistant and going to grad school, whether it was business school or some sort of pre-law, was going to give me an opportunity to see where I was headed.
I did miss football a little bit. Between Ray Sherman and Leon and Joe Tiller, they got hold of Mike Price. I think they got hold of a guy named Ted Williams, too, who was at UCLA at the time. He was at the Eagles forever.
The first thing I got from Mike Price was a booklet from Weber State. I had to figure out where in the hell it was. It was in Ogden, Utah. We started this conversation about being a graduate assistant. He wanted to know if you were willing, would you come to Weber State. I said, âYeah, thatâs what I want to do.â
Well, that was during football season. Then one of the assistants at Weber State called and said, âItâs not going to work out.â Iâd already quit my insurance job.
I thought, âWhat am I going to do now?â They said Coach Price got a job at Washington State. I flew out there in May or June and Coach Doba, Bill Doba, who had been at Purdue as the linebackers coach, he was in transition, moving, so because of that they said âWhy donât you go ahead and coach summer camps, take the linebackers, the high school and kids camp and coach them?â And Coach Tiller was the offensive coordinator. Those guys knew me.
I coached a week of camp until Coach Doba got back. Thatâs when I figured out that I actually liked it. I liked dealing with players and may have actually known a little something about it.
Thatâs when I figured out, âYou know, I like this.â
I actually was on defense, but Coach Price brought me in and moved me to offense, as a wide receivers coach. He said âI know youâve been on defense in college, but weâre doing something different here offensive with the one back.
He said âIf you really want to be a coach and you really learn what this offense is about, the ins and outs with it, youâll always have a job.
Heâs right. At the time, the second year I was there, he called me in and made me the JV coach. We scheduled junior colleges and air force had a team, we played a bunch of junior colleges.
He said, you donât have any budget. It was really a good recruiting tool. We go to the junior colleges or bringing them to Pullman. We feed them, take them on a tour, do all that stuff and then play them. Instead of getting video, watch them play.
Q: So at what point did you meet your future wife, Charlene?
A: Met her in Minneapolis, when I was coaching Minnesota.
Had some mutual friends. We became friends first because of mutual friends.
Q: She was OK with dating a coach?
A: Yeah, she was all right with it, at first.
Q: At first?
A: I think itâs different for wives and girlfriends. When youâre dating a coach, it seems like thereâs time. When you get married to a coach, the time is really the same time when youâre dating. Thatâs the time. The dating was the time.â
Weâve had a child born in four different coaching stops. Weâre building a house now, but in the house weâre renting, each of our kids has a collage from where they were born.
A lot of people would probably find it difficult, and it is difficult. Itâs probably been hardest on (Charlene). The original move from Minneapolis, because her parents are there, to West Lafayette, was probably the hardest.
And then theyâve all been hard because sheâs a person who develops friendships and is not isolated. They become part of the community. She has friends at all the stops.
I think what Iâve found is the girls, as theyâve gotten older, the harder itâs gotten. This last one, itâs been really hard for my oldest.
Q: At Oklahoma, your old boss Bob Stoops was known for scheduling late morning meetings and having family days.
A: We did that at Houston, but it was hard. Weâll do that here.
Q: So whatâs a typical morning at home?
A: Â Iâve got two in high school and my youngest, Joey, is a third-grader. The alarm goes off at 6:15, make sure theyâre up and ready to go, getting dressed. The girls, now that they are in high school, take longer.
Always a mad dash out the door to drop Joey off. Then the two girls in high school. And then weâre on our way over here. We have a staff meeting at 8:30. (10-year-old) Jacksonâs school doesnât start until right at 8:30, so we have a later meeting time on Thursday.
I think thatâs important. When you have younger kids, which a lot of coaches do, you get off the practice field at 6, 6:30, by the time you take a shower, with younger kids, if youâre not home by 8 oâclock, theyâre in bed.
I just gained a lot of respect, when I was at Oklahoma, to be able to start the day with the kids. And make sure that theyâr e up and going, their attitude, your attitude.
For me itâs good because thereâs a lot of conversation going. Whatâs going on? Howâs this going?
And it puts my day in perspective.
What interesting now is as your kids get older, they talk to you about different things that happen, and the position they get put into just because of what you do.
You canât sweep that under the rug. Youâve got to be able to talk about that.
Everybodyâs got an opinion. That can be difficult on families. As a coach, you understand that when you walk out in the stadium, some people call you names, some cheer, some boo, thatâs part of it. I get it. Thatâs part of what I do. But for your wife and your kids, it can be difficult.
Thatâs putting it politely.
Q: While coming up the ranks, you earned a national reputation as a recruiter. R.C. Slocum told me that you got on his radar because he wondered why the heck so many Texas recruits were visiting Purdue when you were there. Now that you are a head coach, how is recruiting different?
A: You donât get to build a relationship like you would as an assistant coach. As an assistant coach you can see a guy every week, once the season starts. You see the family, you see the coaches.
As a head coach, you get one shot. You get one chance in a home visit to really talk, get a feel. Thatâs why the further you are away from a lot of prospects, the harder it is for a head coach to really impact recruiting. When you have prospects that are in proximity to you, then unofficial visits, the ability for them to come in and sit down and talk to you, or be at practice or do those things, thatâs how you are able to build a relationship as a head coach, where you can really, really impact recruiting.
