How Sonny Dykes' journey through college football landed him at TCU

Courtesy of TCU Football

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FORT WORTH – Sonny Dykes thought the offer was too good to be true. The year was 1995 and Dykes, working as an assistant football coach and English teacher at J.J. Pearce High School, received a call from Navarro College offensive coordinator Larry Keck to join the offensive staff as an assistant. The young Dykes thought he was about to strike gold. 

Dykes was making roughly $40,000 a year as a teacher and assistant coach at Pearce. Navarro head coach Keith Thomas called with an offer. He wanted to hire Dykes, and the contract included a free dorm room, three free meals a day, and $4,000.

“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, $4,000 a month for 10 months plus my meals and room and board paid for,’” Dykes said in his office at TCU after an Early Signing Day press conference. “’ I’m going to kill it. I’m going to be rich.’”

He wasn’t. August rolled around and Dykes’ first paycheck from Navarro College, a two-year university located in Corsicana, was $288. Dykes was confused. He located Thomas and asked about the $4,000 that was missing from his paycheck. 

“He goes, ‘You moron, it is $4,000 for the year,’” Dykes chuckled. “So, I made $288 a month and I liked it so much that I stayed two years.”

Dykes, 52, considers it the best clerical mistakes in his life. He wasn’t a college football player. The son of a coaching legend, Dykes wasn’t even sure he’d go into coaching. He was a baseball player at Texas Tech. He grew up hoping to be a pilot in the Air Force Academy, and still holds out hope that he’ll get a pilot license one day when time allows. Young men want to blaze their own trail, and Dykes was hesitant to follow in his dad Spike’s footsteps. 

The allure of a team and the social structure it provides drew Dykes into the coaching profession after his baseball days at Texas Tech ended. He remembered that his dad’s best friends were his assistant coaches. He remembers his mom being best friends with the other wives. He remembered growing up alongside the other coaches’ kids. The vacations. The impromptu football games. The satisfaction of teamwork. 

But the plan was never to coach college football. Dykes was content at the high school level. His goal was to find a growing area in the country that was close enough to the city, become an assistant coach, teach English, and eventually work his way to the head coaching position. Dykes moved often as a young man while his father chased new jobs. The younger Dykes craved stability. But plans are fickle, and Navarro beat out a standing job offer to become an assistant at Southlake Carroll.

“It was the absolute best learning experience I could have done,” Dykes recalled about his two-year stint at Navarro learning offense from Keck. “I didn’t play college football, so in some ways I was behind. Junior college was the place to make up ground quickly.” 

The unique part of being a junior college coach is that you recruit kids to attend your school, but four-year universities come to town to recruit your kids for the second half of their college career. The dynamic offered a unique perspective for Dykes. He could watch the major coaches in the country recruit his players. He took notes, good and bad, and he also made connections. 

The most formidable of those connections was with Hal Mumme. He’d eventually leave Navarro to become a graduate assistant on Mumme’s staff at Kentucky. Mumme, the Godfather of the Air-Raid that’d eventually change college football, and every other level of football, served as a mentor to some of the greatest minds in modern college football. Dykes was one of those disciples. 

“There is nobody with a bigger impact on football in the modern era than Hal Mumme, and I think that statement is beyond argument,” Dykes said. “He changed everything. Everyone took it and put their own spin on it.”  

THE NEXT STEP 

Mike Leach was also a disciple of Mumme’s masterclass in offensive philosophy. Leach eventually found his way to Texas Tech and hired Dykes to coach the inside receivers in his spread offense. The 2003 team at Texas Tech became a training ground for young coaches, and even a couple of players. 

Art Briles was the running back coach. Dana Holgorsen coached the outside receivers. Lincoln Riley was a student coach. Dave Aranda and Bill Bedenbaugh were graduate assistants. Ruffin McNeill was on staff. Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, and Sonny Cumbie were on the roster as quarterbacks. 

“At the time, we just thought we were the freakshow out west,” Dykes explains. “People would come to our meetings and watch practice and wonder when we started doing the mad scientist stuff, but we didn’t do anything crazy. It was the law of 10,000. If you do something 10,000 times, you’re going to be good at it.”  

Leach fostered a culture of experimentation. He didn’t think inside the box. He also wanted his coaches to look at football in a different way. They were the new age. The conversations were vigorous, and sometimes heated. This was akin to being a counter-culture musician in the 1960s who found himself on Haight-Ashbury. 

“Mike (Leach) would act like he listened, even though he didn’t, and that kept everyone on their toes,” Dykes remembered. “We’d sit around and talk football. It was a cool place to be at. It was a formative time for a lot of us coaches. We had lively conversations.”  

Dykes would eventually move up to co-offensive coordinator with Holgorsen before moving on to Arizona as the offensive coordinator on Mike Stoops’ staff in 2007. By 2010, Dykes earned his first head coaching gig as the head man at Louisiana Tech. Dykes’ father was a head coach. He spent time with Mumme and Leach. He was 15 years removed from his move from Pearce High School to Navarro Junior College. Yet, Dykes was lost. No one is prepared for the duties as a head coach, even when you’ve watched and learned from the best for a lifetime. 

