Culture Shock: Sonny Dykes’ fight to improve Cal football’s academic scores

Cal football players have to balance the rigorous workload of playing football and keeping their GPA afloat.
Kore Chan/Staff
Cal football players have to balance the rigorous workload of playing football and keeping their GPA afloat.

Related Posts

For Bryce Treggs, Tuesday is the hardest day of the week.

On Tuesdays, Treggs runs across campus to be at his 9:30 a.m. class on time. If he’s late, his coaches certainly will hear about it — and his teammates will be punished. He sits through three classes before finishing up at about 2 p.m.

The day is only half-over at that point. At 2 p.m., Treggs the student morphs into his alter ego: a starting wide receiver on the Cal football team. From then until about 4, the receivers meet with their coaches in Memorial Stadium.

They take a quick break, then the entire team comes together at 4:30 p.m. for practice. Around  6 p.m., the players finally call it quits for the day. But Treggs has to switch gears once more and refocus on schoolwork.

“You’re so tired that sometimes you don’t feel like doing it,” he says about homework. “You just have to push through it.”

Treggs is one of the 122 football players who juggles school and sports. For every football player, a 9-to-2 course load is all part of a balancing act.

And on the other end lies the most demanding extracurricular on campus.

Every single day is a struggle to stay ahead of the curve. Free time only exists around the thinned-out edges.

“It’s almost like you have another class,” says junior linebacker Brennan Scarlett. But the stakes are even higher in the middle of a hot spotlight. “Your test is like, 65,000 people watch your test.”

On a larger scale, the football program also faces its own test: guaranteeing that its student-athletes thrive in an academically challenging environment. Since the hiring of Sonny Dykes last winter, the team has shown promising signs of meeting this challenge. In the spring, Cal football posted its best semester GPA since the school started keeping records, according to Athletics Director Sandy Barbour.

Yet the program came dangerously close to failing — as well as failing its student-athletes — in 2012.

Academic1

Players like Mark Brazinski, Brennan Scarlett, and Chris Adcock (left to right) are helping carry new head coach Sonny Dykes’ mission to improve the Cal football team’s academic scores.

The Academic Progress Rate is a tedious and unnavigable report produced each year by the NCAA that scores every Division I sport. The report’s goal is obvious: to ensure that student-athletes remain students in the ever-more-commercialized world of collegiate athletics.

If a program’s APR score falls too low, then the NCAA can impose sanctions and revoke postseason eligibility.

Three years ago, Cal’s football team posted an uncharacteristically low APR score under longtime head coach Jeff Tedford. Barbour thought it must be an aberration; Tedford had long been committed to academic achievement within his football team.

But after two more years of low APR results, the team was in a hole. In the summer of 2012, the annual APR report made the rounds, and the athletics department faced a media blitz.

Cal, the world’s best public university, possessed a football team that was second to last in the Pac-12 in academics.

The administration took measures to address the problem, but simply cauterizing the wound wouldn’t help the program in the long run. The lingering APR disappointment, coupled with a 3-9 campaign, left fans and team alike in need of a fresh start, and Tedford was fired in November 2012.

“The change was made precisely because there had been a loss of a focus on the importance of the student part of the student-athlete moniker,” said Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It was a sense that it was becoming an oxymoron — at least in football.”

As Barbour and the rest of the Cal administration hunted for a new head coach last winter, a commitment to academic excellence in potential candidates became just as crucial as a vision for athletic success.

Enter Sonny Dykes.

Academic3

“It’s almost like you have another class. Your test is like, 65,000 people watch your test.” — Junior linebacker Brennan Scarlett on balancing classes with football.

Dykes, the head coach at Louisiana Tech, impressed Barbour with his commitment to academics. He demanded accountability from his players in all aspects of student life: football, school and even community engagement.

“Everything I was hearing from people that knew him and that I trusted said he was absolutely all about academics,” Barbour says. “All about individual accountability, all about team accountability.

“They believed he would or could be the right person to reverse the trend, as well as bring us winning football.”

Sonny Dykes was named Cal’s 33rd head football coach on Dec. 5.

There was a lot of hype in the offseason about what Dykes could do for Cal football. He was a salesman taking an unknown and optimistic future and molding it to the hopes and demands of Cal faithful.

But nothing stood out like his “win everything” approach to college football. He didn’t just want to win games or a Rose Bowl; he felt it was his moral obligation as head coach to ensure his players succeeded academically.

