August 5, 2013

Coach Kevin Sumlin must be Texas A&M’s rock in Manziel memorabilia mess

The Aggies must decide whether to sit their star QB rather than risk future forfeits if his eligibility remains clouded.

It’s a good thing Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin received that postseason raise, bumping his annual salary to $3.1 million.

He’s about to earn every penny of it while figuring out the best way to defuse a potential powder keg that could derail the Aggies’ national title hopes before the Aug. 31 opener against Rice.

At some point, barring a speedy NCAA dispensation of Sunday’s allegations that could take away the eligibility of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, Sumlin will have to decide if the Aggies are better off removing their star quarterback from the lineup, rather than risking a future forfeit, if Manziel’s eligibility remains clouded heading into the season opener.

As of Monday, before the Aggies’ first practice of camp, Sumlin said only that “a lot of people” would be involved in making such a decision, if necessary. But the primary burden will fall on Sumlin. And he’s not likely to get much clarity in the next month from NCAA investigators who are looking into an ESPN report that Manziel accepted thousands of dollars for signing memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules.

“You’re reaction is one of, ‘OK, let’s find out the facts,’” said Sumlin, adding that the football program learned of the Manziel-related allegations Sunday, when ESPN aired its report. “Until we have the facts, your reaction is not important.”

Once the facts are known, Sumlin’s reaction will be crucial in attempts to keep A&M focused on its BCS title hopes and its Sept. 14 showdown in College Station against Alabama, the two-time defending national champion. For now, Sumlin remains in the fact-finding mode. He said he met Monday with Manziel to discuss the issue.

The two huddled against a backdrop of grief-stricken players who will travel Saturday to attend the funeral of defensive end Polo Manukainiu, a Euless Trinity graduate who died in a July 29 car wreck.

A&M safety Toney Hurd Jr. said Sumlin, who showed remarkable poise and grace during Monday’s news conference, is the ideal guy to help the Aggies through their ongoing emotional crises.

“Coach Sumlin is a warrior. He’ll definitely have the troops ready,” Hurd said. “Throughout each and every incident, he finds a way to rally his troops and keep us focused on the goal at hand. No matter if it’s something going on with ESPN or something as tragic as Polo. He finds a way to keep us focused and keep us honed in on the goal we have.”

Once the Aggies pay their respects to Manukainiu, a well-liked teammate who drew fond reflections Monday from players and coaches, the Manziel issue will still be there. Sumlin said both issues “could be” distractions, if players allow them to be, but coaches will work hard to prevent that from happening.

The bigger challenge for Sumlin will be how to handle Manziel. The sophomore has generated lots of less-than-flattering headlines in recent months with his off-field activities, but had not done anything that put the entire team in an adverse situation until Sunday’s allegations surfaced.

Now, there is a chance the Aggies’ team leader will not be there when he is needed most: Sept. 14, against Alabama, and in other season-defining games this season. Manziel, the player who helped create national title hopes for this program, may erase them if he winds up serving a lengthy suspension for the memorabilia mess.

Although the NCAA has been all over the map in handing out recent penalties, a logical comparison would be the five-game suspensions given to Ohio State players who traded memorabilia for tattoos and other considerations in 2011. In 2010, Georgia receiver A.J. Green drew a four-game suspension for selling his bowl jersey for $1,000.

But can the NCAA prove the allegations against Manziel? If it can, you can bet the Aggies’ star quarterback will draw a suspension similar to those. That would mean missing the Alabama game.

If it cannot, Manziel might play an entire season under a cloud of suspicion, like Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in 2010, and lead his team to a national championship in the process.

It is worth noting that A&M has hired the same Birmingham, Ala., law firm that Auburn used in 2010 to help Newton remain eligible that season.

Just know that if Manziel is sidelined, the Aggies’ only other quarterback who has played in a game — Matt Joeckel, from Arlington High School — has thrown 11 passes in his college career. For now, the Aggies are rallying around Manziel.

“Johnny is our quarterback. Until I’m told differently by coach Sumlin, we’re going to proceed like Johnny is our quarterback,” offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said.

Running back Ben Malena said: “With our team, it starts with him. He’s our starting quarterback. He still has all the leadership qualities he displayed last year. All the off-the-field issues, it doesn’t bother us one bit.”

Soon, however, it might bother them greatly. And that is when Sumlin will really start earning the big raise he received in the off-season.

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