Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will get a strong indicator on Saturday for whether or not his decisions regarding uber-talented-yet-troublesome QB Johnny Manziel have paid off.
Sumlin – and the entire athletic department, really – kept wild-child Manziel in school after an arrest during his true freshman year. He rewarded them in a big way in 2012, carrying the Aggies to an 11-2 record on his way to the Heisman Trophy.
The impact carried far beyond one routine football season. Manziel’s enormous campaign coincided with A&M’s move from the Big 12 to the SEC. It gave the Aggies immediate credibility in the nation’s toughest league and, more importantly, allowed an unmistakable escape from Texas’ shadow – which marked one of the primary reasons A&M wanted out of the Big 12.
Manziel, who had already proven he needed no help finding trouble, turned into a rock star in a way perhaps no college football player in the social media era has.
Attention followed. ESPN tracked his every move. Manziel started showing up on TMZ.com and at sporting events all over the country.
By the time allegations broke about Johnny Manziel accepting payments in exchange for autographs, Johnny Fatigue had already taken affect. The ensuing stories only further solidified the poor standing of a 20-year-old acting like an immature 20-year-old (shocking) with a general public that doesn’t routinely shout “Gig ‘Em.”
One thing the 24-hour news cycle ensures is that no big story can avoid overexposure. Manziel’s case became the highest-profile situation in college football while media attention was moving toward the sport anyway. Media outlets – from newspapers to Deadspin – rushed to investigate the entire Manziel bloodline to find out how much money the family really had.
In many ways, Manziel – an over-privileged, rich 20-year-old who had no reason until now to grow up – is a victim of circumstance. He seems to be the product of a system – which extends far beyond Texas A&M – that never told him “no.”
A&M fell into the same trap during the offseason.
Coaches and/or academic counselors signed off on allowing Manziel to take all online courses because fellow students’ admiration prevented the Heisman winner from focusing in the classroom. College GameDay’s Chris Fowler said on the first show of the season that A&M sent Manziel out to meet with potential donors. At some point, the university on the whole lost any ability to say “no” to Manziel even if it wanted to do so.
Even Manziel’s father, Paul Manziel, realized the situation was spiraling out of control when he essentially begged for someone – anyone – to rein in his son.
Those pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears.
Manziel stayed off the police blotter – including after miniscule confrontations such as the one at the University of Texas frat house. His name did surface in the NCAA investigation, but nothing ultimately came of it – possibly only because the autograph brokers who spoke to ESPN wouldn’t speak to the NCAA.
Johnny Football, meet Johnny Teflon.
At any point, Sumlin could have nipped in the bud some of Manziel’s especially out-of-control behavior that attracted negative publicity for both the quarterback and the university.
Instead, Sumlin and the entire athletic department – at least publicly – stood by and said nothing.
Every time Manziel pushed the envelope, the only “no” he got came from the question: “Is anyone going to say anything?”
It finally boiled over in the season opener against Rice. After Manziel served an absurd one-half suspension because – essentially – he should have known better than to sign autographs for people who would then profit from them, he entered the game to a raucous crowd.
Manziel did what Manziel does. He took the huddle, electrified the crowd with his exciting play and led A&M to the end-zone.
Rice talked trash to Manziel the way DeShawn Stevenson famously did to LeBron James – in a desperate attempt to agitate him into uncharacteristic struggles. The strategy didn’t work, but it did get Manziel to chirp back.
Manziel famously mocked signing his autograph to Rice players, telling them he wouldn’t sign for them. He also talked enough trash to warrant a taunting penalty after throwing his final TD pass of the day.
Cameras caught a clearly livid Sumlin dressing down his quarterback on the way back to the sideline. The second-year coach also decided to finally send a message.
With A&M leading a hopelessly overmatched opponent 52-28 in the fourth quarter, Sumlin pulled Manziel. Sumlin then talked big about disciplining his quarterback in a post-game interview, saying Manziel wouldn’t have played regardless of score – an easy thing to say when you lead 52-28.
Who knows what awaits Manziel on Saturday when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama, which lost to A&M last year in the game that put Manziel out front as a Heisman favorite.
In a win-at-all-costs society for football coaches, it’s hard to blame Sumlin for choosing to do everything he can to not discipline his superstar.
For the Aggies to have any chance of winning the SEC – for them to have any chance of beating Alabama – they need No. 2 in the game.
The problem is Sumlin has gambled the soul of his program. It again pays off if Manziel – as he has proven capable of doing time and again – comes up big with the most money on the table.
Underneath the surface, though, lies a potentially cancerous issue wherein one player can be bigger than the program in general.
That’s the education Johnny Manziel has received at Texas A&M. The gamble could come up huge on Saturday. It could also create a no-rules mentality within a program seemingly on the verge of greatness.