Particularly as a younger head coach, not by age but by experience. Because an older established guy, everybody knows who they are. Your real impact as a head coach, particularly a younger head coach, comes with âHow do you get to know me?â And âHereâs the differenceÂ between me and Coach X, who I know youâve heard of and has done this and this and this.â
Your ability to make up that ground comes with ability to really get to know the student-athlete and his family. Thatâs hard to do if youâre in a place where they canât get to you.
I bet nobody has ever explained that to you, huh?
Thatâs changed in recruiting because of the rules, because head coaches only get one home visit.
Q: Fans and media obviously are focused on Saturdayâs opener against Florida. Iâm wondering how you visualize the program being in âxâ number of years. Pick a timeframe.
A: Iâve never put a time on it. Didnât put a time on it in Houston. I think you owe it to the players who are here, particularly the seniors, to try to win now. Iâm not a big believer in going in and scrapping everything and throwing out everything. Because the guys who have been here four or five years have invested a lot. They have feelings and I just donât think thatâs right.
Iâve said a bunch. Transition is hard on everybody. Itâs hard on fans. Itâs hard on coaches. Itâs hard on coachesâ families. But itâs hardest on the players, particularly the seniors. Realistically, they didnât sign up for me. They just didnât. I probably have a different approach when it comes to that because I get that. Iâve been a part of that in high school with different coaches, and in athletics with different position coaches.
I think in order to be successful, youâve got to get people to trust you. Itâs hard for people to trust you if they donât know you.
You can fool grownups a lot easier than you can 18-year-olds. I think they see right through phoniness. Thatâs the first thing that theyâre looking for, who you are and are you a fake? Is that really you?
I think the only way you get to trust someone is to get to know them. They donât have to like you, I mean Iâve had all kinds of coaches I didnât like, but Iâve respected and trusted them. I think thatâs important.
Great teams lead from within. As the coach, youâre the director of that. But you donât play. If people donât buy into what you believe in and trying to preach, itâll show.
That being said, I think that in this situation, itâs like (athletic director) Eric Hyman said, everywhere you turn, the word that keeps coming up is âgoldmine.â
Itâs a university that has tremendous resources, tremendous support _ financial and fan support. But itâs just kind of trying to make the next step.
Our job is to figure out why we havenât made that next step consistently. And then to try to make that next step and try to be consistent with it.
Iâve said before, weâll know a lot more after this season. Nobody really knows. I think the only guy who knows now is our new athletic director, because heâs been in the league. Itâs arguably the toughest league in the country, and the toughest division in the country.
We had three main things we wanted to do when we got here. No. 1, I wanted to hire a three-dimensional staff, meaning they were quality coaches, quality recruiters and quality developers. And that sounds easy, but thereâs a lot of staffs out there that have coaches and recruiters. I think as you look across the board here, weâre probably a little younger, average age, but that didnât affect me, but I wanted to hire guys who were quality coaches.
The second thing we wanted to do was to address some of the issues from strength and conditioning. When you lose five, six games in the second half, I wouldnât say you can blame that sort of situation on one thing, but to not say that strength and conditioning couldnât have been an issue would be foolish on our part. Bring Larry Jackson in here, and our commitment to the new weight room, I think that says it all right there.
The third thing, which is ongoing, was the raise our talent level. I think we closed out our first recruiting class, it was pretty good. We signed 19 guys. I didnât want to go out and chase in the last two weeks guys I didnât know anything about. Save those scholarships, push them to next year, instead of just signing some guys.
The old saying is itâs not the guys you donât get that get you fired. Itâs the guys you get who canât play that get you fired.
I think you can tell with where we are in early commitments that this staff is really out there beating the bushes to increase the talent level.
Those are the three objectives, the first two of which we accomplished. The third is going to be ongoing.
Q: Are you excited now that the season is finally starting, after what happened with the hurricane last week?
A: That was a real downer, for everybody. All these coaches, everybody came here with a vision. Players knew. That was a real downer.
I told our players they have an opportunity. Of all the great players who have played here, I think if you ask any of them if they could play on Sept. 8 in the first SEC football game at Kyle Field, I think they all would want to be part of that.
If you canât get excited about that, youâre in the wrong place. Itâs pretty simple.
Q: As you go out there Saturday, in that environment, do you think you will take a moment to think about your journey to get to this point?
A: I donât know. Itâs hard to say. I can remember the first game at Houston. Thereâs a lot of things that Iâm fortunate that this is the second time.
Your first game as a head coach is a nightmare the night before. Youâve got all these checklists. Youâve got all things books. Youâve got all these things that youâre supposed to do. Have I done this? Have I done that? Did we work on this? Did we work on this.
Itâs just a nightmare, wondering âIs something going to come up tomorrow that we didnât work on?â In actuality, itâs too late to be worried about it.
Thereâs no manual for this job. Iâve been lucky to be around some of the best coaches, a Hall of Famer in R.C. (Slocum), Coach Stoops is going to be in the Hall of Fame. Joe Tillerâs won a bunch of games, winningest coach in Purdue history, probably. Glen Mason, Mike Price. Iâve just been real fortunate to be around some guys that Iâve learned a lot from.
But at the end of the day, youâve got to be yourself. In a lot of these situations, you donât have a chance to take it in until itâs over with.
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