‘I don’t know how it gets any better’: Sonny Dykes found the perfect fit at TCU

FORT WORTH, Texas — This summer, six months after Sonny Dykes was introduced as the new coach at TCU, he walked into Dutch’s, a burger joint directly across the street from campus.

Dutch’s is a double-meat museum to TCU football, named in honor of Dutch Meyer, one of the godfathers of the modern passing game, who won three national championships in Fort Worth during his tenure from 1934 to 1952. The restaurant’s exterior is a rich purple, and the windows are covered with a mural that makes it look like you’re peering into the Horned Frogs’ home at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Inside, the walls are covered with photos of TCU stars, like LaDainian Tomlinson and Andy Dalton, the banners of all the Southwest Conference and Big 12 schools and Meyer’s famous quote — “Fight ’em until hell freezes over. Then fight ’em on the ice!”

In short, it’s the kind of place where you’d think the current TCU coach might draw a crowd.

Dykes ordered a burger and fries, and the student behind the counter asked, “Can I get a name for the order?”

“Bob,” Dykes said without hesitation, delighted to just be a regular customer.

After Bob’s order is called, Dykes eats without interruption from other patrons. It’s the kind of anonymity for a coach that’s unthinkable in Austin or College Station. And that suits the easygoing 52-year-old Texan just fine.

Dykes didn’t play college football. His first job was as a baseball coach. He has a curiosity that led him from a junior college in East Texas making $4,000 a year to a fish-out-of-water job at Cal that ended in a 19-30 record and him getting fired for the first time in his life. Now, after a triumphant return to Texas at SMU, where he went 30-18 and the Mustangs won 10 games for the first time since 1984, he is 5-0 in his first season at TCU, his first Power 5 job since Cal. And he is doing it all in a place where he has deep roots and strong recruiting ties, and can just coach football without being a celebrity.

“For me, personally, in my stage of my life, I don’t know how it gets any better,” Dykes said.

But Dykes’ under-the-radar status is in jeopardy with the Horned Frogs ranked No. 13 nationally and with a burgeoning Heisman Trophy candidate in Max Duggan. Fans in Fort Worth are in a frenzy, particularly with No. 8 Oklahoma State coming to town this weekend in a battle of unbeatens in front of a sellout crowd (3:30 ET Saturday, ABC).

Dykes’ boss, TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati, says judging by the reaction he has gotten from boosters, alumni and students, Dykes might have to soon abandon his alter ego across the street.

“It won’t be that way for long,” Donati said. “The excitement is through the roof. We realize the season is still early, but there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, and we feel like we’re on track to get to the places we want to go.”

DYKES’ TEXAS CREDENTIALS are impeccable. He was born in Big Spring to a Texas icon. His dad, Spike, was a coach for 41 years — 38 of them in Texas — who worked for legends like Emory Bellard, the inventor of the Wishbone offense, at San Angelo Central High School and Darrell Royal at the University of Texas. He later served as the head coach at Midland Lee, the rival to Odessa Permian, the subject of “Friday Night Lights.” During his 13 years as head coach at Texas Tech, Spike beat Texas and Texas A&M each six times without the benefit of being able to access the same amount of talent that they could.

Sonny said he never wanted to make it awkward for Spike, because he knew he wasn’t good enough to play for his dad. He was a solid athlete in high school football but instead decided to focus on baseball in college. Sonny was enough of a prospect that he was recruited by hall of fame coaches Cliff Gustafson at Texas and Mark Johnson at Texas A&M, taking recruiting trips to both schools, among others. But he opted to stay in Lubbock to play for Texas Tech.

“It made the most sense to stay home,” Dykes said. “I wanted to feel like I was part of my dad’s football program without all the weird stuff that’s created by actually being a part of it, if that makes sense. I could hang around a little bit and go to practice some and kind of follow from outside the program.”

That experience started an unusual journey in coaching. He got an English degree and was certified to teach, which made him marketable. He got his first coaching gig in 1994 — as an assistant baseball coach at a high school in Monahans, a town of about 7,000 in West Texas.

“It was easier for me to be the baseball coach because no one ever wanted to be the baseball coach,” Dykes said.

All he knew was he wanted to coach. And he knew how he wanted to do it, like Spike did, where relationships with players and assistants were more important than just wins and losses, saying “pretty much my life growing up was like one big happy family” filled with Spike’s football brotherhood. He just didn’t know where, or even in what sport. But he had one grand plan.

“I moved around so much as a kid, the goal was to find a place and stay someplace for a long time,” Dykes said. “I had this vision in my head of coaching in some town on a lake in Texas, being the head coach and having a boat. It’s pretty silly. Then of course, I did exactly the opposite.”

