Inside Jon Sumrall's 12-win debut season at Troy and what's next

In Jon Sumrall's first season at Troy he turned a program coming off three straight losing seasons into 12-win team. Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

TROY, Ala. -- Take a spin through this town of 18,000 that hosts Sun Belt football champion Troy University, and there's the familiar trappings of quaint Americana.

A looming water tower that brags "Home of the Trojans" doubles as the skyline. Across the street from Troy University's football facility is "Fire Station No. 2," which lies adjacent to the National Guard building.

There's an authentic small-town feel, with both head coach Jon Sumrall and athletic director Brent Jones proudly driving oversized pickup trucks. And it's complemented by an easy pace as getting dinner after 9 p.m. doubles as a fourth-and-17 longshot.

The only smaller American towns with FBS football programs are West Point, New York, and Clemson, South Carolina. And as Troy University has evolved from a Division II power to seven-time Sun Belt champion in the past two decades, it has shown a historic knack for its success to belie the modest surroundings.

When football season kicks off in three months, Troy University will enter with the country's second-longest winning streak. The Trojans rattled off 11 straight wins to finish the 2022 season under first-year coach Sumrall, and they trail only defending national champion Georgia, which has won 17 in a row.

How did little Troy, Alabama, become home to one of the college football's longest winning streaks?

"It begins with the belief and with the question, 'Why not Troy?'" chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. told ESPN. "If you are going to do it, be bold about it."

In Sumrall's debut season, the Trojans authored what he calls a "modest" 12-2 record. Troy finished No. 19 in the country, the school's best-ever finish in the Associated Press poll, and the school's seven-win improvement was the third biggest in the sport last year.

When peering back through some of the country's great program flips in the last generation, there's a thread that often runs through them. Sometimes it's a scheme change that delivers a seismic advantage or a transcendent player who elevates the program.

At Troy, that competitive advantage emerged by the team galvanizing after the season's most gutting loss. The Trojans gave up a final-second Hail Mary to Appalachian State and then spackled together 11 straight wins.

"If that moment doesn't happen, I don't think we have maybe quite the year we had," Sumrall told ESPN. "Do we win enough to have a nice year? Sure. But I don't know that we have the special year we had."

Perhaps most impressive, six of those wins came by seven points or less. No team in college football won that many games by six or less since 2018, per ESPN Stats & Info. The thread running through Troy's turnaround was creativity in figuring out ways to win.

And as Sumrall, 40, enters his second season, the trajectory again matches the expectations of a program that won football national titles in NAIA (1968) and Division II (1984 and 1987).

"This is not a place where football is like a side hustle," Sumrall said, "or something that they like to do on Saturdays just to have a reason to have a tailgate."

WHEN JON SUMRALL drives his four kids to school in the morning, there's a familiar back-and-forth pep talk with the crew that ranges in age from 4 to 9.

Jon: Give your best....


Jon: No matter...

Kids: WHAT!

Jon: Regardless of...


He chuckles after he relays the scene: "They probably get a little tired of me doing it and look at me like I'm a goofy dad."

That same smile returns to Sumrall's face when he relays his favorite statistic from his 9-year-old son, Sam, in a basketball game this year. "I don't know that he's the most talented player, but he's going to try and use all his fouls."

Sumrall's parenting tenets match his coaching philosophy. The same ethos of unified chanting and relentless effort quickly channeled into the team at Troy when Sumrall took over in December of 2021.

Sumrall arrived from Kentucky -- where he coached the inside linebackers group for two years before moving to co-defensive coordinator in 2021 -- with a background that doesn't check the typical boxes athletic directors and search firms look for. He wasn't a play-calling coordinator, didn't have head coaching experience and wasn't atop many hot coach lists. But what Sumrall did bring to Troy was familiarity and fit, as he'd been a top assistant under then-Trojans coach Neal Brown from 2015-17.

"We needed a proven fit," Hawkins said. "Both Jon and his wife (Ginny) loved Troy and believed in Troy. They were a perfect fit."

He'd been a dynamic recruiter there, including signing Carlton Martial, who returned for a sixth year in 2022 to play for Sumrall and became the college football's all-time leading tackler.

And when Troy athletic director Brent Jones surveyed the team about what was needed in the wake of three straight losing seasons under Chip Lindsey, it stood out to him that the players said they wanted a leader who'd hold them accountable.

"The program needed energy, intensity, accountability and connectivity," Jones said. "And if you look at the lifeblood of any program it's recruiting, and Jon is one of the best recruiting coaches in the country. The reason for that is his energy."

