Former Aggies Coach Kevin Sumlin on move to pro football

Kevin Sumlin was born in Brewton, Alabama, a place best described the way Ed Hinton once described A.J. Foyt’s hometown of Waller, Texas: population big enough to whip your ass. 

Sumlin has been doing some measure of putting foot to behind for the better part of 40 years in football, including 32 as a coach.  

He has won SEC Coach of the Year. He has won Conference USA Coach of the Year (twice), and he has turned a mid-major into a national title contender. But he has never before attempted to win at the professional level.

That, in part, is the reason he took the opportunity to become head coach of the Houston Gamblers in the United States Football League

"I think in whatever you do, whatever your trade or profession, your craft, ultimately, you want to be at the highest level," Sumlin said. "And to take the next step into professional football, the situation for me was exciting — is exciting. The whole thing now, which is really different for us, is the fact that you know you're building this thing from the ground up."

That is the attitude he has had since receiving his first paycheck as a football coach at Wyoming in 1991. He made $18,006 that year.

"And I was happy to have it," the 57-year-old Sumlin said.

He has kept that paystub for 31 years.

From the Gamblers' staff to the players, Sumlin has truly put on the hat of both head coach and general manager. He has assembled a coaching staff and roster made up of individuals he trusts and wants to work with, including the Gamblers' top pick, Clayton Thorson

No quarterback has started more games in Big Ten history (53) than Thorson did at Northwestern, throwing for more than 10,000 yards and 61 TDs. But the first thing Sumlin mentioned about Thorson when we chatted is that he’s a winner.

"Clayton is the all-time winningest quarterback at Northwestern," Sumlin said. "He's a smart guy, big guy, 6-4-and-a-half, can move and is really mobile. He’s kind of bounced around a little bit on rosters in the NFL and is looking for an opportunity to really take the next step.

"His combination of his experience, his leadership, his talent, was a good fit for us, and we couldn't be happier."

To be clear, Sumlin knows a thing or two about quarterbacks.

His students at the position include Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Memorial Trophy, and Case Keenum, who threw for 5,020 yards and 44 TDs in Sumlin’s first year at Houston (2008) and topped those numbers with 5,631 yards and 48 TDs in 2011.

Prior to his three-year stint at Arizona, Sumlin endured just one losing season in 10 years as a head coach. At A&M, he never coached a team that failed to win seven games, and he created an image that swelled to be synonymous with swag.

Sumlin once used a Bell 429 helicopter owned by Aggie alumnus Alan Roberts and nicknamed the "swagcopter" by A&M faithful to try to recruit five-star quarterback Kyler Murray and defensive end Myles Garrett to College Station.

What's more, Sumlin debuted the helicopter gimmick amid Manziel’s Heisman campaign in 2012. Sumlin and Manziel then completed their 11-2, stiff-arm-award-winning season by throttling Sumlin’s old boss, Bob Stoops, and Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Dallas — a city Stoops often referred to as part of OU’s "home base" in recruiting. 

Sumlin's USFL staff features an A&M flavor, too. Gamblers wide receivers coach David Beatty was a member of the coaching staff during Sumlin's stint as Aggies head coach.

While Sumlin has built his coaching reputation on the offensive side of the ball, don't get it twisted. At Purdue in 1983, the linebacker led the team in tackles (91) as a freshman. In the secondary looking over his shoulder was Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson.

In 1984, Sumlin and the Boilermakers (7-5) reached the Peach Bowl with wins against Michigan State, Michigan, No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 2 Ohio State.  

At Purdue, Sumlin got acquainted with the man who'd teach him to become a coach: Joe Tiller. A defensive coach by trade, Tiller was the first to give Sumlin a job on the offensive side of the ball. 

After playing for Tiller for four years, Sumlin worked for him as a grad assistant at Washington State, as wide receivers coach at Wyoming and later as wide receivers coach at his alma mater. In his return to West Lafayette, Sumlin found himself on the edge of a football evolution, as Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney deployed a short Texas quarterback with a hand cannon attached to his arm: Drew Brees.

In 2001, off the strength of the Boilermakers' first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1967, Sumlin earned his first opportunity to coach at Texas A&M. 

After a two-year stay in College Station, where he had the offensive coordinator title for the first time in his career under Aggies head coach R.C. Slocum, Sumlin accepted a job coaching tight ends and special teams for Oklahoma legend Bob Stoops in 2003. Three years later, he was elevated to co-offensive coordinator at OU.

With Sumlin on the staff in Norman, the Sooners made four New Year’s Six bowl appearances, won three Big 12 titles, won at least 11 games each season and compiled a record of 54-13 in five years. 

The year he landed his first head-coaching gig, in 2008, Oklahoma made its most recent national championship game appearance. Despite his reputation for identifying and developing quarterbacks, from Drew Bledsoe to Drew Brees to Sam Bradford, Sumlin believes former OU running back Adrian Peterson is one of the best players he has ever coached. 

"There's guys up and down the roster I owe a lot to," Sumlin said. "And being in Oklahoma for five years, there's a bunch of good players there. One that wore No. 28 that we just handed the ball to a lot, he's pretty good as well." 

With the Gamblers, Sumlin hopes he has found a running back to give the ball to a lot in former Florida and JUCO All-American Mark Thompson. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound RB/FB has been compared to Peterson and Derrick Henry

Sumlin drafted Thompson because he can do more than just pound the rock. 

"We got him because he's really versatile," Sumlin said. "And I think anybody who has seen us play, or the teams that I've been associated with, our running backs are involved in a lot of different schemes."

Running backs in Sumlin’s offense have to not only run the ball but also pass protect, catch the ball out of the backfield and even line up as wide receivers in an empty formation.

No matter where he has coached, the former linebacker's teams have scored and scored abundantly. In that way, Sumlin is a perfect fit as the Gamblers' head coach. 

He’s gonna try to run it up.