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June 24, 2013

Numbers don't lie: the time for Sumlin may already be now

During the regime of Dennis Franchione a few years ago, I did some statistical research about college football coaches and discovered that you found out about them relatively early in their tenures. At the time, it wasn't a very popular premise, mainly because Franchione had posted losing records in two of his first three seasons at A&M. At that time, people were defending him on the basis of the fact that former A&M head coach Jackie Sherrill had been a .500 coach his first three years at Aggieland before reeling off three consecutive Southwest Conference titles.

Even so, the numbers didn't lie and while you can use statistics to maneuver an argument to your advantage, they were pretty clear cut in this instance. We've revisited them periodically since that point in time (especially when Mike Sherman had a losing record during his first two seasons at A&M) and since it's the dog days of summer and there's not much else going on, it's time to do so again and tie them into Kevin Sumlin's current regime in College Station.

Beginning in 1981 (which began an era in which many old school coaches such as Bear Bryant had retired or non-traditional powers began to have success), the Associated Press or Bowl Championship Series has awarded national titles on 36 times in those 32 years. The average tenure of the coaches at the school when they won the national title --- not how many years that they had been coaching in total but just how many seasons that they had coached at that school only --- was 8.14 years.

However, that number is skewed by the tenures of several veteran coaches such as Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, and Joe Paterno who won multiple national titles in the 1990's and 2000's. Excluding those three coaches alone, the average tenure of the remaining 29 national champions is just 4.90 years. Not only that, not since Bobby Bowden in 1999 has a coach won a national title and been at their school more than a decade. That makes 14 straight national champions and during that time only Mack Brown was at his school more than five years when he won his championship.

Although we're dealing with relatively recent data here, great coaches have always won big early in their tenures. Bear Bryant won a national title in his fourth season, Barry Switzer in his third season, Wood Hayes in his fourth season, Ara Parseghian in his third season, John McKay in his third season, Bud Wilkinson in his fourth season ... the great ones don't need time to set up shop and build a program. They just win and they win right away.

In fact, not only do programs win early in a coach's tenure, it's getting less and less likely that veteran coaches at the same school are going to be able to have that type of success in this era, even if they previously won a title at that school. Nick Saban has won four national titles and the first of them have been within the first four years of his tenures at LSU and Alabama. Coaches like Les Miles, Mack Brown, and Bob Stoops won national titles and have played for them since they won them but have gone 0-5 in their quest to break that streak.

So, we can take the numbers and examine them all we want to but it's pretty apparent that if you don't win a national title within the first five years of your tenure, the odds are that you won't. As a result, we have to turn from the numbers are start asking why this happens.

We can start with any number of tangible reasons but the biggest reason is intangible: motivation. Like anyone else in corporate America, as a coach climbs up the ladder, he is extremely motivated to be successful because that brings more rewards (a longer term contract, etc.). A coach in a new job is never going to bring more energy to a job than he is early in his tenure. This goes for his assistants as well who are still climbing that ladder; coordinators can use the programs success to move on to other head coaching positions and position coaches can take over as coordinators within the program or move up elsewhere. In addition, there's a sense of urgency as college football has become more and more about winning right away; coaches don't get long term contracts up front and they don't get many years to turn a program around.

Another reason is talent -- the former coach has got to have left behind some talent in order for the new coach to succeed. In fact, most of the coaches that have been let go for the new coaches to have taken over were considered to have underachieved with the talent that they had on hand. Often times, those coaches won but they were perceived not to have won enough.

Recruiting: one of the phenomena that has occurred in recent years in recruiting is the lift that a program obtains by naming a new coach. Theoretically, coaching changeovers should negatively impact schools since the coaches that were recruiting prospects for that school are gone and those all important relationships between coach and prospect were severed. Even so, a new staff usually brings a new energy to recruiting and legally is not bound to keep a class intact. They bring in new commits previously committed to another program that they had relationships with, especially if the coaches were at programs that were not as prestigious as their new job. There's also a certain level of excitement associated with a new staff that carries over to existing commits. Although there's almost always a certain level of class turnover with a new staff, for the most part schools actually receive a boost when a new coach comes on board.

Finally, new coaches do things differently than their predecessors, not just in terms of offense and defense but also practice habits, etc. There's an edge to a new coach in terms of how he works his players in the weightroom or on the practice field that may have been missing from the old regime. More importantly, players that may have been buried under the former staff often get a new lease of life under the new one and produce beyond all expectations.

Texas A&M is considered to be a top five program going into the 2013 season under second head coach Kevin Sumlin. They beat defending national champion Alabama last season, finished 11-2, and won the Cotton Bowl. In fact, the Aggies are considered to be a serious contender for a national championship this year.

Based on everything we just discussed about coaches winning national titles early in their tenures at a school…it's eerie how everything seems to be lining up for Sumlin and his staff. In fact, let's go through our checklist of national title winning coaches and pull some similarities together.

First, Sumlin is in only his second season at A&M. Check.

Second, Sumlin and his staff are pretty motivated individuals. Sumlin used his success from his first season at A&M to obtain better deals for himself and his current assistants while two assistants from last year's staff to take head coaching jobs elsewhere. He's also already been approached by the NFL. However, it's apparent that he's not resting on his laurels. Check.

Third, Sumlin inherited a program that produced multiple NFL draft picks last season including the second overall selection in tackle Luke Joeckel. He also had the Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel, who was the backup quarterback coming out of spring practice prior to last season. He also returns a number of NFL caliber players including tackles Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi, both of whom should follow Joeckel as early first round selections. Check.

Fourth, Sumlin has established A&M as THE program within the state of Texas. They've won the majority of head to head battles with arch rival Texas for the 2014 class and are coming off of a 2013 class that was ranked in the top ten nationally. Check.

Fifth, Sumlin's new strength and conditioning program under Larry Jackson produced a more fit and better conditioned team. Sumlin also made A&M a more disciplined football team that incurred fewer penalties and turnovers and also played with better technique. He also introduced new offensive and defensive schemes that played to the strengths of players like Manziel (who also ran the spread in high school) and developed unknowns into stars like receiver Mike Evans. Check.

In summary, history itself says that Kevin Sumlin may be at the right time and place to win a national title. The numbers certainly back it up as he is in only his second year at the school. More importantly, if you look at why coaches win national championships early in their tenures, Sumlin certainly has all of the boxes checked…he and his staff are motivated, they've got a talented roster, they are recruiting well, and they've used new ideas to shake up the program and get the most out of their existing players. In addition, keep in mind that most coaches who have won titles in recent years have in many instances almost came out of nowhere to do so. Sumlin's crew won't even be favored to win the SEC West this season (that honor belongs to defending national champion Alabama) but the Aggies get the Tide at home early on and have a favorable schedule. If A&M wins that game, recent history is actually in their favor going forward as every SEC team that has won a national title has done so with a head coach early in their tenure at the school.

Just like Kevin Sumlin.



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