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January 7, 2014

Sumlin's style ensures no return to 1997

With everything that was going on yesterday…three high school all star games in four days and the national championship game last night…it's time to start looking ahead to 2014…and like it or not, a new recruiting landscape in the state of Texas.

Former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong is now the head coach at Texas replacing Mack Brown and it's event that will shape Texas A&M's recruiting whether anyone wants it to or not. However, in order to see what's coming up in recruiting battles between the two programs, we need to take a look back at how we go to where we are today.

When Mack Brown arrived at Texas after the 1997 season, he was already considered one of the elite recruiting head coaches in the country. Although he had to recruit nationally to a basketball school and had no ties to Texas, he immediately came in and made his presence felt by winning head to head battles with A&M in the 1998 class which was coming off of a Big 12 title. He was extremely personable and put together one of the better recruiting staffs the state has ever seen. He followed that up by convincing running back Ricky Williams to stay for his senior season and Williams' run to the Heisman Trophy helped fuel a successful first season for Brown that resulted in his first top five class at Texas in 1999. Brown consistently cranked out top five classes from there on out and although he didn't start early recruiting he perfected it, having entire classes sewn up during his tenure by the time of the Horns' spring game.

More importantly from A&M's view, he took virtually everyone that the Aggies wanted and left them with little depth even when they had some top end talent. He never allowed them to build anything resembling a top 10 program even when A&M was beating Texas head to head on the field. In fact, the Aggies went from 2000 to 2009 and never finished the season ranked in the top 25 which is astounding given A&M's location in one of the most talent laden states in the country. Brown literally put his foot on A&M's throat and he kept it there for over a decade, managing to get three head coaches fired on his watch. It was recruiting dominance the likes of which hadn't been seen in the state since the 1960's when Darrell Royal was winning multiple Southwest Conference titles and the Aggies could post only a single winning season during the decade.

But all good things must end and Brown began making bad decisions himself which not only culminated in his own resignation but coincided with the rise of A&M as well. It's no coincidence that the last five Texas coaches (including Royal himself) all were fired or retired within a year of A&M winning a conference title itself or having a top five ranking.

Nonetheless, Brown was an elite recruiter both personally and tactically and there's very few of those guys around….maybe five in the country at any given time. Those are the guys that win so many head to head battles against their arch rivals that they don't just build up their program but destroy yours in the process. Pete Carroll at USC was like that. Urban Meyer at Florida was like that.

However, Brown is gone and it's unlikely that anyone replacing him was going to operate on that level. That's no shot at Strong as much as it is a recognition of Brown's abilities. It also means that the recruiting landscape is going to be on a much more level playing field going forward, especially as A&M has a great recruiter in Kevin Sumlin at the helm along with a great recruiting staff.

Thus, it's now a question of what to look for going forward as to how a new personality and tactics will effect A&M. Here's six key items that will determine where everything is headed not just in the immediate future but down the road as well.

First, look for Texas to come after everyone that A&M has committed. Yes, Texas is nearly full but every new coach needs a splash to make an impact. Brown did it in his first class at Texas. Kevin Sumlin made an enormous statement when he flipped Thomas Johnson from Texas and Devante Harris from Oklahoma just weeks after his arrival on campus. Strong is going to target people like four star defensive back Nick Harvey who has been rumored to be maintaining an interest in the Horns. He's got to make a statement to prove that Sumlin is vulnerable.

Second, the most overlooked aspect of any head coach is his ability to put together a great recruiting staff. In the state of Texas, that means elite recruiters in Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and east Texas because that's where the vast majority of the state's four star talents are located. Sumlin was able to pull Johnson and Harris because he had David Beaty who had worked the Metroplex extensively at other programs such as Kansas and Rice. In addition, Beaty had been a high school coach in the Metroplex. Clarence McKinney hadn't just been with Sumlin at the University of Houston but had also been a high school coach in the Houston area. Offensive line coach B.J. Anderson had followed Sumlin to A&M from Houston and his ties to East Texas enabled him to help flip four star Edward Pope from TCU to the Aggies.

Strong's last Louisville team did not have a single Texan on the roster and most of his ties (as well as those of his current staff) are in Florida. While it's true that great recruiters can operate anywhere, getting to know the high school coaches and the kids themselves is important. Sumlin was able a shortcut with his hires; it's going to be unlikely that Strong will be able to do the same. That doesn't mean that Strong won't be able to flip someone from A&M but it will just take more effort to do so.

Third, you win with front seven play…and more specifically front four play…in college football. That means that you need to have an elite recruiter at the defensive line coach position. Sumlin has Terry Price who played at A&M and was a top notch recruiter at Ole Miss and Auburn. Since his arrival, Price has helped to bring in talent such as Isaiah Golden, Justin Manning, Qualen Cunningham, Myles Garrett, and Daylon Mack. Back during the best days of R.C. Slocum's tenure in the late 1980's and 1990's, the Aggies had Greg Mattison and then Bill Johnson who provided A&M with NFL talent such as Eric England, Sam Adams, Brandon Mitchell, Ron Edwards, and Rocky Bernard. As of right now, Strong is unable to bring Louisville defensive line coach Clint Hurtt with him (who helped flip quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from Miami to the Cardinal) due to a show cause order stemming from sanctions levied from Hurtt's time at Miami. Hurtt was probably Louisville's best recruiter and so it will be interesting to see who Strong can obtain for the position.

Fourth, front seven recruiting within the state of Texas has changed over time with the popularity of the spread offense. It seems like that there are fewer defensive linemen and linebackers in the state as opposed to previous decades. It puts a premium on being able to obtain the best prospects at those positions because there's not as many of them and the team that doesn't get them is at a real disadvantage.

Fifth, there are other elements at work that are out of Strong's control. A&M is now in the SEC which is considered to be the most desirable conference in the country to play in. It provided a real boost to A&M's recruiting within the state of Texas virtually from the moment the move was announced and it opened up new areas in the Southeast for A&M. It also meant that SEC schools could now make sizeable inroads into Texas which they hadn't done before except for an adjoining program like LSU.

In addition, A&M also opened play in the SEC by finishing in the top five nationally and having a charismatic Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. Those elements boosted A&M's appeal as well. While Strong has ties to Florida, he doesn't have A&M's ability to go into SEC country like Texas does and compete with those programs for players because A&M plays games in those states. In addition, going into Florida means going head to head with schools that are in state or in much closer proximity to the state such as Florida, national champion Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama, all of whom play games there on an annual basis.

Sixth, coaches that win right away get a recruiting boost; those that don't struggle because nothing provides credibility like winning. Strong needs to equal or improve on Texas' eight win total from 2013 which included beating Oklahoma. Sumlin won 11 games in his first season which stood out in stark contrast to predecessors Dennis Franchione and Mike Sherman; neither ever really recovered from losing seasons in their initial campaigns.

Finally, although there have been stretches where one program dominated the other in recruiting for a decade or so, there's been other periods when things were relatively equal. The 1970's and early 1980's were such a time as were the mid to late 1990's. Whether or not the battle between Kevin Sumlin and Charlie Strong becomes one sided in favor of one program or another probably has yet to be determined. Nonetheless, given Sumlin's personality, tactical acumen, and the start to his career on the field, it's unlikely that A&M fans are looking a repeat of Mack Brown's tenure and that in and of itself is an improvement.


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