“Country Comes to Town” – Sonny Dykes Arrives in Berkeley to Lead the Golden Bears

(Photo by Brant Ward, The Chronicle)

(Photo by Brant Ward, The Chronicle)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

Deep in the heart of Texas, days after Sonny Dykes was introduced as Cal’s newest football coach, his father, Spike Dykes, is talking pigskin with a couple of football junkies on the “Cook’s Pest Control Hotline.”

At 75 years old, and with a glorious football career in his rearview mirror, Spike has no politically correct filter, no recruiting agenda, no schtick, just some stories about the good ol’ days of amateur football in the Lone Star State. And when the topic comes up of his boy moving out west to coach the Golden Bears, Spike shoots straight as an arrow.

“You talk about country come to town,” says Spike with a chuckle. “I think we probably dance to different drummers, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think I’d fit too good out there (in California). But I hope he does, I hope he can do it.”

And by “I hope he can do it,” we all know what Spike really means. Can his boy Sonny do what has proved impossible for the past 55 years in Berkeley? Can he bring a Rose Bowl berth to the faithful of Strawberry Canyon? Can he restore order in program that finished 3-9 last year while sporting the lowest graduation rate of all Pac-12 schools (48%)? One thing we’ve learned already, if Sonny succeeds, he’ll do so by keeping things simple, just like his old man did.

Born in the fall of 1969, Sonny Dykes grew up in Big Spring, Texas, as the son of a football coach. In a state certifiably obsessed with football, where a good seat at a high school game can require a Season Ticket Personal Seat License, Sonny was fed football for as long as he could remember. Naturally, he wanted to be the next Roger Staubach. The only catch was that he wasn’t very good. At least, not good enough to play for his dad, who was the coach of Texas Tech at the time. Fortunately, he knew how to handle a baseball bat.

“I was just kind of an average high school football player and if wanted to play I was gonna end up going to some school I’ve never heard of to play football,” Sonny told KNBR. “I just happened to be a little better at baseball. I could at least go to a school I’ve heard of. I was just kind of a guy on the baseball team.”

But following his graduation, there was no shaking the football lifestyle that had been ingrained in him at a young age. Even if he wasn’t good enough to cut it as a player, he couldn’t help but go back to it as a coach.

Sonny’s first legitimate coaching job took him 55 miles south of downtown Dallas to a small football town called Corsicana, Texas. The city’s motto is “Live, Work, Play.” It was Sonny’s kind of town. Sonny coached the quarterbacks at Navarro College. In his second year they made it to the Texas Junior College Championship. Soon thereafter, Sonny wound up at the University of Kentucky, where he served as an assistant to Hal Mumme, the Godfather of the “Air-Raid” offense. The Air-Raid concept led him back to Texas Tech, where he coached under fellow Air-Raid master Mike Leach. This was followed by a stint in the Pac-10 as an offensive coordinator at Arizona, and finally three years as the head man of Louisiana Tech in the WAC. Today, Sonny finds himself behind the wheel of a team and program ripe with potential, but fraught with flaws as he heads into the 2013 season facing perhaps the toughest schedule in college football.

This will be the first year Cal has had a new football coach since Jeff Tedford was hired back in 2002. Much like Dykes, Tedford was brought in based on his acumen as an offensive coordinator. Dubbed a “quarterback guru,” Tedford came to Berkeley with an offensive mindset, determined to jumpstart a god-awful program. In his freshman campaign, Tedford gave Bears fans a winning season, just one year removed from a 1-10 debacle under Tom Holmoe. By his third season, Tedford had the Bears ranked in the top 10 nationally, knocking on the Rose Bowl door.

During the middle of Tedford’s time in Berkeley, good times were rolling, and there seemed to be no end in sight. Tie-dyed “TedHead” shirts were printed, Marshawn and DeSean routinely ran wild, multi-million dollar stadium renovations were drawn up, and the Bears even flirted with a number 1 ranking. Somewhere along the line, however, Tedford seemed to lose his mojo, quality quarterbacks slowly stopped walking through his office door, and he was eventually forced to give up the once-promising program he cultivated.

