Had it not been for a Bob Stoops phone call, who knows if Kevin Sumlin would still have Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl?
Who knows if Sumlin would be coaching the Aggies at all?
On Friday, Sumlin meets his former boss in the AT&T Cotton Bowl featuring former Big 12 conference foes Texas A&M and Oklahoma.
For more than a decade, Stoops has been one of the preeminent coaches in college football, with double-digit victories in 11 of his past 13 seasons. Sumlin, who was with Stoops for five of those seasons as an assistant, is on his way to the same coaching pantheon. In just one year, the SEC co-coach of the year has re-energized a previously dormant Texas A&M program with its first 10-win season in 15 years despite transitioning to college football's toughest conference.
"You can see it, what he's doing now, that he's an incredibly bright coach. I knew that," Stoops said Wednesday. "Competitive, great worker. And I think what Kevin, the best thing he brings to A&M is the way he relates to his players, and players love playing for him. He has a way, and he's really brought attitude to his team."
Stoops and Sumlin first became friends in the 1990s when both were trying to convince warm-weather recruits to attend cold-weather colleges.
"Both of us had tough jobs trying to get guys to leave Miami and Fort Lauderdale to go to Manhattan, Kan., and Minneapolis, Minn., or West Lafayette," said Sumlin, who was a receivers coach at Minnesota, then at Purdue, his alma mater. Stoops, meanwhile, was coaching defense for Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
"We were chasing the same kids all the time," Stoops said. "I had great respect for Kevin."
Stoops gained even more respect for Sumlin in 2002. As Texas A&M's offensive coordinator, Sumlin helped direct the Aggies to a 30-26 upset of the top-ranked Sooners in College Station to derail Oklahoma's national title hopes. When Texas A&M still dismissed head coach R.C. Slocum and his staff after the season, Stoops grabbed Sumlin for himself.
"Kevin has all the great qualities you need," Stoops said on why he hired Sumlin. "He's bright, he's got an excellent offensive mind, he's a great worker, he relates with kids well. He's competitive, all those things."
Sumlin headed Oklahoma's special teams in 2003 and 2004, helping propel the Sooners to national championship game appearances, before taking over the receivers in 2006. While in Norman, Sumlin also learned from Stoops how to build a championship culture from the inside out.
"That's not easy to do. That's something that obviously changed, was brought back when he got there [in 1999], and has continued," Sumlin said. "How you do things day to day, the competitive nature that is in the building, the expectation level. The expectation level of everybody, starting with him, everybody in the building, coaches and players, is a big, big, big factor at Oklahoma. And it starts with the head coach."
Although he wasn't calling the Sooners' offensive plays in 2007, Sumlin emerged as a head-coaching candidate at Houston and Washington State. Sumlin enticed Houston athletic director Dave Maggard, who was faced with replacing Art Briles. But Maggard was also considering other up-and-comers such as Gus Malzahn, as well as septuagenarian Jack Pardee, who coached the Cougars' high-powered offenses of the late 1980s. Maggard also wasn't quite sure Sumlin was ready to be a head coach. But that all changed in one phone conversation with Sumlin's boss.
"When you have someone like Bob give that kind of endorsement -- was it a huge factor? Yes, it was."
Summarily, Sumlin proved Stoops right. For his first staff, Sumlin made a pair of home run hires in Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury, who are both now head coaches themselves. Sumlin also hammered the recruiting trail in Houston and convinced several players to stay home and play for him instead of signing with BCS conference schools. Building on what Briles had started, the Cougars won 10 games in 2009. Two years later, Sumlin nearly directed Houston to its first BCS bowl berth until the Cougars fell to Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game.
"What he did at Houston was phenomenal," Maggard said. "I knew he would do a phenomenal job at Texas A&M, too."
What Sumlin has done in one year in College Station is nothing short of phenomenal. Like Stoops at Oklahoma, Sumlin changed the culture at Texas A&M seemingly overnight. A year after the Aggies found new ways to blow second-half leads in a 6-6 season that cost Mike Sherman his job, Sumlin has led Texas A&M to a Top 10 ranking in the face of a rugged SEC West schedule. Down the stretch, the Aggies were as hot as anyone in the country, upsetting top-ranked Alabama on the road to close out the regular season with five consecutive victories.
"He comes in with a type of swag, as some of the guys on the team would put it, that makes us feel better," senior defensive tackle Spencer Nealy said of his coach. "Right when he walks in, he brings a presence."
Thanks in part to a phone call, Stoops now has to deal with that presence, which is beginning to look awfully like the one he has created in Norman.
"A lot of people have come here and said we do things a lot alike, and I wouldn't doubt it," Sumlin said. "And that's a compliment."