He made the leap to football at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, in the Dallas area. He started figuring out his plan. Southlake, another Dallas/Fort Worth suburb, was a football power, and seemed to fit the bill.

“I kind of looked around and Southlake to me looked like the place,” Dykes said. “So I remember thinking, well, this would be a fun place to just go work my way up and hopefully maybe be the head coach someday.”

Later in 1994, Dykes got his chance, and was offered a job at Southlake Carroll. But there was just one catch.

“I just always assumed Southlake was on a lake. It turns out it’s not,” Dykes said, laughing.

That wasn’t a deal breaker, just a lighthearted delay of his dreams of a high school coaching job with waterfront living. But while he was pondering the gig, he got a call from his dad.

Navarro Junior College offensive coordinator Larry Kueck had called Spike looking for some cheap help.

“I remember Spike saying, ‘This guy at Navarro is looking for a young coach that doesn’t know anything. You’re the first guy thought of,'” Sonny recalled.

Kueck had $4,000 a year budgeted for the position, which included teaching English. Kueck called it a job that was a little bit trainer, a little bit manager, a little bit coach. The glamorous gig came with a dorm room and free food in the cafeteria.

The job meant Dykes not only got to learn from Kueck, who was in his sixth stop at a Texas college and had been offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. But Dykes coached quarterbacks, wide receivers and running points in different drills throughout each day.

Kueck was ahead of the curve in the passing game, and Navarro threw the ball more than most junior colleges did in the 1990s. To keep up, Dykes started calling a trailblazing coach named Hal Mumme, who was revolutionizing the passing game at small schools like Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State, throwing it more than 50 times a game. But after two years in Corsicana at Navarro, Dykes said he was 26, broke and single, and didn’t see either of those latter two situations changing anytime soon. He was ready to give it up.

Spike asked him to call Mumme one more time before he bailed out. Turns out, Mumme had landed an SEC job at Kentucky and was putting together a staff. He offered Dykes a job over the phone.

“I appreciated Spike calling me and telling me because I had no idea he was fixin’ to get out of coaching,” Mumme said. “I was going to hire him anyway because Spike asked me to, and I was going to do anything Spike asked me to. But if he wasn’t a bright guy, he was going to be in charge of spotting the ball or something.”

Instead, Dykes found himself being indoctrinated into the cult of the Air Raid, the hottest offense in football. He was a graduate assistant working with wide receivers coach Mike Leach, who would become the offense’s most famous practitioner, if not the most unusual coach in the country. It scratched an itch for Dykes, who was a bit rebellious and wanted to break from Spike’s old-school approach, and showed that you could be yourself as a college football coach.

And he quickly made an impression at Kentucky, too. Like his dad, Dykes is a storyteller. He has a folksy charm and can easily relate to people. He’s self-deprecating and likes playing up the small-town West Texas bit. But the common threads from talking to all of Dykes’ former mentors and colleagues are his intellect, common sense and ability to adapt to any situation.

“You know, he’s not a dumbass,” Mumme said. “The more I talked to him, the more I realized he was a really bright guy. When you’re sitting around a staff room with 12 or 15 people and you have to be with them all the time, you figure out real fast who the guys are that you want on your side if you’re going to team up to play Scrabble or something.”

Kueck had an oddly similar measurement.

“There was this game called Trivial Pursuit,” he said. “He would always win at that thing. I was amazed. Just kind of shows you how his mind works.”

Dykes was an easy convert to Mumme’s plan, and his belief that football didn’t need to be hard or painful for a team to be successful. Leach, like Dykes, hadn’t played college football, and together, they challenged the status quo at every turn, which Mumme said was a benefit to young coaches who were doing something radically different.

“They didn’t get weighed down with all the really bad answers to situations of the 1980s and 1990s,” Mumme said.

Mumme’s entire philosophy was based on repetition in practice and making games as simple as possible for quarterbacks, who had unprecedented freedom. Under Mumme, Tim Couch torched SEC defenses and blossomed into the first overall pick of the 1999 NFL draft.

Still, Dykes started missing home. He had a local bar get cases of Lone Star Light delivered, a kind of touchstone when he was socializing with his coworkers.

Then Leach, who had left Kentucky to become Oklahoma‘s offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops, got his first head-coaching job a year later — replacing Spike Dykes at Texas Tech. He called Sonny thinking it’d be a no-brainer.

There was no tension. Leach had been Spike’s pick to replace him. But for Sonny, it was an unusual situation, to be part of a staff replacing his dad.

“That was strange. Yeah, that was weird,” Dykes said. “But it was kind of that first time in my life that I was like, ‘Man, I really miss Texas,’ miss knowing people and having relationships. That was the thing for me, I just didn’t know anybody. I missed that connection with people.”

