The college football coaching carousel is still spinning Kevin Sumlin away from the University of Houston, but it just might drop the coveted coach in a surprise location.
Illinois now believes it has a chance to steal Sumlin away from Texas A&M, two Big Ten sources told CultureMap Tuesday night. The Chicago Tribune first reported that Illinois targeted Sumlin as its No. 1 choice to rescue a program that's struggled to get into the national conversation.
Still, it seemed unlikely that the Fighting Illini would be able to beat out the Aggies in a bid for Sumlin's services. But Big Ten insiders tell CultureMap that Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas believes he and the Illini are still very much in the game.
"Illinois doesn't think Sumlin's using them to pressure A&M and get a better deal," a Big Ten source told CultureMap. "They think they have a real shot at him."
Illinois' full-court-press courtship of Sumlin is adding some unexpected intrigue.
Even as Illinois emerges as a darkhorse, the Houston Chronicle is reporting that Texas A&M interviewed Air Force coach Troy Calhoun on Tuesday. Which begs the question: Does the A&M administration think it could lose out on Sumlin so it's lining up Plan Bs, or is it just doing its due diligence?
It'd still be something of an upset for Sumlin to choose Illinois, a program that's finished over .500 just six times in the last 20 years, over SEC-bound Texas A&M, one of the really sleeping giant programs in the country. As quickly as things move in these major coaching searches, Sumlin could still end up getting introduced as the Aggies next coach on Wednesday. But Illinois' full-court-press courtship is adding some unexpected intrigue.
If the Aggies don't move quickly, they could end having to search elsewhere for their next coach.
Even as all this plays out, the Big East is preparing to announce that Houston will be joining its desperately rebuilding conference on Wednesday. Everyone knew this move was coming (CultureMap wrote about it back on Oct. 18). But it makes for a surreal set of circumstances nonetheless.
UH could very well find itself throwing a joining the Big East party even as much of its fan base laments the loss of the coach who led the program to a 35-17 record over the last four years. Nothing like releasing more of those red and white balloons when everyone wants to cry.
Appearing on 790 AM's pregame show before the Conference USA Championship game, Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades promised Cougar fans that the school would do everything possible to keep Sumlin. But it's been awfully quiet of any sign that Sumlin is committed to staying since then.
Instead, the questions swirl around where Sumlin will go rather than if he'll go.
The 47-year-old Sumlin appears to be a natural fit for Texas A&M. He has obviously strong ties in Houston, one of the country's recruiting hotbeds. He runs a wide-open, creative offense — and the Aggies could need a gimmick or six to establish themselves quickly in the SEC. He's been an assistant at A&M in the past, he knows what College Station is all about. And he's also built a reputation for being a charismatic, enthusiastic salesman for a program out in the community.
UH could very well find itself throwing a joining the Big East party even as much of its fan base laments the loss of its coach.
But Sumlin also has stronger Big Ten ties than most people seem to realize. He played his college ball at Purdue, going from a walk-on to a two-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten linebacker. He also later coached as an assistant for the Boilermakers. He's from Indianapolis and knows the Chicago market that Illinois needs to make huge recruiting strides in to be successful.
The Illini also showed back channel interest in Sumlin a few years ago, before he was as hot of a name as is he is now. Will that resonate?
Sumlin would have a good idea — one way or the other — if he thinks he could win big at Illinois, a spot where he'd also be under less initial win-now pressure than he would at Texas A&M.
Still . . . Illinois over Texas A&M? The Aggies surely cannot lose this one. Can they?