COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Kevin Sumlin opened the door to his office earlier this month and smiled.
"You like how I've decorated?" he asked.
But for one, every shelf was bare. The lone occupied shelf contained one item: a houndstooth hat.
The hat is a nod to the conference Sumlin and Texas A&M will enter together. It's also a reminder of the challenge the Aggies face. They just dove headfirst into the shark tank that has produced the past six national champions. They'll play in the tougher of the SEC's two divisions -- the one that likely will start the season with three top-five teams. They went 7-6 last season, and Sumlin knows that in Texas A&M's new home, that kind of mediocrity might not be good enough for fifth place in the West.
But Sumlin isn't scared. He came by that hat honestly. Every finalist for the Paul Bryant Coach of the Year Award receives one. "So I've got a couple of those," Sumlin said.
Sumlin slipped in this bit of information so matter-of-factly that it almost passed unnoticed. Upon further review, it was less boast than affirmation. Sumlin gets it. He knows he has volunteered to climb college football's tallest mountain, but he did not arrive at base camp unequipped.
The Aggies start spring practice Saturday. They'll be the last of the 14 SEC teams to buckle chinstraps, and that is part of Sumlin's design. Instead of kicking off his four-man quarterback competition early or giving defensive coordinator Mark Snyder a head start on installing his scheme, Sumlin wanted his players to get to know strength coach Larry Jackson intimately. Jackson, a former Aggies linebacker, worked with Sumlin when both men were at Texas A&M in the early 2000s under R.C. Slocum. A year after Sumlin went to Oklahoma, Jackson got hired as an assistant strength coach in Norman. When Sumlin left Oklahoma to become the head coach at Houston, Jackson went with him to run the strength program. By giving Jackson eight full weeks to work, Sumlin could be sure his new players understood the culture of his program before they ever ran a play. That would provide a stronger foundation.
It also might help cut down on the choking.
"I just thought it was more important that our strength and conditioning coach had more time with them," Sumlin said. "If you go back and look at the results of last season, to be ahead in five of the six losses at halftime, you would have to put your head in the sand to not say strength and conditioning had to be a factor."
In consecutive weeks last season, Texas A&M dominated Oklahoma State and Arkansas in the first half and gagged away the game in the second half. Those two teams finished in the top five. Had the Aggies closed out those games, Sumlin wouldn't be sitting in a sparsely decorated office; Mike Sherman would be sitting in a fully decorated one. Sumlin might still be at Houston, where he had swatted away job offers like King Kong until Texas A&M opened.
So why did Sumlin choose this job despite the Aggies' impending upgrade in competition? "You've got a lot of tradition here," Sumlin said. "Anybody that's ever been in that stadium on gameday understands that. It's a unique place. Location for me was key, too. A lot of places, if I'd have gone there, I'd have been flying right back to Texas and trying to convince kids to go 600, 800 miles to play."
As transitions go, this was about as seamless as it gets. Sumlin didn't jump in on a bunch of players he didn't know. He had tried to recruit all the same players at Houston, with varying degrees of success. Heck, he even got one of them. Senior linebacker Sean Porter committed to the Cougars when Sumlin was in Houston. "For about four days," Sumlin cracked. Sumlin didn't have to forge new relationships with high school coaches. He'll fish from the same pond he fished in at Houston. He's just using more expensive bait now.
The SEC -- daunting though the schedule may be -- is one of the lures Sumlin has cast to prospects. He pointed to the SEC logo on the sleeve of the Texas A&M shirt he wore as an example of the aggressive rebranding. "We went with it right away," he said. He believes recruits responded. For years, the best Texas players had to leave the state if they wanted to play anywhere but the Big 12. Now, they have options. "I think [the SEC] opened some doors for us, and it kind of separated us and gave us a different view for a kid," Sumlin said. "Now, in the state, you've got the Big 12, you've got the Big East and you've got the SEC. It gave us a different brand."
The SEC also offers a new set of challenges. In recent years, the only place more difficult to win than the Big 12 has been the SEC West. As an added bonus, the Aggies' welcome-to-the-league-basket included a schedule that has them going to Auburn, Starkville and Tuscaloosa in consecutive weeks -- and that's immediately after LSU visits Kyle Field. Which brings us to the question Sumlin has gotten practically every day since he took the job: Are you really going to throw 50 times a game in the SEC West?
As tired as Sumlin is of this question, he still finds it a little funny. "We do," he said, "what we do." That doesn't mean Sumlin plans to hopelessly chuck the ball just because his offense averaged 48.5 passes compared to 31.5 rushes per game in four seasons at Houston. He'll do what works given the talent on his team and the talent of the opposition. When Sumlin was the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, the Sooners weren't nearly so pass-happy. With converted receiver Paul Thompson at quarterback in 2006 and a young Sam Bradford taking snaps in 2007, Oklahoma averaged 26.4 passes and 40.3 runs per game. But with Case Keenum at quarterback in Conference USA, it made sense to air it out more.
Before Sumlin can predict how his offense will look, he needs to choose a quarterback. That could take a while, considering the Aggies have four options. The players aren't unfamiliar to Sumlin. Early enrollee Matt Davis is the only Sumlin signee in the mix, but Sumlin offered scholarships to 2011 backup Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel while at Houston. Johnny Manziel, a dual-threat signal caller who was once committed to Oregon, was well known to anyone who recruited in Texas.
Of course, like most offensive gurus, Sumlin's success will depend on the quality of his defensive coordinator. Remember, Urban Meyer won two national titles at Florida running a spread option based on single-wing principles, but the Gators wouldn't have won either of those titles without the ferocious defenses led by Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong. Sumlin will have to hope Snyder, who made his bones at Ohio State before a four-year stint as Marshall's head coach, can cultivate a unit that can get Sumlin the ball back. Because if the Aggies can't play defense, they won't stand a chance in the SEC.
Sumlin considers it lucky that he got to watch the Aggies practice for their bowl game after his hiring. Because Texas A&M was so veteran-heavy last year, game tapes wouldn't have helped much in determining who could play in 2012. "It was more of an advantage than game video because a lot of guys that were playing were leaving," Sumlin said. "You were able to watch practice and watch a bunch of guys that may or may not have been in primary roles. You get a pretty decent feel for what you've got."
Would Sumlin love a year with outgoing quarterback Ryan Tannehill? Absolutely, but he also sees the benefits of plugging younger players into a new system. "You can kind of mold a guy in an offense," Sumlin said. "Sometimes, when you get into a situation with a fourth- or fifth-year guy, he can reject you. He might disagree."
Then Sumlin paused.
"Obviously, I'm more of a glass-half-full guy," he said.
He'll have to be. Because after trading for a bigger glass, the Aggies are even farther from the rim.