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The Right Fit

September 10, 2013
by Eric Simons
Football team with Sonny

Sonny Dykes is ready to run a football program, not just an offense.

Sonny Dykes, Cal’s new head football coach, had the highest-scoring offense in the country last year as head coach at Louisiana Tech. And for Cal fans coming off a string of lackluster seasons, the promise of big offense is welcome news. “We will be fun and we will run and we will be fast,” Dykes told ESPN after his five-year, $9.7 million contract was announced.

But Cal football has problems beyond the team’s 3-9 record last year. The big picture—grades, graduation rates, team culture, alumni relations, backer relations, press relations—needs retouching. Despite all the attention his fun, fast, “Bear Raid” offense is getting, Dykes insists that his offensive schemes are not what turns a program around.

“X’s and O’s and all that stuff, that’s a very, very, very minute part of what I do on a day-to-day basis,” Dykes says. “It’s all people, problems, issues. I think that’s what a major college football coach does. Nobody comes to your office and closes the door and says ‘Coach, I just want you to know everything’s great.’ I got a line outside of my door every day, and everybody’s got a problem.”

One of the biggest problems for the Bears has been the team’s embarrassing academic performance. In 2011–2012, Cal football’s academic progress rate (APR—an NCAA statistic for tracking retention and eligibility among scholarship athletes) dropped for the fourth straight year, to worst in the Pac-12 Conference. Cal barely escaped NCAA sanctions. To compound the embarrassment, archrival Stanford went to the Rose Bowl last year while also maintaining the conference’s highest APR.

Dykes says that the off-field challenges are a big part of what attracted him to the job. “Cal’s different because you do also get judged on ‘do your players graduate? do they do the right things off the field? do they play hard? do they represent the University the right way?'” he says. “And all those things are important to me, too.”

At age 43, Dykes doesn’t radiate the aura of authority you expect from a head football coach. In person, in practice, and in the press, he manifests a sort of laid-back Texan-ness: easy small talk, catchy quips. He seems genuinely interested in other people.

Predecessor Jeff Tedford, by the end of his time at Cal, was closing football practices and openly disdaining the media. Dykes on the other hand has invited everyone, including his own two young daughters, to come watch the team practice. He has bantered with radio hosts about needing to downsize his Escalade to fit in, and he joked with a CBS Sports writer about recognizing Berkeley’s specialness when he saw a naked man riding a bike down Telegraph Avenue. He’s visited The Daily Californian for a lengthy Q&A, Tweeted pictures from a concert at the Greek Theatre, and filmed a cameo for Cal’s anti-bullying You Can Play video.

One of the first things Dykes did when he arrived was talk to his new colleagues for perspective on the University, its expectations, and about succeeding without compromise. It starts, they told him, with finding the right kind of athlete. Director of Football Administration Andrew McGraw, a 17-year veteran of the Cal football staff who spent 11 years as recruiting director, says the first conversations he had with Coach Dykes were about what had worked under Jeff Tedford and what had changed recently. McGraw said it was his opinion that the program had seen its best success when it had recruited “for fit” rather than for raw football talent.

“Most committed Cal supporters and fans would accept a winning record, not necessarily a ten-win season every year, like you might insist on and expect at an SEC power. But [along] with that, they want to be proud of the success of the kids in the program,” McGraw says. “They want to see them graduate, they want to see them going on and enjoying careers in other areas.”

McGraw told the new coach that if he fixed recruiting, the rest would fall into place. When the recruits really want to be at Berkeley and not just playing major college football somewhere, McGraw says, they’ll be better citizens, better on the field, and more likely to want to stay to graduate.

The message was echoed in Cal rugby coach Jack Clark’s advice. “It can almost be your Achilles heel [when] you’re good at convincing people to come here if they’re not meant to be here,” Clark cautioned. “There are some people looking for us. We need to find the best of those people, and then it’ll all work.”

