Beyond the Boxscore
Kevin Sumlin looks much happier, lighter almost, than he did a year ago at this time. Back then he'd left the University of Houston in a lurch to head off into the uncertainty of Texas A&M in the SEC.
Now, he practically bounds down a corridor of the Hyatt Regency downtown, grinning, seemingly as loose as can be in a sweatshirt and jeans.
Sumlin's always loved coming to Houston for the Bear Bryant Awards, which benefit the American Heart Association. He remembers being an anonymous face in the ballroom crowd years ago, just another no-name assistant on Bob Stoops' power-packed Oklahoma staff.
"Who's to say how [Manziel's] supposed to react?" Sumlin asks. "It's never been done before. Have you ever been in his shoes?"
"The first time I came here as a guest sitting at the Oklahoma table with Bobby, I couldn't ever imagine being up at the head table," Sumlin says, laughing.
Now he's a perennial head table man, called back again and again to compete for Coach of the Year. Sumlin jokes that he's the Susan Lucci of the Bear Bryants, and he does watch Penn State coach Bill O'Brien walk away with a trophy Sumlin should have won.
No matter. Everything is still different now. And O'Brien, and almost every other college football coach in America, only wishes he were Kevin Sumlin.
Nick Saban never gets selected as a finalist for the Bear Bryant anymore, because he's unwilling to commit to attending the ceremony (a requirement to being up for the award). Ohio State coach Urban Meyer calls out sick like a kid asking to be excused from school the morning of this year's ceremony. Sumlin is clearly the biggest star in the room.
The reality of this scene from earlier this month is more telling and instructive than ever with National Signing Day approaching Wednesday — with Sumlin set to haul in a top 10 recruiting class for a school too used to formerly ceding those type of distinctions to the University of Texas.
Why Sumlin is such a star, why he's just been dubbed the third best recruiter in America by ESPN (behind only Saban and Meyer), becomes apparent on his Houston visit as soon as he's asked about Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel's hard partying ways. Many coaches put in such a spot would spew some stern nonsense about having talked to Manziel about the need to keep a level head.
"You predict. I'm a football coach. I'm not a magician," Sumlin says.
Not Sumlin. He launches into a straight defense of his most important player. He doesn't say what he thinks an often strangely conservative sports media wants to hear. He attacks.
"A lot of people are complaining, saying [Manziel's] got to this, he's got to do that," Sumlin says. "They're not 20 years old.
"Who's to say how he's supposed to react? It's never been done before. How do you know how he's supposed to react? Have you ever been in his shoes?"
Sumlin is talking about the surreal experience of winning the Heisman as a freshman, but mostly he's sticking up for his guy.
He has the right to party.
Okay, maybe not quite. You can be sure Sumlin is not going to publicly chastise Johnny Football for a few — okay, a lot — of party pics with buxom coeds and expensive Champagne either.
As long as Johnny Manziel is doing everything Sumlin expects of him, everything the program needs, the coach will more than have his back. And there isn't a hotshot player in America who cannot appreciate that.
"I can assure you Johnny is not thinking about winning the Heisman again," Sumlin says. "That's not what he's about. That's not his goal. That's not our goal. He's got so many other things he's got to take care of."
Sumlin's social command
If any coach seems like a perfect coach for these social media, expanded-TMZ times, it is Sumlin. He's been a Twitter natural almost from the moment he started tweeting. It's hard to imagine Sumlin going through a Manti Te'o situation with one of his players. You can't Catfish a true social media player.
It's all part of the price of being a rock star coach. Sometimes one gets the impression that Sumlin protests too much.
Sumlin just gets it. But, he swears, that doesn't mean he likes it.
"It is what it is," he says. "My kid is 11 years old, and he's on Instagram. You have to manage it. I'm on Twitter to get the word out on our program. I don't necessarily like it. But I'm on it."
It's all part of the price of being a rock star coach. Sometimes one gets the impression that Sumlin protests too much. Like when he shoots back, "What did we win exactly?" to several questions about the challenges of following up on the Aggies' virtually out-of-nowhere 11-victory SEC doubters smackdown season.
Sumlin knows exactly what Texas A&M won in defying all the forecasts of doom and standing up as the only team to beat Alabama last season.
Respect. And plenty of it. For a coach whose Air Raid Offense was too often dismissed as only being Conference USA worthy while he led the Cougars. For a program that is no one's second fiddle anymore. Sumlin's team has already been dubbed the preseason No. 1 team in America by one AP top 25 voter.
Which only triggers another memorable line from Sumlin.
"You predict," he says of the forecasts. "I'm a football coach. I'm not a magician."
Plenty of big-time high school recruits would beg to disagree.
And even Sumlin cannot keep up the annoyed facade for long. Soon, he's breaking into another grin. It's good to be the new king.