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January 5, 2013

Sumlin changes everything in less than a year

One of the hot things in Hollywood right now are demon killers. President Lincoln is now a vampire hunter, for instance. There's the TV show "Supernatural", where the two stars (Texans, by the way) kill demons dispatched from hell on a weekly basis. And, as we learned during commercials last night, Hansel and Gretel are now out to kill the undead.

But if you want to see the greatest demon slayer going right now, you'd better head to the Bright Building in College Station. The work Kevin Sumlin has done in exorcising decades of Aggie football's demons in less than a year, though, is probably too remarkable for anyone in Hollywood to touch it.

When Sumlin donned the maroon jacket last December, he took over a program that was a mess, cut to pieces by one self-inflicted wound after another. The list was nearly two decades old: the collapse in Boulder in 2005; the last-second loss in Austin in 1998; numerous failures at the hands of Texas Tech and the University of Texas; defeats on the recruiting trail and blowouts in bowl games.

The nadir came last year, when a team that started the season in the top 10 ended the regular season at 6-6 and blew one halftime leader after another. The look of confusion on the faces of Mike Sherman and his coaches, as well as the looks of dismay on the faces of his players, became painfully familiar. After another devastating last-second loss to Texas -- and another blown lead -- the inability to pull the Aggies out of the doldrums of mediocrity would cost Sherman his job.

After limping to a bowl win in Houston, the program Sumlin took over was in disarray. They had no certainty at quarterback, holes across the defense and a new conference -- the SEC -- licking its chops as the Aggies came limping in.

Almost nobody believed Texas A&M could compete in the SEC. More importantly, the players didn't believe in themselves, and Sumlin knew it. Rebuilding the program's psyche from the ground up was his first task, before a single play was installed on either side of the ball.

"We've got to take care of ourselves before we take care of anyone else," Sumlin said repeatedly, throughout the spring and summer.

With the help of assistants like Mark Snyder, David Beaty, Kliff Kingsbury, Marcel Yates and Terry Price, Sumlin started to erase the pain and frustration of the year before. The changes began behind the scenes, where most people couldn't see them. When Sumlin arrived at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., with his typical swagger, most in attendance smirked at his confidence.

"They say we don't have a quarterback, we don't have a defense and they don't think our offense can work," Sumlin said drily at the time. Last night, he said he couldn't blame them.

"There was reason for people to doubt us," he said. "You know, moving into a new league, .500 program over the last 10 years, I don't know why anybody wouldn't have doubted us."

Doubters outside of Kyle Field felt more comfortable in the cynicism after the Aggies dropped their season opener to Florida, 20-17. But something was noticeably different in the way the players responded to the loss: instead of looking confused or depressed, the Aggies were angry. They felt they had let the game slip away from them, that they had lost a game they should have won.

Well, that happened in 2011 as well. The difference? In 2012, this group of Aggies was ready to play Florida again the next morning, convinced they'd beat the Gators down given the opportunity.

Instead of letting the loss linger as ones like Oklahoma State and Arkansas had the year before, A&M took Sumlin's 24-hour rule seriously and got the loss out of their system and moved on. Then they walloped SMU, South Carolina State and Arkansas. While most people were impressed with the emergence of a guy nicknamed "Johnny Football", you could see something in the rest of the team that had long been missing: confidence. The doubts were gone. Fear of the opponents were gone.

If there was any doubt, they vanished against Ole Miss. The Aggies played what may have been their worst game of the year, turning the ball over repeatedly as they fell behind 27-17 halfway through the fourth quarter. Before a 3rd and 19 play from the A&M 2, Sumlin called a timeout and called his offense over. He didn't change the play, he just told them they weren't done. He said he believed in them.

In a sign of Sumlin's amazing work, they believed in themselves as well.

One Mike Evans catch later, the Aggies were rolling again, on their way to a 30-27 shocking win. With the exception of a tough loss to LSU, they would continue to roll through the rest of the year. A&M gave Auburn their worst home beating in nearly a century, sent Mississippi State's season into a tailspin by blasting them at home and nearly hung 60 on old nemesis Missouri.

And, of course, there was that trip to Alabama. Again, the doubters thought it was time for A&M to finally be exposed as lucky, or a team thriving with a gimmick offense. Kevin Sumlin wasn't interested in hearing from them.

"We haven't played a complete game yet," he said the Tuesday before the game. "When we do, we'll be dangerous against anyone."

Afraid of the defending champion and number 1 team? In front of 102,000 people and a national TV audience? Dealing with the nation's best defense?

Sumlin wasn't. Taking his lead, his team wasn't either. The Aggies played a complete game and left Tuscaloosa with a 29-24 win.

The doubts, the fears, the confusion were gone. They'd been replaced by a confidence, a fearlessness ... a swagger that was a mirror image of their head coach.

That confidence was apparent last night, as A&M took the field against established titan OU, took the Sooners' best shot -- and then ran them off the field in a 41-13 humiliation. It was a game that A&M would have lost last year, having a 1-point lead at the half and OU having moved the ball well in the first 30 minutes.

Not this time.

"This game tonight was indicative of how these guys have played all year," Sumlin said after the game. "I think some people were surprised early in the year of how they played. I can tell you that walking in that locker room at halftime or at the end of the game, our guys weren't surprised. They expected to win. That's probably the biggest change that we've made over the course of the last six months."

They believed. The team that didn't believe in itself a year ago knew they could handle anything thrown at them. Much like their coach.

The frustration, confusion and dismay of the past two decades are gone. The demons of games A&M let slip away have been erased; bowl game disasters seem very far away. They've been wiped clean by one man, who believed the Aggies were better than what they'd shown in the past, that all they needed was a belief in themselves and their scheme.

Making these changes were no small task. In fact, they were monumental. To go from a team that had no faith itself to being the hottest commodity in college football in one year? Impossible -- unless you're Kevin Sumlin, and the school is Texas A&M. In that case, it's called the present.

And it's such an amazing present that Hollywood would probably fire the scriptwriter who tried to bring it to the big screen.


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