Sumlin, Aggies Paying Price of Success
By Matt Smith
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The challenge for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is to ensure the program continues to grow as they transition from the hunter to the hunted.
No one foresaw Texas A&M’s SEC debut finishing with an 11-2 record, a win over eventual national champion Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium and the first ever freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Likewise, with the Aggies expected to finish in the 7-8 win range, did anyone imagine three of coach Kevin Sumlin’s assistants would leave for better jobs at the end of the season?
With the defection of linebackers coach Matt Wallerstedt to become Texas Tech’s defensive coordinator, as first reported by Red Raider Sports on Saturday, Sumlin has now lost three of his top assistants. Wallerstedt is joining Kliff Kingsbury’s staff in Lubbock, the former Aggies offensive coordinator who was named Texas Tech’s head coach last month. Brian Polian, the team’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator as well as an ace recruiter, was named Chris Ault’s replacement at Nevada earlier this month.
The loss of those three key assistants means a minimum of one-third of the Texas A&M staff will turn over after just one year in College Station. Johnny Manziel will have a new offensive coordinator, actually two, as 27-yeard old Jake Spavital was hired from West Virginia and will co-coordinate the offense with Clarence McKinney, the Aggies running backs coach in 2012.
Wallerstedt spent the previous four seasons at Air Force, helping resurrect a Falcons defense that had declined during the mid-2000s, as the program went to four bowl games in four years during his time in Colorado Springs.
Polian’s loss may be felt on the recruiting trail more so than on the field. The son of longtime NFL GM Bill, Polian was the main driver behind luring Manti Te’o from the tropics of Hawaii to Notre Dame in 2009. He spent 2010 and 2011 at Stanford following Charlie Weis’ firing in South Bend, helping complete the Cardinal’s stunning resurrection from the Pac-12 cellar to three consecutive BCS bowls.
Having to replace top assistants is nothing new among college football’s elite programs. Since December, Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Penn State are among top teams who have lost assistant coaches to better jobs on the heels of successful 2012 seasons. However, this was unexpected for a team like Texas A&M – at least, after just one season that was supposed to end somewhere like Shreveport or Birmingham rather than at Cowboys Stadium for the Cotton Bowl.
The truly great coaches don’t miss a beat when they lose key assistants. Both Nick Saban and Brian Kelly lost multiple assistants after the 2011 season, including both of their offensive coordinators, but still led Alabama and Notre Dame respectively to the BCS Championship Game. Current Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl in 2011 and 2012 despite having a first-year coordinator in both seasons after the departures of Dave Doeren and Paul Chryst.
These coaches make hires, particularly at the coordinator positions, who can adapt to the program rather than forcing the program to adapt to the hire. It’s a plug-and-play approach that helps keep fast moving trains rolling right along.
Even for a head coach with a defensive background like Saban, Alabama’s offensive philosophy remained the same during the transition from Jim McElwain, now the head coach at Colorado State, to Doug Nussmeier after the team’s 2011 national championship season. At SEC Media Days last summer, Saban scoffed at the notion that Nussmeier would bring more than small tweaks to the Crimson Tide. Kelly compared the switch of longtime friend Chuck Martin from defensive backs coach to offensive coordinator as doubling down on himself.
Texas A&M eventually wants to get where Alabama is, and showed it’s on the right track with its landmark win in Tuscaloosa, but the road to the top is never without bumps. The losses of Kingsbury, Polian and Wallerstedt are a perfect example.
The challenge for Sumlin now is to ensure the program continues to grow as they transition from the hunter to the hunted. Given his track record and the top 10 recruiting class he’s about to sign, there’s no reason to think he won’t. However, this this is uncharted territory for Sumlin - a place even he likely didn’t think he would arrive at so soon.