It was a boost for Leach, too, because he had a connection to Tech’s past but with someone who knew exactly how he wanted to do something. But more importantly, Leach said, was that Sonny offered important local knowledge.

“He was good for advice on places to eat and stuff like that,” Leach said. “And where to look for houses.”

Leach’s tenure at Tech produced some of the greatest seasons in school history, and he surpassed Spike as the winningest coach in school history. The Air Raid transformed the Big 12 into a pass-happy conference, and while it took years for other schools to dare to believe it could be replicated without Leach, suddenly Dykes was in demand for his knowledge of the offense and his work with quarterbacks.

So he set out, leaving Leach and his hometown in 2007 to take over as offensive coordinator at Arizona under Mike Stoops. First, Willie Tuitama thrived under his tutelage, leading the Pac-10 in completions and touchdowns, while receiver Mike Thomas set a record for the most catches by a receiver in Pac-10 history. Dykes worked similar magic in 2009 with unheralded Michigan State transfer Nick Foles, who would eventually become a third-round draft pick.

Dykes got his first head-coaching job at Louisiana Tech in 2010. By 2012, the Bulldogs were 9-3 and leading the country in scoring (51.5 points per game) as quarterback Colby Cameron became the WAC Offensive Player of the Year and set 16 NCAA records, including breaking Russell Wilson‘s single-season mark for the most consecutive pass attempts without an interception.

Dykes was one of the hottest commodities in the country that year, along with Mark Stoops and Dave Doeren. The three all became close during the coaching carousel, interviewing for many of the same jobs. Dykes turned Kentucky down, and Stoops landed it. Doeren got hired at NC State. Dykes, meanwhile, let his curiosity run wild as he considered his options.

Dykes said he and Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour hit it off. He was impressed by the school and wondered about the possibilities, despite a roster in turmoil and an academics disaster with many players in danger of failing out. Barbour sent him a package with a whole prospectus to study.

“It had all the information, you know, the roster, people coming back, all this stuff. I knew how bad a shape the roster was in, but it had a DVD inside.” Dykes said. “It had a video called ‘This is Cal.’ I was just like, holy s—. I want to be a part of this. It wasn’t anything about football, right? It was just kind of the university and the cool things that happened there. And I just remember thinking, ‘I know this is going to be hard. But if you could get this thing right, this would be really cool.’ That’s kind of how stuff goes for me in a weird sort of way.”

It turns out it was harder than he thought. Cal had a dearth of scholarship players, with 53, well under the 85 limit. After his first practice, he called Barbour to tell her he wasn’t sure the Bears would win a game. He was wrong. They went 1-11. Barbour was fired not long after, due largely to a report that Cal had the worst graduation rate of any Power 5 school in the country in both football and basketball. There was a huge mess to clean up, and Dykes had just lost his biggest supporter.

Meanwhile, there was the culture shock. One day, Dykes said, he was on the practice field with his team when the band showed up and told him they had the field reserved, and the athletic department confirmed it, which canceled football practice for the day. College football, it turns out, wasn’t quite the priority in Northern California that it was in Texas.

Leach is still stunned Dykes made the move from Ruston, Louisiana, to Berkeley.

“I mean, that combination is utterly hilarious,” Leach said. “Sonny’s kind of a structure guy. There’s none of that in Berkeley. He’s kind of a logical person. This plus this is supposed to equal this. Well, that’s not going to happen in Berkeley.”

Dykes made the most of it while he could. Cal improved from 1-11 to 5-7 to 8-5, and Dykes found another quarterback, Jared Goff, who became the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. After Goff left, the Bears slipped to 5-7 and Dykes desperately tried to get out, ultimately getting fired after notifying Cal he was interviewing for other jobs.

“I think the good thing is I’ve learned now, I understand there’s not a fairy tale, you know?” Dykes said. “It’s reality. And so if you want to embark in one of those big [jobs] — when you go to Auburn, you got to deal with going to Auburn — there’s a tradeoff. You got to decide, is the juice worth the squeeze?”

So then, is there a trade-off at TCU?

“I don’t think so. Because I think this is the hidden gem, just because you’ve got what you need. Look, we don’t have a 100,000-seat stadium, so there’s going to be some people that that doesn’t appeal to. We’re not the huge state school. But when you sit down and you say, ‘What do you need?’ I think this checks the boxes. And it does for me personally.”

DYKES IS BACK in Texas, and one of the big reasons for TCU’s instant success is that he’s still producing QBs. At SMU, both Shane Buechele and Tanner Mordecai were transfers who blossomed under Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, another West Texas native and Texas Tech grad (and also the brother of USC coach Lincoln Riley).

