Commentary

Sumlin ideal to recruit fertile Houston landscape

Updated: March 4, 2008, 6:16 PM ET
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Sitting in a cramped office in an Indianapolis skyscraper soon after his college graduation in 1987, Kevin Sumlin couldn't have been more miserable.

After a standout football career at Purdue, Sumlin hoped to continue playing at the next level. But his lack of size and speed pushed him to a business career in which he worked as a group insurance underwriter in his first job.

"I found out what I wanted to do. And after a few weeks it definitely wasn't that," Sumlin said of his brief history crunching numbers with American United Life. "It was a great job, but it just wasn't what I was suited for."

His rapture moment came several months after starting his new job. After being invited to address the Boilermakers before a game against Indiana, he found that returning to football was something he desperately wanted to do. Even if it meant starting at the very bottom of the food chain.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesKevin Sumlin plans to point the Cougars in a new direction.

After an extensive and varied career as an assistant, Sumlin is finally getting his first chance as a head coach at the University of Houston. His career might not have started with a football challenge at the beginning, but he's glad that he was eventually directed that way.

His success with the Cougars will depend on Sumlin's doing something that Houston hasn't been able to accomplish consistently since its first days in the Southwest Conference in the 1970s. Sumlin must make the Cougars a contender rather than an afterthought in local recruiting and convince his share of top Houston-area recruits to stay at home.

"We only need 24 or 25 guys a year, it's not like we need 100," Sumlin said. "And there's way more than that in this state. It's a great opportunity. Like I've said a bunch of times, it's a gold mine."

A running joke about college football coaches from out of state is that more potential college football players can be found in a five-mile Houston radius than many smaller Midwestern states. The more notable players the area has produced include Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, former Texas and current Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, and Andre Ware, who won the Heisman Trophy while quarterbacking the Cougars in 1989.

And Sumlin, 43, might be better prepared than any recent Houston coach to take advantage of the local recruiting advantage. He's worked the area during the past 12 years, making inroads with high school coaches in previous jobs as an assistant at Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Purdue and Minnesota.

"I've been fortunate to be in this area for a while and I know a lot of the people," Sumlin said. "We're going to need their help and they know that. I'm appealing to those guys and I think in the next couple of years, we're going to start getting some guys around who haven't been around here before."

That recruiting strategy appealed to Houston athletic director Dave Maggard, who saw Dennis Erickson apply a similar formula to claim a national championship when Maggard worked as the athletic director for Miami from 1991 to '93.

The Houston program has had some success in recent seasons, winning 18 games over the past two seasons. Former Houston player Art Briles helped turn an inept Cougars program into a Conference USA power before leaving to attempt to turn around Baylor's moribund program.

But Houston has failed to win a bowl game since 1980, struggling through a current eight-game bowl losing streak that is the second longest in the country. The Cougars haven't finished the season ranked since finishing 10th in 1990 under John Jenkins.

Many Cougars fans appealed to Maggard to hire 71-year-old former Houston coach Jack Pardee. But Maggard believed that hiring Sumlin provided the Cougars with the best chance at long-term success.

"I had a gut feeling that this was the right way to go," Maggard said. "Jack Pardee could have done a great job coaching for us. But I just felt like that Kevin gives us a chance to move forward and would be the best option at the present time."

The recent ascendency of non-BCS schools like Boise State and Hawaii has given the Cougars a blueprint for future success. And considering Houston's local recruiting advantage, Maggard doesn't hesitate to daydream about his eventual aspirations for the Cougars.

"I look at what other schools are accomplishing and I see that it could happen here," Maggard said. "I'm not afraid to say that I aspire to that BCS level that other schools have made in the last few years."

Some coaches would shun such grandiose plans from their bosses. But Sumlin said Maggard's ambition excited him about the possibilities of his job.

"The more I talked with him, the more I wanted to be here," Sumlin said. "I see his vision for the University of Houston being more than what it is today."

To fulfill his grand plan, Maggard sought counsel from many top college and pro coaches before settling on Sumlin. The biggest testimonial came from Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who told Maggard that Sumlin was "absolutely ready" for a shot as a head coach.

"I think he's ready," said Stoops. "His experience at A&M and recruiting in the Houston area is a positive. He's got great experience while he was here, building our program and helping it maintain the consistency we've had. I think all of those experiences will help him when he runs his own program."

Over the past 10 years, Sumlin developed into a skilled offensive coach and earned a reputation as a tenacious recruiter. He cut his teeth by recruiting to nontraditional schools like Purdue and Washington State, learning from Joe Tiller and Mike Price.

"I think he's one of the bright young football minds in the business," Price said. "Kevin has got a great personality and his new players will absolutely love playing for him. But most importantly, he'll make recruiting difficult in Houston."

His apprenticeship has served him well, but Sumlin's itching for the challenge of finally running his own program. And at Houston, Sumlin might be poised for a big debut.

"We're in the fourth-largest city in the country. There are a lot of great players in this town and this state. And they are well-coached," Sumlin said. "I think that if we just do a great job evaluating and keep a few guys around, we'll be fine."

Sumlin is making history as the first African-American head football coach in the 63-year history of the Houston program. In fact, he's the first African-American to be hired as a head football coach of a Division I-A program in Texas.

But he discounts his role as a coaching pioneer for a more pragmatic approach.

"It's something that I have a sense of pride about, but I still have to win games," Sumlin said. "Whether you are white, black, red or purple, you're going to be judged by wins and losses, just like everybody else."

Tim Griffin is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.