- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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As he prepared to take the field against No. 1 Oklahoma late in the first quarter Nov. 9, 2002, former Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal, then a freshman, now keenly remembers the words delivered by his offensive coordinator, Kevin Sumlin.
Stepping into a game against an undefeated perennial power would be intimidating for anybody, let alone a freshman. But Sumlin's words put McNeal at ease.
"When I got ready to go on the field, I talked to Sumlin and exactly what he told me was, 'Reg, you're a damn good athlete. You've been playing this game for a long time. Play the game like you know how to play it. Go have fun. I'm going to put you in the right situations and you get us where we need to be and have fun doing it.' And that's how I approached the game," McNeal said. "With Coach having my back as much as he did, it took a lot of pressure off. I wasn't out there pressing and making mistakes."
The rest is history. Behind McNeal -- who threw for 191 yards and four touchdowns -- the Aggies upset the Sooners 30-26 at Kyle Field.
One day after the 10-year anniversary of that historic Aggies victory, Sumlin again was wearing maroon and white Saturday, facing the nation's No. 1 team, Alabama. Again, he had a freshman quarterback -- redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel -- but with a couple of key differences: Sumlin is now the Aggies coach, and this game was on the road against the defending BCS champions.
The result was the same: a stunning victory for Texas A&M.
"They're both great moments," Sumlin said after this past weekend's 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "Obviously being a head coach, it's probably a little more special because it's right now. Both of those are great moments for me personally, and for Texas A&M. But to go on the road and win, that's pretty big."
Sumlin, who is in his first year leading the Aggies after spending the last four years as the head coach at Houston, has made Texas A&M's transition into the Southeastern Conference a successful one. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought the Aggies would possess their record (8-2) or ranking (No. 8) at this point in the season, much less take down the Crimson Tide.
But those who know Sumlin well aren't surprised at all.
"Having played for him, having worked for him as well, I think a number of things: He has a great vision and a great plan for what he wants his program to be like and to encompass," said Houston head coach Tony Levine, who was an assistant with Sumlin at Houston and played for him at Minnesota. "He's got clear ideas, and probably the best communicator that I've ever worked for."
McNeal said the way Sumlin carries himself also helps, citing a positive, upbeat attitude that is part of the coach's daily approach.
"He enjoyed what he did," McNeal recalled of Sumlin during his first A&M stint. "He always enjoyed the environment and the situation he was in. He never had a bad day -- or if he did, he never showed it."
Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who worked with Sumlin at Houston, said the way Sumlin treats people stands out.
"I think just the way he treats his players and coaches as men and with respect," Kingsbury said. "You don’t ever see him belittling them in front of their peers. He just expects you to be a man and take care of your business. There’s just a level of respect that he gives each and every person he come into contact with that, in this profession, is very refreshing."
The term "players' coach" has been used before when describing Sumlin, and his own players have used the term. But that doesn't mean he has issues with lack of discipline. The balance between getting along with his players and maintaining a level of authority is something that Levine believes Sumlin manages extremely well.
"I think when you hear people say that an athlete has 'it' or that person has the 'It factor,' I think Kevin Sumlin has 'it' when it comes to that natural balance of relating to not only 20-year-olds but your coaches, your staff, but having still the understanding of who's the boss and what the expectations are," Levine said. "I think that's a skill and a trait that almost comes natural to him."