Alexander: For Sonny Dykes, a rough time at Cal was beneficial

Alexander: For Sonny Dykes, a rough time at Cal was beneficial

Should TCU shock America Monday night and win the school’s first football national championship since 1938, let’s hope that there are some folks in Berkeley who will raise a glass to Horned Frogs coach Sonny Dykes.

Dykes, who joined a program that had finished in a tie for seventh in the Big XII in 2021 and took it to a 13-1 record and the title game at SoFi Stadium against Georgia, has an 84-64 lifetime record as a head coach and had winning records at three of the four programs he has led: Louisiana Tech, SMU and TCU.

The outlier was Cal, where he was 19-30 from 2013-16. The Bears were 1-11 in his first year but had risen to 8-5 in his third, 2015. That season, the Air Raid helped quarterback Jared Goff set single-season Pac-12 records for passing yards and touchdown passes, and that performance convinced Rams’ general manager Les Snead to trade up to the No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft to pick Goff, before the franchise’s first season back in L.A.

One season later – six years ago Sunday, in fact – Cal fired Dykes after the Bears had gone 5-7 (3-6 in the Pac-12), even with victories over Top 25 opponents Texas and Utah.

There were inferences that Dykes’ pursuit of other jobs (Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia, Baylor) had bothered some in the Cal athletic department, and then-athletic director Mike Williams said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that Dykes and fired basketball coach Cuonzo Martin were “coaches who hadn’t quite settled into California, the Bay Area or the Cal experience.”

Williams added: “In football, we were kind of running out of steam a little bit. The feedback we were getting from ticket-holders, alums and players was: ‘We’re kind of losing some energy.’ “

Since then, Cal football is 30-37 under Justin Wilcox and 10-18 the last three seasons. And with Dykes and TCU on center stage this week, the punch line is whether anybody could take the Cal program and win with it, especially if the school isn’t prepared to engage in the transfer portal.

But as Dykes looked back during this weekend’s interview sessions, he considered the Berkeley experience beneficial even if it didn’t end well.

“There’s a lot of different ways to reach the top of the profession in our profession,” he said. “Some guys have an easier road than others. And some people have to have some jobs at institutions maybe that haven’t historically won. And as you work your way up, your job is to fix those.

“And sometimes they’re not easy to fix. And sometimes they take longer to fix than you want them to. And sometimes there’s a reason those places haven’t had success in a long time.”

That said, he added, “My time at Cal was difficult. I’m very, very glad I went through itbecause it makes me appreciate this so much more. You know what I mean? Had I been at places that were historically successful and kind of fallen into some situations that were ‘easier,’ I might have a better record. But I wouldn’t have the opportunity to understand how good I’ve got it, if that makes sense.”

Oh, and as for the idea that Dykes “hadn’t quite settled into California, the Bay Area or the Cal experience?”

“I loved living in the Bay Area,” Dykes said. “It was a really cool place for me. I always had an itch to live in California. I grew up in West Texas, and there’s a significant difference between Lubbock and Berkeley. And so I appreciated that difference, you know what I mean? Just in terms of everything, culture, the way of thinking, approach, temperature, weather, scenery. To me it was, just I wanted to experience different things in my life. That’s just something that’s always been really important to me.

“And it was a challenging time. I truly believe – I still believe this, if Sandy Barbour was the AD there, I would still be at Cal and we would have been very successful. But it’s not the way it worked. And it wasn’t the way – it wasn’t the plan. And so (I) had to go to plan B, which was kind of start over, reinvent myself, and pray for another opportunity. And SMU gave me that opportunity and I’ll be forever grateful for that.”

Barbour was the athletic director who hired Dykes at Cal in December of 2012, but she left after that 1-11 football season and became Penn State’s athletic director, a post she held until last summer when she retired. She is still chair of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee through the end of this school year.

Both, then, ended up in better places.

And while TCU hiring a head coach from Metroplex rival SMU might seem odd, there’s this: In the year between his firing at Cal and his hiring at SMU, Dykes was an offensive analyst on Gary Patterson’s TCU staff. So he was familiar with the culture of the school and the program, and he then polished up his head coaching resume at SMU.

Consider: He was 1-11 in his first season at Cal. He was 5-7 in his first season at SMU, before winning 10 games in 2019 – with a host of school records on both sides of the ball – followed by 7-3 and 8-4 records, the former during the 2020 COVID season.

And now, a 13-1 debut season at TCU, and the opportunity to pull off the biggest upset in the eight-year history of the CFP.

The expansion to 12 teams was meant to create a path for the little guy. TCU may have unintentionally undermined the argument for expansion with its opportunity as a 12½-point underdog to be Cinderella, not to mention carrying the banner for those fans throughout America who suffer from SEC fatigue.

“Our group has had a little bit of a magical ride,” he said. “And I think the biggest difference is that it’s our first year. We were still trying to get to know the guys. We’re still trying to get a culture established.

“… Now, the challenging thing, as we move forward, past Monday, is where do we go from here?”

It’s a nice dilemma to have.