For his part, Dykes says recruits and their parents light up when he tells them he’s calling from Cal. He says he expected that, but is still surprised at how favorably everyone views the University, and how much the academic reputation helps in recruiting. He says he can attract a quality of person to Cal that he simply couldn’t anywhere else in his coaching career. What’s more, Dykes says, recruiting for fit allows a program to quickly narrow the pool of potential athletes, giving coaches more time to really get to know their recruits, as well as offering recruits more time to get to know the campus.

One of Dykes’s star commitments so far is from a quarterback in Arizona, Luke Rubenzer, who has been ranked by scouts as one of the top 20 high school quarterbacks in the country. Rubenzer also has a 4.3 GPA entering his senior year of high school. “I chose Cal not only because they were my only big offer, but because it’s the only place I wanted to go,” Rubenzer told a writer from SBNation in early July.

While he spends the off-season searching for his own first class of players, Dykes also inherits 80 Tedford-recruited athletes. His first speech to the team, Dykes says, was about “embracing the opportunity they have to go to the number-one public university in the world.” He told them, “You owe it to yourself and your family to take advantage of this situation.”

Keiko Price, a former swimmer for UCLA, who is now Cal’s student-athlete academics director, credited Tedford with adding learning specialists in the last few years to help at-risk players in football and basketball, as well as for adding support staff for her. But Price commended Coach Dykes for establishing an immediate expectation of academic success. Dykes, she says, walked in on the first Tuesday of the semester and demanded that his players have all their books by Thursday. He set up a competition within the team to encourage and reward good grades. They’re little things, Price says, but they make a big difference in the team culture.

On the first day of the Summer Bridge program, as the freshmen recruited by Tedford moved into the Unit 3 dorms, Dykes rode a golf cart down from Memorial Stadium to address the assembled players and their families in the cafeteria. Speaking to the kids, he emphasized his expectation that they would rely on each other, stay out of trouble together (reminding them that they now faced some of the strictest drug testing in the NCAA and that the campus believed strongly in keeping it that way), succeed together, and graduate together. Speaking past the players—most of them hunched over smartphones at a long cafeteria table—to the parents lining the wall, he lauded the value of the scholarships, which he estimated at $350,000 per player including medical care. He stressed his expectations of academic success, and said he wanted parents to call him anytime they sensed their child struggling.

“If y’all talk to them at night, and you know they need something, let us know,” he told the parents. “Because we all want the same thing. We want all these guys to graduate and do something great with their lives and have a great experience playing football here at Cal.”

The new coach showed up at Cal already reciting the recruit-the-right-fit mantra; it’s the same thing he learned to do at Louisiana Tech. (Ruston, Louisiana, is also not for everyone.) There, he says, he was looking for players who wanted to get an education while staying in a small-town setting, or living close to home. He picked up the lesson pretty quickly, he recalls. The first year, he thought he’d just go recruit in the Dallas area, where he was already familiar with the high school scene. Turned out many of those kids didn’t see the appeal of rural Louisiana, and Dykes says he started to realize he’d have to work harder to find the ones who did.

At the same time, he also had to convince coaches to move to Ruston with him, and the collection of coordinators and staff he assembled there—and brought with him to Berkeley—offers a real window into the coach’s personality.

Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin knows his boss about as well as anyone but his wife. Franklin and Dykes first met in 1997 at the University of Kentucky, where they picked up the basics of the offense they still run. After leaving Kentucky, they followed separate coaching paths until Dykes got the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech and hired Franklin. Both coaches agree they complement each other, and both also agree that Cal is a dream environment.

“I’m a weirdo. I’m a strange bird, and I know I am,” says Franklin, who lives in a downtown Berkeley loft. “For me, in Berkeley, I feel normal. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever fit in. There’s so many unique people here, so accepting of who you are.”

Franklin, who is 12 years older than Dykes, played football at Murray State University and spent almost two decades teaching high school history and coaching high school football in Kentucky. He says most of his friends are high school coaches, and that if the NFL was smart, it would hire more of them, because at that level you can’t recruit the talent you want; sometimes you get kids who can’t even catch a football. Coaching in high school is pure teaching—and Dykes, too, Franklin notes, started as a high school coach.

