- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Aggieland has long been a special place for Kevin Sumlin and his family.
After his first stop at Texas A&M, as a young assistant rising through the coaching ranks, it was too early to know if fate ever would lead him back to the place where he made a little bit of history in 2002. The world of college football coaches can be fickle. Timing is everything. Choices made don't always work out, opportunities afforded don't last forever and can disappear as quickly as they present themselves.
Though he headed north to Oklahoma after the 2002 season, it set forth a chain of events that eventually would lead the Sumlins back the home of the maroon and white. There was unfinished business.
These days, Kevin Sumlin is in the process of trying to finish what he started.
The hype and anticipation surrounding this week's matchup has been predictable. You have the sport's No. 1 team and reigning national champion, Alabama, and the sport's most recognizable player, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, sharing the same field at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
It features two of the game's most respected coaches as well: Sumlin and Alabama's Nick Saban. The dichotomy between the two is compelling. Saban already has plenty of hardware in the form of four BCS national championships. He's the valedictorian of active college football coaches.
Sumlin doesn't have that hardware yet, but he's quickly rising. In just his sixth year as a head coach, he made significant impacts at both programs he led. At Houston, he guided the Cougars to a 35-17 record in four seasons, a Top 10 ranking at one point and a single-season school record for wins in 2011. He filled stadiums and brought exposure and prestige to a program not accustomed to it.
In his short time as Texas A&M's head coach, he has helped make the Aggies nationally relevant. Last season the Aggies shattered outsider expectations, going 11-2 in their inaugural SEC season. Manziel won the Heisman Trophy, and the Aggies finished with their highest postseason ranking (No. 5) since 1956.
And now he is just days away from perhaps the biggest game of his coaching career.
Don't expect Sumlin to say it. His demeanor is even-keeled, staying steady rather than "riding the wave," as he often puts it. Several players and coaches said he is treating this week just like any other, the swarm of national media coverage notwithstanding.
"[His demeanor is] exactly the same," junior receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "He has a strong sense of urgency every week. It goes down the chain of command to the staff, and it trickles down to us. He just wants us to stay calm and treat it like a normal game, and that's what we'll do."
Keeping everyone else steady can be difficult when dealing with some of the challenges Sumlin and the Aggies have faced this year. Texas A&M football was a regular in national headlines this offseason, whether it was for positive or negative reasons. Manziel's eventful offseason received unprecedented coverage and significant scrutiny. The school had to endure an NCAA investigation into an autograph controversy involving the quarterback. The team, less than a week before the start of training camp, had to cope with the death of a teammate, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu.
Never mind the extraordinary expectations placed upon them because of their end-of-season ranking last year and the returning players on the roster like Manziel, tackle Jake Matthews and receiver Mike Evans.
Whether it was trying to pull the team together through an emotional time or answer endless questions from the media, Sumlin has handled it with a certain poise and confidence that seems to permeate through the Bright Football Complex.
"Kevin Sumlin is a great leader when it comes to steering this team to be on the right path to making sure we don't take anything for granted," senior running back Ben Malena said. "[He makes] sure we don't count the number of days; we make the days count."
Though hope sprung eternal when he arrived as A&M's head coach in December 2011, there was plenty of uncertainty. The Aggies were coming off a season of unfulfilled expectations, a 7-6 record in their final Big 12 campaign. The SEC, widely considered college football's premier conference, wouldn't be kind to them, people said.
Instead, the Aggies turned the tables, experiencing immediate success and beating No. 1 Alabama in the process. The 29-24 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last November was a seminal moment in A&M history for many reasons. It essentially became the fuel that led to Manziel's victory in the Heisman Trophy voting. Recruiting, which already was going well, kicked up yet another notch. The national conversation began to include the Aggies more prominently and more often, and suddenly, what once was predicted by many to be a torturous existence in the SEC became a bright future with thoughts of possible championships down the road.
That's what Saturday is about. There will be no trophies handed out or no finality for either team's ability to contend for an SEC West title, an SEC title or even a spot in the BCS title game, because there still will be at least nine games left for the Aggies and at least 10 left for the Crimson Tide.
But the winner will be in position to control its own destiny on the road to Atlanta for the SEC title game and, perhaps, to Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS title game. And these are the types of games and stakes for which Sumlin returned to Aggieland.
"I think everybody wants the same endgame," Sumlin said. "Everybody wants to be successful. Everybody wants our program, not just football, but our athletic programs across the board in the SEC to be successful. I think we're pretty visible right now, and because of that, that's what you want as a coach. You come into situations, and as things start to progress, you want to be in meaningful games. You want your team to have a chance to play in meaningful games -- not just now, but in November."
In 2002, just four games into the season, Sumlin was promoted from receivers coach to offensive coordinator when then-head coach R.C. Slocum decided shake up a struggling offense.
Then 38, Sumlin led the Aggies to averages of 33 points and 419 yards per game the rest of the year and helped orchestrate a memorable upset of No. 1 Oklahoma behind the arm of true freshman quarterback Reggie McNeal. Bob Stoops scooped Sumlin up the next season to join Oklahoma's staff, and after five seasons there, Sumlin accepted his first head coaching job at Houston in 2008.
Almost 10 years to the date of that upset of Oklahoma, Sumlin again oversaw an historic Aggie upset of a No. 1, team when Texas A&M stunned the Crimson Tide last year. This Saturday, Sumlin and the Aggies have a chance to do it again in what has been the most anticipated game of the young college football season.
Sumlin, now 49, keeps the same steady approach and laser focus on the task at hand, qualities that have been a constant throughout his career.
"I think just keeping it the same [helps]," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "We have a game this week; we're going to prepare exactly like we prepare every week and kind of leave the zoo outside the lines when we get on the field. I think he's done a fantastic job with that."
Fans hope he can lead A&M to yet another takedown of a No. 1 team and set the stage for a truly historic season.
"Like I said beforehand, I think it's great for our university," Sumlin said. "The excitement level and particularly for this weekend and this year has been great. Managing that, I don't know that that's something that I have to manage. I don't know that you can manage it at this level of football. ... And as a coach, I spend my time managing the football team. I don't have a lot of time to manage what's going on outside of it."
2hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf