New sheriff in town: Sonny Dykes’ vision for Cal football

Five months into the job, Sonny Dykes envisions his program to go beyond winning football games. He wants to redefine what Cal football means to the Berkeley community.

Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes came into the Daily Cal office for an exclusive interview.
Levy Yun/Staff
Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes came into the Daily Cal office for an exclusive interview.

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Sonny Dykes has two young daughters at home, but when he arrives at work every day, he transforms into a surrogate parent of nearly 100 men.

Before and after practice, he mingles with his players, cracking light-hearted jokes and dispensing life advice to his players. From the upper stands of Memorial Stadium, you could mistake him for a positional coach, who generally has more personal connections with the players.

“You feel like you’re talking to a teammate,” guard Jordan Rigsbee said. “He’s the kind of guy that’s gonna go through the hard times with you.”

Over the past five months, Dykes, the new coach of the Cal football team, made himself at home in Berkeley. After a divorce between the program and former coach Jeff Tedford this winter, he’s the new hope to rejuvenate the decrepit program marred by a 3-9 record last year.

With his debut just three months away, the carte blanche earns him the benefit of the doubt. In the midst of offseason limbo, he has nothing to hide.

Dykes, speaking softly in slightly masked Texan drawl, has big plans as the new boss of Memorial Stadium. The plans are grandiose and idealistic, but his idealism sometimes borders on quixotic.

Dykes envisions a Cal football team that will uphold themselves to high moral and ethical  standards. As college football, already a billion-dollar business, expands its revenues further, Dykes wants Cal to be the forerunner that fights against the increasingly pervasive mindset of the football-first student-athlete.

“My job is to win football games, but it’s much more than that,” Dykes says. “I certainly wouldn’t feel like I accomplished much if our players didn’t do well and they weren’t integrated into being college students.

“It would feel pretty empty winning.”

In the towns of west Texas, the surname Dykes is a famous football surname. Older football fans remember Spike Dykes, Sonny’s father, as the legendary high school coach who stood on the sidelines on Friday nights from the ’60s to the ’80s.

From 1986 to 1999, Spike moved on to coach Texas Tech in Lubbock, where his son Sonny played baseball.

Spike is a remnant of a bygone era in college football, when the sport was still more localized and national revenue was less lucrative.

“(Our family) didn’t have a lot of money,” Spike says. “But we always really had a good laugh.”

Sonny grew up under the spotlight of his father. As his father created a familial environment for his teams, Sonny wants to bring the same atmosphere to Cal.

“I’ve had the best parents anyone can ever ask for,” Sonny says. “It’s my job to create a family environment for my players.”

Dykes at Berkeley seems out of place. In the urban Bay Area, the emphasis on family and community is more opaque than in the rural west Texan towns.

The money-grabbing in college football is exponentially increasing, and Cal is no exception to it. The Pac-12’s television contract with major networks totals $3 billion over 12 years. Memorial Stadium just had a $321 million facelift.

The old, traditional values associated with Spike Dykes’ time feel buried under the mountains of money. His son can’t contain his disdain for the skyrocketing profits that comes from college sports.

“College athletics is not a business,” Sonny says. “That’s not why it started. Our responsibilities are to enrich the players’ lives and teach them other things aside from block-and-tackle.”

But Dykes is not at war with the reality of lucrative business of college business. He accepts it. At age 43, Dykes signed a contract worth up to $9.8 million to be the 33rd head coach at Cal.

If Father Time had his way, Dykes might best fit coaching a high school worthy of a “Friday Night Lights” episode — much like his father. There, he would preach his message of personal enrichment and influence the lives of his players on and off the field.

But Dykes is not a high school football coach. Dykes is in charge at Cal. Already, he’s taking his first steps to redefine what Cal football will mean for the future.

“It’s just more than playing football,” Dykes says.

Dykes pauses midsentence for several seconds. He’s deep in thought, carefully constructing how he will answer a question about the importance of academic achievement.

Last year, Tedford faced scrutiny after a report came out showing only 47 percent of football players from 2002-5 graduated. Some say that was the coup de grace for Tedford’s firing.

He rambles on about how his performance will be judged on wins and losses, until he cuts himself off. Winning games is crucial, but he hopes to be gauged on a different metric outside the football field.

“From an ethical standpoint, (graduating my players) needs to be the primary focus,” Dykes says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for (the 47 percent graduation rate). I understand how important it is to get fixed.”

And Dykes already set himself a high goal in terms of graduating his players. He says he  will make sure that every single senior in the program will graduate from Cal by this year.

His emphasis of positive feedback and shared accountability in the team has helped so far. In the locker room, there’s a Player of the Week award projecting on the walls for academic excellence. The special passes to miss classes are now almost nonexistent.

“We are talking more ownership,” linebacker Nick Forbes says. “It’s a lot of the brotherhood picking (each other) up.”

During his three-year stint as Louisiana Tech’s head coach, Dykes had success in improving graduation rates, posting a program-high 76 percent graduation rate.

Dykes held a short leash on players who didn’t focus on academics. In 2011, Dykes had five transfer players from the SEC, but when their academics took a backseat, Dykes canned all five.

“He got the ball rolling,” says Brad Herman, Louisiana Tech football’s academic counselor. “He turned the system from not being organized to being organized.”

Dykes is preparing his players for a life outside of football in campus as well. He wants the team to engage with the community like a big school club.

He has rallied his team to support other Cal sports teams in person and to volunteer, from running a workshop on Cal Day to working in San Quentin prison.

But Dykes sees the progress as a constructive, multiyear process. First, he plans to break down the jock mentality prevalent in student-athletes.

“It’s going to be a constant battle,” Dykes says.

For many players, it’s already a constant battle balancing academic rigors at Berkeley with athletic demands. From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., most players are in class or practice, leaving them exhausted by the day’s end.

So how much more responsibility can the players take before they succumb to the demand?

“You got to know that 95 percent of the time, the athletes are simply tired,” Forbes said. “(However), it’s building a connective community. I think it’s great.”

On Dec. 19, 13 days after he was hired, Dykes revealed that he was going to hold open practices in a get-to-know-you pizza party with the Cal beat writers.

“Open the gates,” Dykes said at the time. “Come on in. We don’t have any secrets.”

Both open practices and pizza parties with the journalists would have been impossible to fathom when Tedford was still the coach. Tedford kept everyone outside the program at an arm’s length. As his program declined, so did the accessibility.

Dykes’ openness of the program to the public has been a refreshing change welcomed by many. But Dykes insists this is not a reaction to distance himself away from Tedford.

“If you look at my approach in Louisiana Tech and places I have been in the past, I have been that way,” Dykes says. “I don’t see why it can’t work here.”

Inheriting a 3-9 season in a brand-new stadium with poor sales record, Dykes has a brand to sell. Tedford sold his brand through the number of NFL players produced. Dykes is trying to sell it through the kind of accessibility and warmth you would expect when you enter a family home in west Texas.

Frankness and openness builds trust and likability. The trust and likability hopefully will bring Cal better recruits and sell more tickets.

“The more people know of our program, the more comfortable they will be with us,” Dykes says. “Access is deserved by the people.”

Perhaps there is something scheming when Dykes strolls through campus or eats lunch at La Val’s pizzeria. He’s the new kid in class, and he wants to be liked by the students. He wants to sell football tickets, too. Constant exposure might persuade some to come to Memorial Stadium come August.

If that is the case, then Dykes shows no signs of forcing the act in. His laid-back persona always maintains its cool.

Dykes wants his football team to accommodate every student and members in the Cal community. He envisions the entire campus being a part of the Cal football family.

“This is your team —  this is Cal’s team,” Dykes says. “We certainly don’t have anything to hide.”

Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.

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