Wednesday, September 4, 2013
College Station’s Most Interesting Man
Like most college football programs, Texas A&M opened its 2013 season Saturday. Like most big programs, the Aggies began the season with an undermatched opponent, in this case the Rice Owls, who competed commendably for a few quarters before falling to the Aggies in the second half. But unlike any other program, A&M features defending Heisman Trophy winner and attention magnet Johnny Manziel.
Before the opening kickoff, much of the national sports media was focused on College Station Saturday, and the events of an otherwise unmemorable game did not disappoint. And yet while a sea of ink, airtime, and server space was devoted to the sport's current object of interest, most of it missed the college football world's most interesting man.
Yeah, yeah, I know. We're supposed to pretend like we care about Johnny Manziel's first half suspension, taunting penalty, and moolah-to-the-heavens hand gestures. But outside of old men pretending to be angry, the defending Heisman winner seems like more of a #yolo satire than an interesting person.
Instead, I find Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin much more interesting. Over the coming seconds, days, and weeks, Sumlin will have to handle Manziel somewhere on the spectrum of "as long as he produces, I don't care" to "I'm cutting bait at the first sign of long-term trouble, and maybe even before that." I hope his tap shoes are broken in.
We already know the NCAA has a Google Alert for "Manziel autograph selling God-forbid-he-makes-anything-off-of-his-own-likeness." And if the faux-procedural punishment-without-evidence is any sign, the Big Blue Circle is just itching to bring the hammer down on someone — anyone — for Manziel's sins. Sumlin's problem is he and A&M will probably be collateral damage in any further Manziel whacking.
This demonstrates the frighteningly misaligned interests of NCAA athlete and NCAA institution and the Preparation H-demanding seat a head coach sits in between them.
Manziel almost certainly won't be the Aggies' starting quarterback on opening day 2014. And baring the most blatant abuse of NCAA rules, it seems unlikely any new judgment against Manziel would be completed during the 2013 season. As far as the NCAA is concerned, Manziel seems untouchable.
Knowing this, Sumlin will have to tread carefully. On one hand, he is coaching a top ten team with a steam engine of momentum behind it. The Aggies' move to the SEC has opened doors for what has been the state's No. 2 program and the recruiting results show it. After beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa and rolling Oklahoma in the bowl season, 2013 is a year of great promise in College Station.
And yet, Sumlin does not have to look very far back in recent history to see how perilously a coach's fate teeters when his star player crosses the NCAA. Ohio State and Jim Tressel saw an unceremonious reversal of fortune in the wake of Terrell Pryor. At some point your wagon is hitched to a player; you cannot help but end up at the same place he does.
What makes Sumlin's situation so interesting is that, unlike Tressel, his star is still only rising above the horizon. As exciting as 2012 was, the Aggies never really challenged in the SEC West and lost twice at home. Had Tressel chosen to throw Pryor to the wolves in Indianapolis, he still would have been the king of the Big Ten. Sumlin needs Manziel to continue building his program, and by proxy, his own reign.
Ah, but there's even more intrigue for the Aggie head coach. His handling of Manziel will be noticed second hand by many important parties. If Sumlin is perceived as being overly harsh with Manziel, it could hurt his standing with recruits. And tacky as it may be, Manziel's Hollywood turn surely appeals to some of A&M's boosters, particularly for a fan base tired of sitting in a burnt orange shadow.
Manziel is exactly the kind of player coaches need to flip mediocre lots, accompanying baggage be damned. Figuring out where to stow those bags on the crowded bandwagon is part of the job.
So let everyone else obsess over Manziel. Enjoy his unbridled athleticism and chuckle at his flamboyance, but don't let anyone tell you the Johnny Football experience is anything but empty calories.
If you're looking for a mental calorie-burner, put yourself in Sumlin's visor. He will have some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks, and because of that, he is College Station's most interesting man in the world.