Franklin says Dykes is great at dealing with people. (Franklin, as Franklin likes to admit, is not.) “I have this personality where I need to be in control; I’m anal about doing things myself—but I respect his football brain.” Coach Dykes, adds Franklin, will come in and ask questions, or sometimes Franklin will ask the head coach’s advice. But “the great thing is, he’s never told me to do anything.” Dykes trusts Franklin to run his offense. Franklin trusts his boss to handle everything else.

“To me,” Franklin says, “the least important part of what you do to be a great head football coach is the scheme that you run. Are you a four-man front defense, are you a spread offense, are you a power offense? It doesn’t matter. It’s just the style you have of dealing with people.”

Franklin’s office reflects a football-centric approach to life: Papers and football manuals are strewn across the desk; a giant wall-mounted video monitor is paused midplay. There’s only the faintest whiff of outside interests. It’s a sharp contrast with Sonny Dykes’s airy office in the newly constructed Simpson Center, which is the kind of place that invites you to pull up a couch and pour out your troubles. This room is decorated with family photos, mostly candid snapshots: the coach’s wife, Kate, in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter. Sonny and Kate in the ocean on their Hawaiian honeymoon. The coach and his daughter sitting side-by-side in their yard in Louisiana, next to a soccer net (his idea) and playing with Barbie dolls (hers). From where Dykes sits in his office chair, all the football stuff—a laminated schedule, various coaching awards and plaques—is arranged out of view behind him.

Dykes works a lot, but he has also tried to be present for big moments in his kids’ lives—a lesson he learned from his own father, legendary coach Spike Dykes, who admits he was not always there for his son. Sharon Dykes, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2010, raised her children mostly on her own, and imparted to Sonny interests that ranged beyond the gridiron. Sonny remembers his mother hauling her kids into town to learn about science, art, and music; he says most of all he learned from her to appreciate passion, no matter the endeavor. “I think the fact that I have a lot of diversified interests is a result of her,” he says.

Dykes thinks his upbringing, particularly the time in Austin, gave him an admiration for the culture of places like Berkeley, and he has repeatedly professed an interest in the energy and the cutting-edge research on campus. He’s not so naïve as to think his admiration will be universally reciprocated—especially by members of the faculty who find football’s influence and costs, beginning with Dykes’s salary, to be grossly excessive. He says that’s an understood part of the job.

“I want to encourage faculty members, come watch us,” he says. “Come be a part of us. I think they’ll have an appreciation for what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to teach, getting young people to do the right thing on and off the field.”

Dykes sometimes sounds not so much like a football coach as a newly hired marketing director, a grand persuader brought on to salvage a company’s image. He’s here to persuade athletically and academically talented 18-year-olds of the merits of Berkeley, to persuade his players to go to class and adopt his offense, to persuade fans to buy tickets, to persuade football players to value their education, and to persuade faculty members to value their football program.

And yet, let’s not forget: He’s a football coach. He has to win games.

“Outsiders tend to think there’s some utopia out there,” Dykes reflects. “All universities, all football programs, have plusses and minuses. The great thing about being here is, it’s the University of California. You’ve got great resources, great tradition, and a tremendous fan base that’s very, very passionate, which is a good thing. But what I like is that Cal people are smart enough to have perspective. They do realize that football’s not the end of the world. Coming from the South, that’s a pretty positive… [he chuckles] a pretty positive quality.”

Eight months into his first off-season with the team, the sales pitch is pure optimism: the best of universities, the best of players, the best of football, the best of fits. “There’s a lot to be excited about here,” Dykes says. “I think we can build a true program that sustains itself year in and year out and is a consistent winner.”

By the time you read this, the season will already be underway and that optimism put to the test.

Eric Simons, M.J. ’08, is a frequent contributor to California, and most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession.
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