This year, Duggan has taken a huge leap, even after initially losing the starting job to Chandler Morris. Duggan, who threw 41 touchdowns to 20 interceptions between 2019 and 2021, has thrown 14 TDs to just one INT this year. He’s completing 73% of his passes, a huge boost from his career 59% mark, and his total QBR has gone from 63.4 to 88.5.

Garrett Riley said Duggan’s improvement can be traced back to Dykes’ philosophy of simplicity, and that Duggan is just hearing the same message day after day from him.

“I just think there’s a lot of consistency of what we’re doing and understanding that we’re just going to do it over and over again and have a lot of confidence in that,” Riley said. “And I think that confidence has just seeped into his mindset and all of a sudden, he’s doing some really, really nice things and being productive.”

In Fort Worth, Dykes is completely at ease. He said he considered getting out of coaching again after Cal, saying he was online researching how to get a real estate license just two weeks before he was contacted about the SMU job (while he was working at TCU as an analyst under legendary Frogs coach Gary Patterson).

Now, he finds himself having to replace Patterson, who did one of the all-time great rebuilding jobs in college football history, and has a statue in front of the athletics building.

“Replacing The Guy’s not easy,” Dykes said. “Honestly, that was part of my consideration when this happened, out of respect for Gary. He was so good. He gave me a job in 2017 and got me back on my feet, and I’ll always be really appreciative for that. And I don’t think I would have had the opportunities that I’ve had since then if not for that. But you look at the job he did here. There’s nobody who can will wins. He just could do it and it just permeated the whole program. I think that’s what he wanted to win so bad and it was so important to him that I think it permeated Fort Worth. And I just don’t know that anybody else had that fire. He lit fires under everybody. And that’s why this place is what it is.”

For nearly 30 years, Dykes has operated mostly on curiosity and faith, taking jobs that seem like an adventure without a grand master plan. His wife, Kate, is a coach’s daughter (and her brother is Joe Golding, the UTEP basketball coach) who has a rare understanding of the life of a coach.

“That was my saving grace,” Dykes said. “She was willing to go along for the ride. She lived in two places her whole life, and I think she’s enjoyed the adventure of getting to see the world. We’re good that way. And I think she battles the same thing I did about being close to family but also getting to go on this big adventure.”

And while Dykes is a Texan through and through, he might be selling real estate today if he hadn’t turned down a dream opportunity with the Longhorns.

In February 1997, the year after Texas won the Big 12 by upsetting Nebraska, John Mackovic called Dykes and offered him a graduate assistant job with the Longhorns. It was the breakthrough Dykes had been working on for two years since he decided he wanted to coach football. As a kid, Dykes had played football at Texas’ Memorial Stadium on Sundays when Spike was an assistant in Austin. He was in the locker room with Spike when Royal told the team he was retiring. This was a place that meant something to him. He couldn’t wait to call his dad and tell him the exciting news.

But for Spike, there was one big problem. Sonny had agreed to go work for Mumme starting in May.

“I called my dad and told him, and he said, ‘I thought you told Hal you were going to go to Kentucky,'” Sonny recalls. “I said, ‘But Dad, it’s Texas.’

“He said, ‘You can do whatever you want. You’re grown. But I can tell you this: If you do that to Hal Mumme, don’t ever ask me to help you with anything again the rest of your career. Because I won’t. That’s your word. If your word doesn’t mean anything, then I’ll never, ever help you. I’ll be your dad. But don’t ever call me to help you with a job.”

Sonny was crushed. But his dad’s words carried weight. He went to Kentucky.

Twenty-five years later, he’s still running Mumme’s offense, thriving as a head coach in Texas, coaching in the same league where Spike ended his career.

“It changed everything in my life, truly,” Dykes said. “Looking back on the whole thing, having some perspective, I realize now that it showed me that if I just do the right thing and work hard, all this stuff’s going to work out. Of all the lessons my dad ever taught me, that was probably the best one.”

Spike died in 2017 at 79. One of Sonny’s favorite memories is celebrating with his dad in the visitors locker room at Texas when Cal beat the Longhorns two years before.

Kueck proudly said TCU is the only team he makes sure to watch every week. Seeing Dykes back in Texas and the Big 12 is a storybook twist for a career he watched from the beginning.

“The only guy I compare him to, and he probably would hate that I said this, is his dad. Sonny has a knack of being a leader and directing people without anybody feeling like he’s pushing them around,” Kueck said. “I was watching when he beat the hell out of Oklahoma and I said, ‘Ol’ Spike’s looking down on this thing right now, just really proud.'”

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