Richard Justice: Sonny Dykes and a 12-0 masterpiece of a season at TCU

Mandatory Credit: Photo by LM Otero/AP/Shutterstock (13639090i) Head coach Sonny Dykes cheers after his team scored during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State in Fort Worth, Texas Iowa State TCU Football, Fort Worth, United States – 26 Nov 2022

Richard Justice: Sonny Dykes and a 12-0 masterpiece of a season at TCU

   Let’s start way back at the beginning, earlier this year, when Sonny Dykes was still settling in as TCU’s head football coach. That’s the best way to understand this 12-0 masterpiece of a season that has made a superstar of a 52-year-old football lifer.

   Did I say football lifer? On the night in 1976 that Darrell Royal coached his final football game at the University of Texas, Sonny Dykes was a seven-year-old kid having a high old time running around the Longhorns locker room, offices, and assorted hallways.

   His dad, Spike, was a longtime member of Royal’s staff at Texas and later became one of the most revered head coaches in Texas Tech history. He, too, was a football lifer.

   When the people that know Sonny Dykes best talk about his ability to build a program, that is, his gift for building strong relationships with players and his demand for discipline and precise practices, they could also be talking about his late dad.

   Not a single day goes by that Sonny Dykes does not remember something his dad said or did or some foundational belief he instilled. Those things are part of what makes Sonny Dykes both a great football coach and wonderful man. All those things, all of ‘em, have been building blocks for TCU’s remarkable season that has landed the Horned Frogs in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship Game against Kansas State. If TCU wins, it’ll have one of the four berths in the College Football Playoff. That’s heady stuff for a team picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Big 12.

   “Relationships are the most important thing,” Sonny told me when I asked about the influence his dad has had on his career. “X’s and O’s are important. Recruiting is important. Facilities are important. All this stuff’s important. But at the end of the day, relationships are the most important thing. He was really good at that. Every single player on the team meant something to him, whether they were the best player or the worst player. They were all important.

   “He had a ton of respect for the coaching profession in the game of football and what it can do for people, what it did for him. My dad kind of grew up on the wrong side of the tracks (in Ballinger), and football was his way out. It changed his life. (He understood) what the game does for young people and the opportunities they never would have had. My dad took that very seriously and had a great appreciation for that.”

    And those things provide the background for 12-0. No sooner had he stepped off a helicopter on the field at Amon G. Carter Stadium last November, did the challenges begin.

   He’d had five successful seasons at SMU: his .625 winning percentage is the highest in the post-Death Penalty era. Texas Tech and Oklahoma apparently wanted him. Or at least wanted to talk to him. According to a report out of Austin, Dykes was also the first choice of Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte (but not that of some other UT decision-makers).

   Sonny Dykes, who spent the 2017 season as an offensive analyst for Gary Patterson at TCU after being let go by Cal, knew the landscape in Fort Worth. In almost every interview, he makes clear that Patterson did things at TCU almost no one thought possible. In fact, that success is one of the reasons the job appealed to him in the first place.

   But there were issues, some of them common when a school changes coaches in this era of the transfer portal. Which is where Sonny Dykes began drawing boundaries.

   When too many players were skipping offseason workouts, Dykes embarked on a listening tour to find out what his players needed from him. In return, he told them bluntly what he needed from them.

   “Just getting the players to buy into the vision and want to do things the right way,” Dykes told me. “When they’re recruited by different people that they know and trust, and all of a sudden there’s all these new people in there — they don’t know you, they don’t trust you, they don’t know if you truly have their best intentions at heart. There’s just a lot going on, a lot of things running through young people’s heads.”

   Nothing succeeds like success. When the Horned Frogs walloped Oklahoma 55-24 in the fourth game, Dykes believes his players saw the possibilities of this season and thought, “Okay, you know, we do have a chance. Maybe we can do something, and maybe what they’ve been telling us is true.”

   “It reinforces all the behaviors you try to teach,” Dykes said, “and it’s a lot easier to do that kind of stuff when you have success. We’ve got good players here, they want to be good, and they’re very competitive. That’s not always the case. A lot of times when you take over a program, it takes a long time to get people really bought in.”

   Dykes is the first to say that this 12-0 season is about way more than him. If not for quarterback Max Duggan, the player Dykes calls “one of the most courageous people I’ve ever known.”  If not for wide receiver Quentin Johnston and running back Kendre Miller, key cogs in an offense that’s averaging 41.3 points per game, fourth-highest in the nation.

  If not for a defense that finished a solid regular season by producing a pair of touchdowns in a 62-14 rout of Iowa State on Saturday. If not for cornerbacks Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and Josh Newton, one of the best duos in the nation.

   TCU did lose some players to the transfer portal, but it gained some, too. In the end, it all worked.

   “They kind of had a quiet confidence about them from the get-go,” Dykes told The Athletic. “They had a determination to get the bad taste out of their mouth.”

   And there was talent. According to research by 247Sports, TCU has ranked behind only Oklahoma and Texas every year since 2016 in recruiting. In addition, TCU had multiple players taken in the NFL Draft every year between 2018 and 2021.

   TCU won double-digit games each season between 2002 and 2017 under Patterson and won the Rose Bowl in 2011 and the Big 12 in 2014.

   He inherited a roster that had loads of speed, but lacked offensive and defensive line depth.

   “We want them to react and be able to play fast,” Dykes said. “If you’re too complicated scheme-wise, then you take your best asset away.”

   To do that, TCU players essentially had to learn new schemes on both offense and defense. They were also drilled on the importance of nutrition, hydration and sleep.

   Close calls, they’ve had a few. Duggan’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Johnston beat Kansas with less than two minutes remaining. The Horned Frogs rallied back from a 17-point deficit to Oklahoma State in overtime.

They trailed Kansas State by 18 but won by 10. They held Texas to 28 rushing yards and won 17-10.

   And then there was Baylor. TCU trailed by eight in the fourth quarter and won when they hustled the field goal team onto the field in the final seconds and kicked a game-winner as time expired.

   On Saturday, they overwhelmed Iowa State 62-14 for the first perfect regular season since 2010.

   “The great thing is we’re so talented, so deep, these guys can play anywhere around the country,” Duggan said. “We’re fortunate enough to have them on our team. Nobody complains about touches, no one complains about reps. Guys get in, when they do they make the most of it.”

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