As Kevin Sumlin looks ahead to the 2020 football season, he might be experiencing a sense of deja vu.
It was just about this time three years ago when a member of the Texas A&M board of regents put up a facebook post calling for Sumlin’s firing as head coach of the Aggies. And the school’s athletic director, Scott Woodward, said at the time that his coach “knows he needs to win, and win this year.”
He won seven games that 2017 season, which wasn’t enough to keep his job. He was fired the day after the final game.
Fast forward to this summer. Sumlin, now head coach of the football program at the University of Arizona, is once again painfully aware of the need to win big to save his job. This time, however, his athletic director is standing behind him. At least for now.
“Coach Sumlin’s our head coach,” AD Dave Heeke told the media immediately after the Cats’ 24-14 loss to rival Arizona State to close the 2019 schedule. “This is not where we wanted to be at this point (in Sumlin’s tenure), but we’re committed…to moving into Year Three.”
However, the college sports analysts aren’t showing the love. Athlon Sports put out its offseason rankings a couple of weeks ago and Sumlin was rated the 11th-best coach in the Pac-12. The other ranking services have also dropped him well down in position since a year ago.
Sumlin is well aware of his tenuous position on the coaching hot seat following a couple of losing seasons (5-7, 4-8). His team’s defense has gone from bad to worse, going from allowing 32.5 points a game in 2018 to 35.7 last season. Ranked 118th in the nation in total team defense in 2019, there were just 12 teams in the entire country with a worse defense.
So he’s revamping his defense, adding a new defensive line coach and new outside linebackers coach to help stabilize a coaching staff that was upended last season with a rash of departures. Three assistants were let go before the season was even over — including the defensive coordinator who was fired with four games yet to play in the 2019 season. That’s how bad it was.
The Cats lost their final seven games of the 2019 season, including a second straight loss to ASU. At that point, Sumlin’s seat went from uncomfortably warm to bunsen-burner hot.
Sumlin got off to a great start at Texas A&M, beginning his tenure with an 11-2 finish to his first season when his offense was run by Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. But he couldn’t duplicate that effort through the remainder of his six years at College Station, never winning more than nine games in a season and never getting over the .500 hump in SEC games.
So far at Arizona, he’s posted a 9-15 record overall and 6-12 in conference play. Last seasons’s 2-7 conference mark dropped his Wildcats to last place in the Pac-12 South.
Sumlin’s answer to his critics is to have patience. He is the first to admit that he and his coaching staff are just as frustrated as the fans. But he has a process in place, he explains, and is asking Wildcat Nation to trust the process.
That process includes altering the composition of the coaching staff and ramping up the recruiting to bring in the kind of talent it will take to see significant improvement.
Sumlin reminds those who are still skeptical that, prior to taking the Arizona job, he had just one losing season in 10 seasons as a college head coach (Houston and Texas A&M). So the last two losing seasons with the Wildcats must just be a temporary aberration, right?
According to his contract, it would have cost Arizona a $10 million buyout to dismiss him before the coming season, a good reason to give him a little more time. This will be the third year of a five-year contract.
And it will, indeed, be a pivotal year. He needs to ignite the interest and enthusiasm of a fan base that is waning, apparent by the number of empty seats that have begun appearing at home games.
The antidote for dwindling attendance, of course, is winning games.
And it will likely take at least eight of those wins next season to save Sumlin’s job. Contract or no contract.