HOOVER, Ala. — If Kevin Sumlin feels any pressure to save his job in 2017, he didn’t show it at SEC Media Days.
Sumlin enters the 2017 season with a cloud of doubt hanging over him, one that came from his own athletic director Scott Woodward, who publicly said in May that Sumlin “has to win this year.”
The sixth-year head coach maintains the expectations he had from Day 1 in College Station have remained the same: Win, and win often.
“Listen, the pressure I'm feeling is the same pressure I feel all of the time,” Sumlin said at SEC Media Days. “And so nobody puts more pressure on me than me. … It never changed from the first day I got here when we opened with Florida and lost and then went on to win however many games we won or whatever happens.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore Texas A&M’s seeming inability to maintain sustained success over the course of a season — and talk of Sumlin on the hot seat. Over the last three years, Sumlin’s Aggies have started the season with at least a 5-0 record (6-0 in 2014), climbing as high as No. 6 in 2014, No. 14 in 2015 and No. 8 in 2016.
Those runs ended with a 48-31 loss to No. 12 Mississippi State, a 41-23 loss to No. 10 Alabama and a 33-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, respectively. They finished those seasons a combined 8-15.
That’s certainly not good enough for the Aggies again in 2017, who join the rest of the SEC in trying to close the gap — or at least keep up with — Alabama, which has won 17 consecutive conference games and three consecutive SEC titles.
One thing Sumlin hopes to emulate from those Alabama teams is mental toughness: the ability to to get hit in the mouth and not stand by as the season unravels. Sumlin has brought in new strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke to help in that regard, and has talked to his veteran leadership about finishing the season strong.
But Sumlin can only do so much, as his players know all too well. Junior wide receiver Christian Kirk, a leader for this A&M offense in 2017, said as much at media days.
“Coach Sumlin doesn’t go out there on Saturdays. That’s up to us,” Kirk said. “And we’ve got to go out and win. We’ve got to win. That’s up to us as players. We’ve got to take that upon us and go out and win games. That’s our main focus.”
That’s not to say the players are playing for Sumlin’s job. Kirk, offensive tackle Koda Martin and defensive back Armani Watts, Texas A&M’s representatives at SEC Media Days, all said they don’t trouble themselves with things outside their control. All they’re worried about is doing their job.
“We just do our best not to worry about that,” Martin said. “That’s not our concern. Our concern is, we’ve got this saying, ‘It’s about us.’ ”
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Sumlin later acknowledged he and Woodward have since talked since the latter made his comments.
As with the media, Sumlin said no one has a higher expectation of winning than himself. It’s something he has carried with him back when he first got into coaching at Wyoming 26 years ago.
“I had a red little Fiero,” Sumlin said. “Remember those things? You don't remember them. Where they caught fire in the back and all that other stuff. There was just as much pressure then as there is now.”
That may be true, but if Sumlin doesn’t do something to change the culture at Texas A&M, that little red Fiero won’t be the only thing that bursts into flames this season.