The players felt the adrenaline jolt immediately. Veteran center Jake Andrews, who went on to be a fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots in the 2023 NFL draft, said the connection proved instant.

"You can just tell he cares," Andrews said. "Sometimes he talks about football and he chokes up a little bit. You can just tell it just matters to him."

Soon enough, that feeling spread throughout the program. Outsiders observed how much more intense spring practice and summer camp were compared to past year. Sumrall scoffed, as he felt things were moving slow.

The same vibe that Sumrall took from an overachieving player at Kentucky -- he was a linebacker for the Wildcats from 2002-04 -- revealed itself in a coaching path that ping-ponged him from San Diego to Tulane to Troy to Ole Miss and back to his alma matter over the past 18 years.

"I want to constantly put life in people," he said. "That's, I think, how you get people excited about what they're doing is by having positive energy. I think you have to be authentic to who you are."

As the season unfolded, that vibe permeated through the players.

"He makes you want to play for the rest of your teammates," Andrews said. "We had guys in the locker room that quite literally would probably die for each other."

THERE'S AN EERIE quiet that ensconces any losing locker room. The ripping of ankle tape cuts through the silence like an air horn. Conversation rarely escalates above a mumble.

And on Sept. 17, that's exactly the macabre scene Sumrall encountered when he entered the cramped visiting locker room at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, North Carolina. Troy had pushed around host Appalachian State all day, delivering a haymaker to all the good vibes from the Mountaineers' upset of Texas A&M the previous week.

Troy took an intentional safety with 20 seconds remaining to cut its own lead to 28-26 and kicked off. On fourth down following three incomplete App State passes from its own 47-yard line, Chase Brice's Hail Mary was caught by Christian Horn at the 5-yard line and ran in with two seconds left.

Touchdown! Kimani Vidal scores vs. Appalachian State

Touchdown! Kimani Vidal scores vs. Appalachian State

Sumrall knew it as the play unfolded, getting the worst kind of déjà vu from being on the sideline as a Kentucky player when the Wildcats lost the Bluegrass Miracle game to LSU back in 2002.

"As the ball is in the air," he said, "I kind of sensed it didn't feel right."

Sumrall typically meets with his coaches before addressing his team postgame. But after making sure all the Troy players got to the locker room safely from the field storming, he didn't waste any time.

"We have a decision to make of what kind of turning point this is," he recalled saying. "I firmly believe this. We're going to make this the turning point of Troy football. This is not the end of something, if we handle it the right way. It's the start of something special."

He now jokes that he wasn't quite sure if he believed his own pep talk.

In the team meeting the following Monday, he told them they weren't allowed to say the words App State the rest of the season. He also banned green in the building because it's the colors of Marshall, the next opponent. The Thundering Herd were two weeks removed from beating No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend.

Troy won that game 16-7 in a show of resiliency. Few expected it would start a championship run that included four consecutive wins by less than a touchdown., The highlight of the streak came when Troy erased a 17-0 third-quarter deficit against Louisiana to win 23-17 on the road before capping the run with a 10-9 win over Army at home -- the first sell-out of Veterans Memorial Stadium in school history.

"They just got to a place where they expected to win," said Louisiana coach Michael Desormeaux. "They had veteran players who went out and refused to lose. They basically said, 'We're just going to play tough football and put ourself in position at the end.'"

After all those close games, perhaps the biggest surprise of the season came at the tenor of the Sun Belt title game against Coastal Carolina. Troy jumped out 31-0 on the way to a 45-26 win. It marked a fitting coda from the devastation in that locker room after the league opener to a final fitting scene.

"To see the goalposts come down," Jones said, "confetti falling from the sky and to see coach Sumrall lift that trophy and say, 'Troy football is back,' it's pretty powerful."

TROY RETURNS THE type of roster that could provide another conference champion, with seven returning offensive starters, including star tailback Kimani Vidal (1,132 yards last year), steady quarterback Gunnar Watson and star receiver Jabre Barber, who is back from injury. On defense, Troy has six returning starters -- including star corner Reddy Steward and linchpin nose tackle Buddha Jones -- from the country's No. 8 scoring defense (17.1 ppg).

After three straight losing seasons and a 4-9 record in one-score games during that span, Troy attacked the details with enthusiasm. They emerged as a calloused group that bonded together to elevate Troy into the conversation with some of the top teams in college football.

It marked a collision of a team matching the enthusiasm of a school that's long held bold ambitions.

"These people care deeply about football," Sumrall said.