Sporting News Coach of the Year: TCU’s Sonny Dykes spearheads quick turnaround

By | December 15, 2022

Trust is a two-way street.

For a new coach, earning the trust of players is a critical first step in establishing the new direction of a program. When Sonny Dykes was hired at TCU last December, he made it a priority to meet with as many current players as he could to get to know them as people as much as football players.

“In today’s world, that’s the most important thing – players have to believe that you care about them off the field as much or more as you do on the field,” Dykes says. “I really believe that’s where all this success comes about, that trust has to happen before you have any success on the field.”

Success on the field followed, as the Horned Frogs earned the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff after a 12-1 season. TCU was picked to finish seventh in the 10-team Big 12 in the preseason following a four-year record of 23-24. For that remarkable turnaround in Year 1 and leading the first Texas-based school to the CFP, Sonny Dykes has been named Sporting News Coach of the Year.

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Quarterback Max Duggan, a Heisman finalist who did not win the starting job out of camp but replaced injured freshman Chandler Morris in the season-opener, says the team knew it had something special in Dykes as the season progressed.

“We didn’t really know him, but we had a lot of guys eager to get with him and play for him. He continued to earn our trust the longer we were together,” Duggan says. “He did a great job getting to know everybody and know their story and their ‘why’. That’s how he really tried to build the relationship.

“We have a great group of seniors. And he knew that playing against us at SMU. He knew we had a great group of guys that could lead the right way. And he trusts us.”

That trust was never more evident than in Week 11 at Baylor. The Frogs entered 10-0 and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. They had won at Texas the week before, and now the finish line was in sight.

Midway through the fourth quarter, however, TCU trailed 28-20 and had the ball on its own 10-yard line. Duggan led a 90-yard touchdown drive, but the two-point conversion failed. The defense forced a three-and-out, and TCU had 1:30 and no timeouts from its own 31-yard line to get in position for the winning field goal.

Duggan drove the Frogs to the Baylor 30 with 30 seconds left. Following a running play, TCU spiked the ball at the Baylor 26 with 22 seconds remaining, bringing up a third-and-6.

“After we clocked it, we had a conversation on the sideline. Do we throw it here?” Dykes says. “I wanted to get the ball in the middle of the field or on the right hash because that’s where our kicker likes it. The ball was on the left hash. I talked to (offensive coordinator) Garrett Riley and talked to our special teams coordinator, and I said, ‘Let’s run it here, get the ball on the right hash and make sure we have Bazooka field goal ready.”

‘Bazooka’ field goal is a play TCU practices every Thursday. The unit sprints out onto the field with the clock running and lines up for a field goal. Dykes had seen it enough in practice to trust his team to do it with an undefeated season on the line.

“When you prepare, there comes a time where you simply have to trust your preparation,” special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl says. “That was probably the 15th time we had done that. Sometimes, you just get rewarded for making a decision like that.”

Running back Emari Demercado was tackled with 15 seconds remaining and the clock running. All 11 special teamers sprinted to their spots with the clock ticking. The ball was snapped at four seconds, and the 40-yard kick by Griffin Kell from near the right hash was dead center. Players trust coach. Coach trusts players.

“Well, you see somebody do it all the time in practice, you know they can do it. It is just a matter of going out and executing,” Dykes says. “Any time you are lining up for a game-winning field goal, your heart is pounding a little bit, but Griffin makes it all the time in practice and he made it in the game.”


Dykes’ path to TCU was a unique one, and one that almost didn’t happen. TCU and Texas Tech were both in the market for a coach last year, and there was a strong feeling Texas Tech would be the one to hire Dykes away from SMU after a successful four-year run in Dallas.

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Dykes has strong ties to Texas Tech. His father, Spike Dykes, was head coach in Lubbock from 1986-99, the longest tenure of any TTU coach. His wife graduated from Texas Tech. And Sonny spent six years as an assistant at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Of course Sonny attended Texas Tech when his father was coach. His chosen sport, however, was not football.