In his shoes now stands a swashbuckler named Sonny Dykes who has been entrusted with the tall task of bringing the Bears back to Pac-12 prominence. It appears he plans to do so with the mantra of “KISS… Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

While Tedford was known for implementing a thick, complex playbook each fall, Dykes plans to take the exact opposite approach with the Air-Raid, or “Bear-Raid,” as it is now appropriately called in Berkeley. No doubt, Tedford’s offense worked wonderfully when it was run by a quarterback up to the task (see Rodgers, Aaron), but the complexities of the Tedford attack seemed to fall apart under his less adept signal callers in the past few years. Dykes, on the other hand, values the power of simplicity to make his offense move.

The Air-Raid style that Dykes will use traces itself back through a web of successful coaches. It is said the initial framework of the offense was spawned at BYU during the exciting passing years of Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer. LaVell Edwards was the coach during that era, and it was his mission to give his quarterbacks a simple, free and easy system to work in. Huddle only when you have to, use four wide receivers, let the QB go from the shotgun, and have him audible whenever he sees fit. This system worked, year after year, and it spawned a coaching tree that eventually named the system the “Air-Raid.” Hal Mumme took to it first, followed by Mike Leach, and now Sonny Dykes. 

In his three-year stay at Louisiana Tech, Dykes more than proved the value of the Air-Raid. Last season, Dykes’ offense churned out 577 yards and 51 points on average per game—all with an offensive playbook that consists of roughly 20 core plays. Huddles were mainly an afterthought last season, as Dykes’ offense reeled off the second-most offensive plays from scrimmage in all of Division I. Get to the line, survey the defense, snap it and let your athletes make plays. Rinse and repeat.

“Athletes who make plays” certainly have not been in short supply in Berkeley over the past decade. One would be hard pressed to flip on the tube on a fall Sunday and not see a Cal alum starring for an NFL team. Pro talent has been steadily flowing through the Cal recruiting pipeline, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t fully blossomed in Berkeley, especially at the quarterback position. Sandy Barbour and company are banking on the hope that a little simplicity will be just what the doctor ordered.

While Tedford leaves behind all the positives that come with a renovated Memorial Stadium and a new high-performance training facility, he also leaves his successor with an incredibly competitive schedule to navigate. Dykes inherits the least experienced team in all of the Pac-12 (five returners on defense, four on offense to be exact), and must face Big-10 power in Northwestern right out of the gate. Two weeks later, the team expected to claim the national championship and the Heisman Trophy, Ohio State, will show up in Berkeley. Sprinkle in a late September road test at Oregon and you have yourself a murderous first month of the season to contend with.

Dykes can only hope his simple, straightforward offense will jibe with what will likely be redshirt freshman Zach Kline at quarterback. If Kline can channel his inner Jim McMahon and Steve Young, the Bear-Raid will provide all the freedom he needs to make plays. What the offense won’t provide is a complex, intricate system designed to deceive the defense and hide offensive flaws.

Sonny Dykes, born in America’s football heartland to the son of a famed Texas coach, knows the drill all too well. Success isn’t measured by progress, or talent, or potential, but rather the cold hard facts of wins and losses and BCS Bowl appearances. It’s “win now,” and after that, it’s “what have you done for me lately.” It’s coaches at SC and Oregon bending the rules and breaking for the NFL as soon as it gets too hot. It’s Mike Leach at Washington State, it’s Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA, David Shaw at Stanford. It’s non-conference games vs. Big-10 powers. It’s the Wild West of college football, and good ol’ Sonny now finds himself right in the thick of it all. The Bear-Raid era is upon us and Cal fans can only pray it delivers the Rose Bowl they have long deserved.

(Photo by Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

(Photo by Lenny Ignelzi/AP)