It is too bad that Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin, a linebacker during his playing days at Purdue, has no remaining eligibility to offer the folks in Aggieland.
His spirited defense of his quarterback and his program during Tuesday’s news conference marked the strongest resistance offered this season by anyone in maroon. If A&M defenders follow Sumlin’s lead Saturday, they’ll hold Sam Houston State to less than the 509 yards amassed by Rice during No. 7 A&M’s season-opening, 52-31 victory.
Sumlin fired back Tuesday at college football analysts who accused quarterback Johnny Manziel of ignoring his coach during a fourth-quarter sideline exchange. Outsiders also raised questions about the internal discipline of a program that had eight players miss all or part of the Rice game while serving suspensions.
After initially saying he was “shocked” by the national narrative about A&M, driven primarily by ESPN analysts who viewed Manziel’s action as a show of disrespect toward Sumlin, the coach took back that word.
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“I’m not shocked by anything anymore,” Sumlin said. “People want to make a story out of anything that happens on this team right now. But of all the things there is to talk about in this program, of all the things you want to make an issue about, that is probably the last thing that needs to be talked about.”
But it is the national buzz, with ESPN analysts Mark May and Matt Millen — among legions of others — espousing opinions Sunday that Manziel displayed his selfish side when he bumped into, then walked past, Sumlin on the sideline after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Sumlin told a much different version Tuesday, saying he greeted the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner with some strong words and Manziel was wise to remain silent.
“When he came off the field, I made two statements to him; neither one of which should he have responded to,” said Sumlin, who benched Manziel after the penalty. “They weren’t questions. They were direct statements that I can’t repeat right now.
“What’s amazing to me is the perception that he ignored me. The worst thing that could have happened was for him to reply. So for people to say, ‘He’s not listening to his coach and there’s no discipline on this team,’ they’re not around this football team. A lot of people who have made statements about that weren’t anywhere near that sideline.”
Sumlin was. And Tuesday, he offered his rejoinder to May, who described Manziel as “a very selfish player” who acted like “a 6-year-old … not getting his favorite toy” in a season debut marked by hand gestures toward opponents and the sideline encounter with Sumlin.
Chances are good that Sumlin’s explanation will not move the popularity needle in a positive direction for Manziel, college football’s most polarizing player, unless you already were supporting him. Neither will the testimony of teammates who clarified Manziel’s “cashing out” hand gesture as something players have used in celebrations the past two seasons to show they are reaping the rewards of their time investment.
Without question, Manziel must start controlling his on-field emotions better than he did against Rice. His yapping and hand gestures made him an easy target for the Owls to goad into a 15-yard-penalty that could prove costly in a matchup against top-ranked Alabama. Sumlin delivered that message Monday to his fiery sophomore, who will start Saturday against Sam Houston State (6 p.m., Kyle Field).
“He plays with a lot of emotion and a lot of passion. That’s what separates Johnny from a lot of other players,” Sumlin said. “Because of that, he gets in a gray area. It’s our job as coaches to keep that passion and energy going but make it positive. Is it a challenge at times? You bet, it’s a challenge.”
Manziel, who did not attend Tuesday’s news conference, must do his part to meet that challenge. And a big part of that is improving his body language on the field. Regardless of how Sumlin described their sideline encounter in the Rice game, the exchange did not look good to former A&M coach Jackie Sherrill.
“What happened on the sideline, as a former coach, you just don’t want to see that happen,” Sherrill said in an interview with KZNE/1150 AM in College Station. “It happens. And it happens to everybody. It’s not an isolated case. Now, if it happens again, then you have a different opinion.”
Manziel would be well-served to get his emotions under better control in future games. Sumlin rode to his defense Tuesday, yet again, while school officials chose for Manziel to remain silent. So did running back Ben Malena, noting that “what is perceived from the outside world, nine times out of 10, is a complete [opposite] from the team perspective” when it comes to Manziel.
But a game-losing penalty, or ejection, on Sept. 14 against Alabama would be difficult for even the most ardent fan of Johnny Football to swallow. Or even worse, a teammate.