The Cougars finished 8-5 and ranked No. 2 in offense (563 yards per game) and 10th in scoring (40.6 points per game). Houston won 10 games in 2009, and Sumlin’s name started coming up then in speculation about vacancies at higher-profile locales.
Mack Rhoades, meanwhile, had become Houston’s athletics director in June 2009 and immediately launched efforts to raise funds for a new football stadium and renovations to run-down Hofheinz Pavilion.
The program’s trajectory hit a snag in 2010, when Keenum sustained a season-ending knee injury in the third game. The season collapsed, and the school desperately petitioned the NCAA to get Keenum one more season.
Sumlin called Keenum personally to tell him that the NCAA had granted the request and the Cougars instantly became a favorite to win Conference USA in 2011.
Meanwhile, the school itself began a push toward the Big East, where a Bowl Championship Series would be attached. The school made the official announcement that it was changing leagues on Friday, and Sumlin attended.
The Cougars seemed poised to crash the BCS this year anyway, rolling through their schedule with a video-game offense and one of the nation’s most improved defenses.
Momentum for both Sumlin and the program stalled in the Cougars’ 49-28 loss to Southern Miss in Saturday’s Conference USA championship, a loss that cost Houston its first undefeated season and a chance to play in the BCS.
Afterward, both Sumlin and Rhoades shot down a media report that he would be hired as the next coach at Texas A&M. Rhoades promised to do everything in his power to retain Sumlin, whose contract ran through the 2015 season.
Ultimately, the rumor proved to be true, and Sumlin will be the man to lead the Aggies into their first season in the Southeastern Conference. Houston, meanwhile, will begin its search for Sumlin’s successor, with its own new conference and the promise of a new football stadium to sell.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed.