Kevin Sumlin remembers the day he stunned his parents with the news that he wanted to be a football coach.
Sure, Sumlin had enjoyed a nice career as a linebacker at Purdue, but football was over. It was time for the work-a-day, 9-to-5 world.
Why would he give up a promising career as an underwriter with American United Life for a career filled with … who knows what? He was giving up stability, a chance for advancement, a gold watch at retirement. Plus, he was working near them.
They couldn't believe it. A football coach?
"Yeah, they weren't too happy," says Sumlin, 43, who lasted a little more than a year in the coat-and-tie, Indianapolis skyscraper world. "I was at a retirement party for a guy at the company when it hit me. I just didn't think this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Sumlin laughs. It's a big, welcoming laugh that peppers any conversation with him. Can you blame him for being giddy? Check it out: Sumlin is one of the nation's hottest young coaching commodities. And he's steering the ship of one of the nation's top non-BCS programs – a non-BCS program looking to make a BCS bowl breakthrough.
"That's the plan," Sumlin says.
The only issue: If Sumlin is successful, he almost assuredly will be pursued by major BCS schools. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The guy friends call "Summy" is just beginning his ride on Cullen Boulevard.
"I know we can win here," says Sumlin, who knows all about a Houston tradition that includes 1989 Heisman winner Andre Ware and numerous "big bowl" appearances under coach Bill Yeoman. "Many things are in place."
No story about Sumlin would be complete without the following factoid: He is black. Sumlin is one of six black head coaches in the 120-team I-A ranks and was the only black hired this offseason (there are 18 new coaches). And whether he likes it or not, Sumlin is carrying the flag of black assistants who are waiting their turn.
Houston athletic director Dave Maggard received many calls lauding him for "having the courage" to hire Sumlin. Maggard shrugs.
CURRENT BLACK HEAD COACHES
Kevin Sumlin is one of six black head coaches in Division I-A. Here's a quick look at the six.
Age: 54. Tenure: This will be fourth season. Record: 11-25. Former Job: Notre Dame coach (fired).
"They felt my hiring of Kevin may make it easier for others (down the road)," says Maggard, who also talked with Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood and former Cougars coach Jack Pardee, among others, in the hiring process. "But I wasn't concerned with race in this hiring. I just wanted a good coach. I had no idea we became the first I-A school in Texas ever to hire a black head (football) coach."
The Sumlin-Houston marriage seems perfect on numerous levels. Sumlin has recruited the Houston area for years as an assistant at Texas A&M and Oklahoma. Name an area high school coach, and Sumlin knows him. And Houston appeals to many black students who like the campus vibe and are attracted to playing for Sumlin.
Having coached solely in the college ranks before being hired as a head coach makes Sumlin an anomaly, says Merritt Norvell, an executive vice president of an executive-search firm who also coordinates and runs the Minority Football Coaching Academies for the NCAA.
Norvell, a former athletic director at Michigan State whose DHR firm is the fifth-largest executive-search company in the nation, believes college football is becoming more sophisticated because of the influx of former NFL coaches.
"If you look at the head coaches that were selected (this offseason), many of them had NFL experience," Norvell says. "I believe that trend will continue. Some will tell you that NFL experience is not important for collegiate head coaches, but the athletic directors and presidents seem to be saying something else. At the I-A level, the criteria was previous head-coaching experience or NFL experience. That makes it tough for black coaches trying to get in the door."
Sumlin takes over a program that became one of the best in Conference USA in five seasons under Art Briles. Briles inherited a team that won an aggregate eight games in the three seasons before he arrived and led it to three bowls, a C-USA title in 2006 and a 34-28 record .
"The University of Houston offers things most people aren't aware of," Sumlin says. "This is a nice campus. And we have plans that may start at the end of the year for an end-zone project that will include a plaza, locker rooms, club seats. … There is a commitment here. Mr. Maggard has been at some big-time places (Miami, California). He knows what it takes."
Part of that commitment was a large salary pool to attract assistants. Sumlin insisted upon it, even if it meant his salary ($700,000 base plus incentives) would take a hit.
"That's what it's about," Sumlin says. "You have to have the resources to hire good people and then let them do their jobs. I won't get in their way. I hired them to coach."
TRACKING BLACK COACHES
In 1979, Wichita State hired Willie Jeffries as the first black head coach at a Division I-A school. Here are black head coaches by year since 1990.
Expect the Cougars to have an offense that's every bit as high-flying as the attack fashioned by Briles, who left to become coach at Baylor. Sumlin hired former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to push the buttons of the attack that will look a lot like the Red Raiders'. The defense will be run by John Skladany, who was at UCF last season; his unit will be led by star end Phillip Hunt and a secondary that returns every starter.
The goal is simple for a team that returns six starters on offense and eight on defense from an 8-5 squad that lost to TCU in the Texas Bowl: win C-USA. The Cougars' biggest competition in the West will come from Tulsa. East Carolina and UCF look to be the class of the East.
Sumlin laughs again. He likes the possibilities. This is what he was building toward when he broke his parent's hearts and packed his bags to take a job as a graduate assistant under Mike Price at Washington State in 1988. After three years in Pullman, Sumlin worked at Wyoming (1991-92), Minnesota (1993-97) and Purdue (1998-2000).
His career took off when he landed at Texas A&M (2001-02) as assistant head coach. He took over as offensive coordinator midway through the 2002 season, and the Aggies' attack flourished. After coach R.C. Slocum lost his job, Sumlin landed at Oklahoma (2003-07), coordinating special teams before ascending to co-offensive coordinator. Not bad for a guy who began his career as a walk-on linebacker at Purdue.
The son of educators, Sumlin grew up in Indianapolis and attended prestigious Breubeuf Jesuit Prep. Sumlin was a good athlete, but he was a step slow and an inch short of being special.
"Basketball was my first love for a long time," he says. "My dad was a youth-league coach for guys like (former Indiana star) Mike Woodson."
There would be no big-time suitors for Sumlin, only interest from the likes of Army, Dartmouth and some Division III schools. Sumlin received an academic scholarship to Purdue, where he lugged a backpack, ate dorm food and lived the life of a student as a freshman in 1982-83. But he walked-on to the team as a sophomore and never looked back.
His first action came in Purdue's second game of the 1983 season, at Miami against a Bernie Kosar-led team that would go on to win the national title. Sumlin went on to twice earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and lead the Boilermakers in tackles two times while playing on a defense alongside guys such as future NFL stalwarts Rod Woodson, Cris Dishman and Fred Strickland.
"A lot of people helped me out along the way," Sumlin says. "(Current UH linebackers coach) Leon Burtnett was my coach at Purdue, and I get to work with him now. That's a pretty neat deal. And I am grateful to the Purdue alum who helped me get that job at American United Life a long time ago. I appreciated the opportunity, don't get me wrong. But it showed me that was what I didn't want to do.