Education didn’t have to come at the cost of football — or vice versa.

“Athletics is so much about being willing to work and do extra to give yourself a chance to be successful,” he says. “And I think that’s what you have to do as a student.”

Simply put, good habits transfer over. It took less than a year for that message to really take hold, and Dykes was in the trenches every day delivering it.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen alone.

Derek Van Rheenen, director of the Athletic Study Center, says that in the wake of the APR report, the coaches and administration drafted an Academic Improvement Plan to find ways to identify and alleviate problems within the program’s stance on academics.

The administrators also brought in three additional learning specialists (for a total of four) to work directly with the football team.

Barbour and the administration believe that the academic outlook was already improving last fall, but it took Dykes’ commitment to revamping Cal football to catalyze a radical turnaround.

“Under Sonny Dykes, all the coaches have really supported the cause,” says Christine Ho, a learning specialist. “He came in and already saw the fruit of our labor. He already saw that the guys were doing well.”

The new head coach immersed himself in monthly meetings with Van Rheenen and other members of the athletics department to continue finding ways to improve Cal’s APR.

“Everybody can put together committees and have meetings and accomplish nothing,” Dykes says. “But I leave these meetings every time with four or five ideas that I can talk to our learning specialists about, that I can talk to our student-athletes about, that result in our getting something improved.”

Learning specialists are now vital cogs in the machine that is Cal football, and the team largely owes its recent academic success to them. The specialists are available to every member of the team via drop-in appointments to give advice and edit essays.

But each specialist primarily works with a few student-athletes, planning out master schedules and instilling tips for time management.

From there, Dykes and the coaching staff further reiterate the importance of academics. Players turn in their syllabi to the assistant coaches so the latter can check in on a student’s academic calendar.

Dykes has even pulled athletes from practice if they have pressing academic concerns.

Every day, the assistant coaches give little tips, such as the importance of attending office hours and sitting in the front of the class.

Players are eager to tell coaches when they make good grades, and the coaches provide the constant encouragement to always reach a rung or two higher.

“That support from us has been very critical,” Dykes says. “These kids, like everybody else, they want praise when they do well.”

But for the athletes, the most obvious way the coaching staff got involved was sending in class-checkers. Assistant coaches or learning specialists go to the players’ classes to make sure they show up on time.

Last year, the practice was halfheartedly enforced, but under Dykes, its seen an evangelical resurrection.

If a player skips out or shows up late, the coaches receive a text within five minutes of the start of class.

And waiting for that player at the beginning of practice is a lecture and a team wide punishment of up-downs.

“Ever since we did that, we haven’t had any more problems,” Treggs says. “Everybody’s been going to class; everybody’s been going to tutoring.”

Dykes’ main lesson of accountability has officially been ingrained in the minds of his student-athletes — to the point where they’re now starting to take charge.

Academic2

Offensive lineman Mark Brazinski graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a double major in media studies and business administration. He is currently a graduate student in the School of Information.

About a month ago, Dykes approached four of his most academically driven players with an idea: a council composed of students and campus faculty members that would draft the football program’s academic mission statement.

Nick Forbes, Chris Adcock, Mark Brazinski and Scarlett are all upperclassmen who thrive academically, and they’ve championed the budding academic council.

The mission statement, known as “The Cal Way,” encourages and challenges players to push beyond all expectations — including one’s own. Every day is a commitment and a promise to try harder than one did the day before. Complacency is nonexistent.

The lessons are so omnipresent that Dykes may not have even needed to approach the four upperclassmen.

“We as players would have found a way to keep each other accountable anyway,” Brazinski says.

His attitude reflects another reason behind Dykes’ desire to engage the upperclassmen in the council — he hopes that the older players who have met with success can encourage the younger student-athletes can lead by example.

The hierarchy of encouragement present throughout the administration, the Athletic Study Center and the coaching staff can extend into the team itself.

What Dykes has orchestrated, then, is nothing short of a culture change. He took one idea — accountability — and allowed it to permeate every aspect of his football program.

The transformation has yet to come full circle. Dykes, the administration and the team will still work hard in the coming seasons to reverse the precarious APR scores and implement new programs to bolster academics. There’s still a long way to go.

But the team has already come so far.

Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comment policy
  • Willliam Wallace

    The story book My Pet Goat was being read by the “athlete” in the photo, but he had to sound out the words….