The University of Houston Magazine


First-Year Coach Leads Team to First Bowl Win in 28 Years

by Richard Bonnin

Midway into his first season as head football coach of the University of Houston Cougars, Kevin Sumlin was at a crossroads. His team’s record was a disappointing one win and three losses—several levels short of fulfilling the lofty penthouse aspirations for the program.

The first African American head football coach in the Cougars’ sixty-year history, Sumlin faced what some believed to be a make-or-break situation as his young squad was deemed a double-digit underdog to 23rd-ranked Conference USA power East Carolina in the season’s fifth game.

Doubts were beginning to surface on Internet message boards, sports radio call-in shows, and among some members of the media and fans.

Sumlin, whom Athletics Director Dave Maggard hired away from the Oklahoma Sooners with only three weeks left in the recruiting season, insists he never lost confidence in his team, his staff, or in his ability to lead.

“We went through some really tough times,” including close losses and four consecutive road games because of Hurricane Ike, he says in a firm, but soft-spoken voice. “That we were able to bounce back from a difficult start is a credit to our kids and our staff. They held together and, as it turns out, the three teams we lost to wound up being pretty good. So, I really thought we were on the right track. That became evident as we almost put ourselves in a position to play for a conference championship.”

Houston’s 41–24 upset of East Carolina was the Cougars’ first road win over a ranked opponent in twenty-four years. Coupled with their 70–30 victory over 24th-ranked Tulsa in November, it marked the first time since 1984 that Houston defeated two ranked teams in the same season.

Sumlin became the first UH coach in twenty-eight years to lead his team to a bowl victory, as Houston defeated Air Force 34–28 in the Armed Forces Bowl. With eight victories, Sumlin recorded the most wins by a first-year head coach in UH history.

“We had some good things happen last year,” he says. “But, we had some not-so-good things happen, too. We start every year with a goal to win the West (division in Conference USA). We didn’t accomplish our primary goal, so that gives us an attitude and an edge as we get back to work in preparation for next year.”

Tucked away in his office on the second floor of the Athletics/Alumni Center, the 44-year-old Sumlin laughs easily and often in discussing topics that stretch far beyond the football field.

As he answers one probing question after another, his ability to focus is evident despite a constantly ringing phone and a steady trail of visitors.

“You’ve got a good one in Kevin Sumlin,” says Tom Dienhart of, considered by many to be the nation’s No. 1 authority on college football. “The challenge will be in keeping him at UH. He’s going to succeed, and that will mean a lot of schools will be interested in talking to him.”

Sumlin, a former stellar linebacker at Purdue University, says he doesn’t worry about things beyond his control.

“I try to let my performance address the minority hiring issue,” he says. “Any success that I have can only help the situation and, hopefully, create opportunities for others.”

“If five years from now people are saying we’ve graduated players at a high rate, that we’re one of the top programs in our league year in and year out, and that we’ve had a ton of success in recruiting in-state kids—particularly those in the Greater Houston area—then everything else will take care of itself,” he says.

As a national debate continues over the NCAA’s hiring practices—only seven of 120 teams in the Bowl Subdivision have African American head coaches—Sumlin knows the best statement he can make on the topic is to win.

“I try to let my performance address the minority hiring issue,” he says. “Any success that I have can only help the situation and, hopefully, create opportunities for others. The reality is, whether you’re black, white, or whatever, in college football today, either you win games, or you get fired.”

To deal with the pressures, Sumlin turns to his family for support.

“My wife (Charlene) is great,” he says. “That’s the key. We’ve got four kids, and they are involved in a million things. She keeps everything running smoothly.”

“I’m well aware of the time I have to put in here, and I love what I do. But, I’m very fortunate in that I’m in a situation where I can start my mornings by getting my kids up each day, having breakfast with them, and taking them to school. I truly enjoy hanging out with my kids.”

Sumlin counts golf and reading biographies among his off-the-field passions.

“I read quite a lot about how people throughout history have dealt with, and overcome, difficult challenges, particularly in times of crisis,” he says.

To share that message with his players, Sumlin keeps a sign in the team’s locker room that says, “No excuses.”

“The reason I coach college football and not professional football is that I really enjoy what happens between 18 and 23. It’s a life-changing time for young men, and we have a direct impact on that. We have a slogan around here: ‘You don’t have to be THE man, you need to be A man.’ That’s all we want. To be a man encompasses a lot.”

Cougars Fulfill High Expectations

by Richard Bonnin



Fueled by a desire to “be the team that broke that record,” Houston freshman running back Bryce Beall helped the Cougars end a nearly thirty-year postseason winless drought by scampering for 135 yards and a score in UH’s 34–28 victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl game played in December.

“That wasn’t a streak we were happy with,” says senior linebacker Phillip Hunt, who in his fourth consecutive bowl finally got to celebrate. “It is good to set a winning tradition here. Hopefully our young guys will come along and keep it up.”


After winning the Conference USA Tournament Championship in 2008, the University of Houston baseball team returns in 2009 with high expectations. UH put together a thrilling comeback at the Conference Tournament that included playing its way through the losers’ bracket to defeat Marshall 3–2 to take home the title and advance to the 18th NCAA Regional appearance in school history. Joining the Cougars this season are twelve newcomers that will be looked upon to make an immediate impact.

Community Involvement

Off the field, UH’s Robert Ramos, a freshman who has performed more than 200 hours of community service over the past year, received the 2008 National Major League Baseball (MLB) S.T.A.R. Award.

The program recognizes Boys & Girls Clubs of America members, ages 10 to 18, who lead by example and demonstrate the positive behaviors of sportsmanship, team spirit, achievement, and responsibility.

“I believe diversity should be celebrated in my city, and it starts with me,” he says. “Every time I do community service, I know it makes a difference in at least one person’s life. It makes me feel good to help others work toward a brighter future, and this will be a part of my lifelong mission.”

UH Bowl Game