“There is no manual to be a head coach,” Dykes admitted. “You have no idea what you’re walking into. You’re never ready.” 

Dykes was forced to adjust expectations for himself. He envisioned nine coaches he wanted to join him at La Tech. Seven of the nine already held better jobs. He wanted to recruit Texas hard with a focus on Dallas and Houston. He quickly realized after a few visits that it was unlikely to get players to join him at a school with worse facilities than a lot of Texas high schools. 

Despite the disadvantages, Dykes found a way for the Bulldogs to win. He led La Tech to a WAC title in 2011, the program’s first since 2001. The Bulldogs went 9-3 a year later, which was the team’s best record since 1997. Cal called, and Dykes made his way west after three seasons in Ruston that ended with a 22-15 record and one conference championship. 

The mood changes when Dykes discusses his time at Cal. He’s still friendly and open, but there is a hint of regret in his voice. He’ll laugh it off, but his four seasons at Cal were a case of one step forward and two steps back. Dykes doesn’t feel like he received the type of support from Cal that is required to make a football program relevant in a Power Five conference. His lesson was one we’re told throughout childhood but must learn ourselves as adults: The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.  

“Berkeley and Ruston are about as diametrically opposed as any two places in the history of the world,” Dykes said. “What I loved about Ruston is that I’d get people who came by daily asking if they could help with anything I needed. They wanted to help. I was at Cal for four years and I don’t think anyone ever came by and asked to help.”

Success was hard to find. Cal went 1-11 in Dykes’ first year. The Golden Bears would go 19-30 in four seasons under Dykes, including a Pac 12 Conference record of 10-26. Cal never finished above fourth in its division. He was terminated with two years remaining on his contract. 

BACK TO THE LONE STAR STATE

Dykes was named the new head coach of the Horned Frogs late in November after the program parted ways with Gary Patterson after more than a 20-year tenure. The Horned Frogs were familiar to Dykes, who coached the previous five seasons at SMU. He landed at TCU as an offensive analyst after leaving Cal early in 2017. 

He’d become head coach of the Mustangs by the end of that season, but the short stay gave him an inside look at the program built by Patterson. Following a legend is never easy. Sun Tzu mentions that in the “Art of War”. Patterson is a living legend with a statue outside of Amon G. Carter Stadium. Sitting in the head coach’s office at TCU without Patterson in it is a surreal experience. 

“There isn’t another person in college football more connected to their program than Gary is to TCU,” Dykes said. “That is always daunting. Gary has such a strong personality, and there was no mistaking that this was his program. I know it won’t be easy and there is a lot of work to do.” 

Dykes isn’t naïve to any of these facts. He knows he left rival SMU for the color purple. He knows he only moved 30 miles across town. He knows he’ll need to face his former team, and the players he recruited, each year for The Iron Skillet that sits in his old office at SMU after winning the 2021 contest. 

It looks messy from the outside. Fans at SMU were understandably upset that Dykes jumped ship for a job with the rivals. Dykes helped SMU reclaim relevance in the college football landscape. He pushed for SMU and Dallas to be more aligned, in the same way he saw TCU and Fort Worth. Dykes went 30-18 in his four seasons leading the Mustangs, including back-to-back wins over TCU to close out his tenure. 

“For four years he invested and led our program the right way, and he left it better than he found it,” SMU athletic director Rick Hart said. “We’ve communicated, and we’ll continue to communicate and have a relationship.”

Dykes hit the ground running, but not in the old-school way. The game has changed. Job No. 1 for a coach is no longer hitting the recruiting trail and finding a new staff. First up comes recruiting your own players to stay at the university rather than entering the transfer portal. Dykes says that is how it ought to be. The Horned Frogs announced nine new players at the Early Signing Day press conference, and Dykes talked about the need for quality over quantity. He can fill the roster through the transfer portal, which is something he did masterfully at SMU. 

“We think we have a formula to be successful in the transfer portal,” Dykes said. “The transfer market is about knowing what you are looking for just like buying a good diamond. Some know what you’re looking for, and some don’t.” 

The track record speaks for itself. Dykes made SMU a winner, in large part, because he attracted quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Tanner Mordecai to choose SMU as their second stop as a collegiate athlete. He did the same with Nick Foles back as an assistant at Arizona. Dykes wanted SMU to be a haven of second chances for area kids looking to come back home and play football. He wants to do the same thing at TCU. But not just in the transfer portal. He thinks DFW can help the Horned Frogs climb back towards the top of the Big 12. 

“Proximity is our biggest advantage,” Dykes said regarding recruiting. “We are close to 100 of the best high school football players in the country.” 

So, why TCU? College football fans know realignment was the biggest talking point of the 2021 calendar year. Nearly every FBS program in Texas was impacted by the game of musical chairs kicked off by Texas and Oklahoma announcing intentions of jumping the Big 12 for the SEC. Houston helped fill the vacuum in the Big 12. Programs such as Rice, North Texas, and UTSA are moving to the American, which is where SMU remained. 

“For me, the chance to coach in the Big 12 was the one thing I had a hard time getting over,” Dykes said. “I have a lot of respect for the league, and I’ve always wanted to coach in the league. I also knew what type of program Gary built here and I had respect for the facilities to the support staff to the administration.” 

 

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