For most college football programs, news coverage in January means that an incredible season has been capped off with an appearance in one of the top bowl games in the nation. For the Cal athletic program, it meant a surprising and expensive firing and an embarrassing revelation about finances.
The “coaching carousel” — the process of college football coaches moving from program to program amid hirings and firings — starts right around the end of the regular season in November and almost always stops spinning by the time a new year is brought in. So when Cal fired Sonny Dykes on Jan. 8 after four years and with three years left on his contract, it was a surprise by the nature of its timing, if not its merits.
After interviewing for other head-coaching positions after the 2015 season, Dykes signed a contract extension that was supposed to take him through to the 2019 season. But in the world of college football, numbers like that don’t mean nearly as much as Dykes’ 2016 record (5-7) and cumulative record (19-30) with the Bears.
Another number on people’s mind, however, is $5.88 million — the sum Dykes is owed — representing 70 percent of the total he was due during the rest of his contract. A few days before the firing, Bloomberg reported that Cal is in the most debt of any college athletic program by a good margin. Cal Athletics is hoping that a new coach can help turn around football’s financial fortune, but that nearly $6 million figure puts the program even further into the red.
The timing of the firing also led to speculation among sports journalists that Cal already knew who would replace Dykes, as looking to hire a new coach without a serious lead once hiring season was over would have been almost unheard of. Former University of Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly was fired from the San Francisco 49ers a week before Dykes was fired from Cal, which led to speculation that Kelly could be headed to Memorial Stadium. But once Cal’s dire financial situation was clear, such a big-ticket move looked unlikely.
By the night of Jan. 8, the coaching search seemed to boil down to 2016 Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who had been named Cal’s interim head coach, and Wisconsin defensive coordinator and former Cal linebackers coach Justin Wilcox.
Players on the football team were not notified before news broke of Dykes’ firing, and some players took to lobbying for Spavital on Twitter. Spavital was reportedly interviewed for the head position, but Wilcox was named the new head coach Jan. 14, and shortly thereafter, Spavital was on his way to joining West Virginia University as its new offensive coordinator.
Dykes was known for his high-flying offenses, but his dismal defenses — second-worst in points per game and fourth-worst in yards per game in the FBS this season — are what ultimately led to his poor records. Accordingly, Cal went to Wilcox, who was in charge of a Badgers defense this year that was top five in points allowed per game and top 10 in yards allowed per game. To retain the Bears’ high scoring offense, Wilcox has also brought former Eastern Washington and Central Washington head coach Beau Baldwin on board as the new offensive coordinator.
Whatever the means are, it looks as though there will be a good amount of pressure — from the administration and fans — for Wilcox to right the ship.