If Johnny Manziel Sits, All Eyes Will Be On Kevin Sumlin

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Along the back wall at Barnes & Noble in the Texas A&M Memorial Student Center you can find six to eight wracks of athletic merchandise with the No. 2 plastered on it. It would be against NCAA rules to actually put “Manziel” anywhere on the t-shirts and jerseys, but the nameless Adidas threads still range from $20 to $65.

The athletic department generated more than $119 million in revenue last season, when Manziel was raising eyebrows on the football field instead of away from it. That’s why the student center book store had cotton No. 2 t-shirts priced at $20.00, polyester Ts for $31.98, and the maroon and white No. 2 jerseys hitting for $64.98.

This speaks to the heart of the controversy surrounding Manziel – reports that he took a five-figure payment in exchange for autographing multiple items at the BCS title game in January. Such a gesture could cost him his eligibility, as it is prohibited by the NCAA rules through its ideological framework of amateurism.

If the Ed O’Bannon antitrust lawsuit rules in favor of the players, this manufactured outrage over a kid getting paid to be cool, marketable and talented will dissipate. 

There were no such items at the book store, however, for second-year Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin. He has a bright future ahead of him, but not the cache of Mack Brown at Texas, Nick Saban at Alabama, or even Les Miles at LSU.

Sumlin won’t know how the 12th Man really feels about him until next year, when Johnny Football likely dips for the NFL.

A quick survey of the student center on Tuesday indicated that, while A&M fans seem to be high on Sumlin early, all of the excitement and controversy surrounding Manziel hasn’t provided a lot of spare attention for a fair evaluation of the coach.

Sumlin just so happened to share his debut year with a quarterback who provided one of the most electric college football seasons of all time. Questions about Sumlin’s “gimmick” offense, and commitment to A&M are still there.

And if the right NFL opportunity came around in the next few years, who knows?

The thing is they like Sumlin in College Station, especially the ones who were around when Mike Sherman was head coach. The appreciation there for Sumlin’s passion for A&M football, as opposed to Sherman, can’t be overstated. Manziel and Sumlin are both historic; one for the Heisman Trophy and the other as the program’s first black head coach who produced in his first season. But other than when answering questions about his rock-star, increasingly embattled QB or his control over the program, Sumlin is increasingly operating in the margins, these days. This is wrong.

Nothing appeared to go wrong on Sumlin’s watch until the offseason’s Money Manziel Tour. As recent as Monday, as the sign-for-pay reports surfaced, Sumlin played it cool, declining to discuss the matter before the university gathers its own information.

Sumlin is a breath of fresh air to the folks in College Station, but, beyond that, they don’t really have much to say about him. A class of 2011 alum I talked to said he thought not having much of an opinion on Sumlin was a good thing, because it meant “he hadn’t done anything stupid.” That same alum mentioned Sumlin’s passion, and that he felt the coach viewed A&M as an opportunity – something he said works for both sides, given their position.

The few students toughing it out in the last week of summer school post at the usual Northgate District hangouts like Antonio’s Pizza, The Corner, and Fitzwillies. Some of them are making light of the allegations against Manziel, playfully asking “how much you think Johnny would charge for (signing) this?” But they also question why he would risk his eligibility if his family is already loaded.

At Texas A&M, Manziel is the unmistakable “big man on campus,” but nothing and no one at any point supersedes the Aggie legacy. They were prideful in College Station when they played the little brother role to Texas in the Big 12 and Southwest Conference. It will remain that way regardless of whether they maintain their success in the SEC, or if it’s up and down. Few of the students feel like Manziel is embarrassing the program, but that’s been a subject on local sports radio stations amongst the older crowd. Like a lot of fans, the focus is on the field. There isn’t so much moral outrage on campus, as much as concern of Manziel missing the ‘Bama game. To that point, do they have faith in Sumlin to keep everything intact? No one seems to have even considered that at some stage in the season, it would just be Sumlin and the guys.  

The suggestion that A&M might have to seriously consider contingency plans at quarterback seemed to bother the head coach at Monday’s press conference. That’s because the moment Manziel stops playing, all eyes are on him. That might not be fun. Maybe life in the periphery isn’t that bad.