College Football Playoff: Sonny Dykes brought TCU into the national spotlight; can he keep it there?

TCU is in the midst of its best season ever, but what comes next for the Horned Frogs?

When you travel by helicopter, you’re making a statement. You’re the kind of person who takes to the air on a moment’s notice. You have no patience for the grind of the ground. Your first and last goal is getting above it all.

So when Sonny Dykes arrived at TCU last December via helicopter, he wasn’t just replacing a school legend, he was making an entrance. He didn’t roll into Fort Worth like Coach Prime bearing metaphorical Louis Vuitton luggage at Colorado or Lincoln Riley arriving at USC with a crew of transfer-portal all-stars. But he also didn’t show up like Brian Kelly, forcing an accent and faking folksiness. Dykes was a low-key hire who — against all expectations — turned out to be exactly the right man in the right place at the right time.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Dykes used the roster of a team that went 5-7 last year and turned it into a 12-1 behemoth, guiding a preseason irrelevancy into the College Football Playoff, laying the groundwork for a benched quarterback to play his way into the Heisman finalist ceremony. He’s the first coach to put a Texas team into the playoff, and he’s laid the groundwork for a long run of dominance. He may not have deserved a helicopter entrance upon arrival, but he deserves that and a parade now, regardless of how Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against Michigan turns out.

“We were picked seventh in the preseason media poll this year in the Big 12,” Dykes said earlier this month. “Our players have done an incredible job of avoiding distractions and didn't pay much attention to the preseason rankings. Just as the season rolled along, we didn't pay attention to the college football rankings or the College Football Playoff rankings or the Big 12 rankings or any of that … We couldn't be more proud of our players and of TCU and our fans, and we're really looking forward to a great game against Michigan.”

Dykes has the most Texas-sounding name this side of his daddy Spike, who coached at Texas Tech while Sonny played baseball there. After graduating in 1993, Dykes set out on the winding road of an itinerant assistant coach, bouncing from high school to junior college to Power Five, coaching running backs, wide receivers, special teams, tight ends or quarterbacks. He ventured as far west as California and Arizona, as far east as Kentucky, but he always seemed to find his way back to Texas — from Pearce High School in Dallas to Navarro College in Corsicana to Texas Tech to SMU to, at last, TCU as head coach.

“Sonny Dykes and myself … we're coaches' sons,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said this week. “Spike Dykes, great coach, three Coach of the Years when he was at Texas Tech. But to be young like we were and be exposed to the game of football and be exposed to a team and the family culture of a football team … that's the way our players, our coaches approach the game of football, with a great joy.”

Along the way, Dykes picked up some crucial intel — contacts with dozens of Dallas-area high school coaches, courtesy of his frequent recruiting trips, and a take-to-the-air philosophy, courtesy of his time working under Mike Leach at Texas Tech.

Meanwhile, TCU under Gary Patterson reached the top of the mountain … and then slid back down the other side. Under Patterson, TCU played its way into a perfect 13-0 record and a Rose Bowl victory in 2010, jumped to the Big 12 two years later, and very nearly reached the inaugural College Football Playoff with a 12-1 record in 2014. But by the late 2010s, the shifting college football landscape gave way under Patterson’s feet. He resigned following a 3-5 start to the 2021 season, and a few weeks later, in flew that helicopter.

TCU head coach Sonny Dykes (right) helped guide quarterback Max Duggan (15) to a magical season that made him a Heisman Trophty finalist. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
TCU head coach Sonny Dykes (right) helped guide quarterback Max Duggan (15) to a magical season that made him a Heisman Trophty finalist. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

What happened next was one of the more remarkable turnarounds — and whiplash seasons — in recent college football history. Dykes benched longtime starter Max Duggan, a holdover from the Patterson regime — and then Duggan, given a chance to start again because of injuries — simply went out and posted a Heisman-worthy season.

With Duggan under center and Dykes in charge, the Horned Frogs reeled off win after heart-stopping win — a last-second defeat of Kansas, a rally from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Oklahoma State in double OT, an 18-point comeback against Kansas State, and the dramatic sprint-on, walk-off field goal to beat Baylor:

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Duggan finished with more than 3,000 yards passing and 400 yards rushing, leading four game-winning drives and coming within inches of a fifth. Even their one loss was a victory of sorts, a Big 12 championship overtime defeat to Kansas State that proved valiant enough to earn a berth in the playoff over blue-blood Alabama.

Through it all, Dykes has maintained a chill vibe, infusing his team with the most mundane of motivational phrases — “Do your job” — and keeping them focused on the task at hand rather than the enormity of the moment.

“Coach does a great job to have emotional flexibility and knowing what your job is and what you are here for,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “I feel like he's been doing a great job of telling us what to do and what to be looking forward to, and that helped to guide us.”

“When he first got here, a lot of guys had a sour taste in their mouth,” offensive lineman Steve Avila said. “But after a while, after maybe a week or two, we started to understand he's here for us. He's definitely a player's coach. And he had the tools to build this program and gets the trust from the players.”

Now, Dykes and TCU stand on the national stage as the new kid in the crew. They’re seeded third, but they’re a 7.5-point underdog to Michigan, while No. 4 Ohio State is a 6.5-point dog against No. 1 Georgia in the other semifinal. TCU’s 2022 model evolution of the old Air Raid offense will run up hard against a punishing Michigan defense, and all the chaos magic that the Frogs used to run through the Big 12 may not be enough against the best of the Big Ten.

Still, Dykes is appreciating the moment, regardless of how Saturday's goes down. He’s even feeling himself enough to throw a little chin music at the big, bad SEC. “In the Big 12, we don't have the good fortune to play an out-of-conference game like the SEC does in Week 10 or Week 11,” he noted this week. “We're not going to catch the Citadel in Week 10. We caught Texas … It's difficult to get through that gauntlet of nine consecutive conference games against quality opponents.”

Sonny Dykes is leading TCU to unprecedented heights. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Sonny Dykes is leading TCU to unprecedented heights. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

The Frogs made it through the gauntlet, and Saturday night will mark TCU’s high-water mark as a program. Come Sunday morning, no matter what happens, the expectations will ratchet exponentially upward. The state of Texas appreciates a good football season, but Texas craves a football dynasty. If it has to come from the Horned Frogs rather than the Longhorns, well, so be it.

“It's always been a fight for credibility,” Dykes conceded. “You go back and look at the old days of the Southwest Conference, and TCU was kind of an also-ran for a number of years, really, for probably three decades. Just had a hard time kind of breaking through. Ended up in a couple of different conferences, and had to kind of battle and pull themselves up by the bootstraps and go to work.”

Dykes knows that all this goodwill can vanish if he backslides or allows the pack to catch him. With Duggan leaving for the NFL draft and additional turnover a certainty, he’ll need to use all his charm and Dallas-Fort Worth connections to start tapping the veins of Texas high school talent. TCU ranks 19th on Rivals’ 2023 recruiting list, behind Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12, behind Texas and Texas A&M in the state. He’s picked up eight four-stars but no five-stars, and he’ll need to bring in bigger hauls than that to compete at the sport’s highest levels.

“We go out and play well and people respect us. And we do it consistently and the program continues to become more and more relevant. And that's our goal,” Dykes said. “We hope to some day look up and somebody says, 'hey, look, in the last decade, TCU is the winningest program in college football or in the top five.' That's kind of the goal for us moving forward. We certainly think that's something we can accomplish.”

The good news is, Dykes got the TCU program off the ground and into the air. But for the altitudes where he wants to fly next, he’ll need much more than just a helicopter.

_____

Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.