Dykes says he wanted to go to Texas Tech and was an average high school athlete, so was going to have to walk-on in either football or baseball if he wanted to be a college athlete. With he and his dad both  ‘headstrong’, according to Dykes, he thought it might be better if he played baseball.

Dykes played for Larry Mays as a walk-on, and it does not surprise Mays that Dykes has made getting to know his players one of his priorities as a coach.

“That’s who he is,” Mays says. “That’s who he was as a player. He’s a unifying-type of person. He’s real and you can believe him. Those are great qualities in a coach.”

Dykes pursued coaching high school baseball after college, but football lured him in fairly quickly. Between coaching high school, junior college and being a graduate assistant, he didn’t get his first full-time assistant job at a Power 5 school until he was 30 years old, when he joined Hal Mumme’s staff at Kentucky in 1999. In 2000, he went back to Lubbock with Leach, then eventually earned head coaching gigs at Louisiana Tech, Cal and SMU.

It seemed like it might be a slam dunk when Texas Tech was looking for a head coach last year, but the TCU job came open soon after, and Dykes was high on both lists.

“I just felt TCU was such a unique opportunity. I just think it is one of those programs that has a chance to be a national contender. With the commitment from the university, that was a big draw,” Dykes says. “Also, my dad has his legacy at Texas Tech. I kind of wanted to find my own place in the world. The TCU opportunity was too special for me to pass up.”


Dykes has certainly started his own legacy at TCU, literally under the shadow of the school’s first coaching legend. There is a statue on campus of his predecessor, Gary Patterson, who went 13-0 and won the Rose Bowl in 2010 from the Mountain West Conference. Patterson won at least 10 games 11 times and finished ranked in the Top 10 six times. Patterson did not step away willingly in 2021, and is on the Texas staff this season.

Sonny Dykes

(Getty Images)

But Dykes does not try to shy away from all that Patterson accomplished and his imprint on the school and the program.

“Obviously, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Patterson and what he did for TCU football and his impact on the program. Certainly, none of this would have happened,” Dykes says. “It is unusual (to see a statue of the previous coach), but it is kind of indicative of TCU. The university throws 100 percent support behind all of their programs and all of their coaches. It’s just been such a great place to work. When you have the kind of top down support that we do, you can see why there has been success in the past and we look forward to more in the future.”

Tommerdahl first worked with Dykes at Louisiana Tech and then moved on with him to Cal. He rejoined Dykes this season and has noticed a maturity in his coaching style that has served him well.

“His organizational skills have improved and he has a couple people on his staff who have helped with that,” Tommerdahl says. “His emphasis on recruiting has increased dramatically. He is heavily involved, it is every day and it does not stop or slow down. It is the growth I’ve seen. I was with him when he got his first head job. He’s evolved very well as his profession has demanded.”

And while Dykes is more organized and focused on recruiting, Tommerdahl says his example-setting and emphasis on relationships within the program remain vital.

“He does well with boosters at all different levels. Where he is at his strongest is sitting in high school fieldhouses and sitting at a table with an assistant talking ball,” Tommerdahl says. “He’s adamant about treating everybody the same. Our players are going to see him thank everybody that serves the team a meal. They are going to see him eat last. They are going to see him pick up paper when he leaves the building. He’s a common man who treats everybody with respect and it spreads through the organization.”

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And so the former high school baseball coach now prepares to coach in the biggest game of his life on Dec. 31 when TCU faces No. 2 Michigan in the CFP semifinals. He knows the rest of the playoff field – Georgia and Ohio State – have rich bloodlines throughout the sport, and TCU is cast as this year’s outsider. But that’s OK to Dykes. He knows what his team is.

“I think our football team has a really good collection of individuals, but we are better collectively,” he says. “And that’s the goal of any team. And that’s the goal of any coach, to build a team like that.”