Dykes undeterred by rough first season

May, 15, 2014
May 15
12:00
PM ET
BERKELEY, Calif. -- When Sonny Dykes left Louisiana Tech to replace Jeff Tedford as the coach at California following the 2012 season, he had no grand visions of immediate success -- at least not from a wins and losses standpoint.

Anyone who took an honest look at the roster, which included just 13 of the 38 players that signed as part of the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes, and the schedule -- ranked here as the nation’s third-toughest going into the season -- knew there weren’t many wins on the table. Even in a best-case scenario, it would have been hard to find five.

"I anticipated [the season] would be difficult at first," Dykes said, "but it ended up being more difficult than I anticipated in a lot of ways."

[+] EnlargeSonny Dykes
AP Photo/Eric RisbergA roster bereft of veteran players and a nasty string of injuries made Year 1 at California a trying one for Sonny Dykes.
Injuries had a lot to do with that. Before Cal entered conference play it had already lost five players for the season, and by the time it limped out of the Big Game against Stanford in the season finale, 25 guys had combined to miss 138 games due to injury. It's that level of attrition that keeps good teams out of bowl games, and in this case, enough to turn a team expected to struggle into one that was historically undermanned.

But despite the Golden Bears' 1-11 record that didn't include a win against a FBS program, nor many competitive games, Dykes is more confident than ever that he made the right decision when he passed on multiple head-coaching overtures to come to Berkeley.

"I'm more sold on Cal today than I was a year ago," he said from his office this week. "I think it's a great university. The people are passionate about it, they're supportive. We have the resources that we need. We just have to provide a good product, and people will come and get behind it."

Dykes is confident that will happen. He's just not sure when. The roster overhaul is still far from complete, and the team will again face an eye-popping roster discrepancy between younger and older players.

"[In the fall] we're going to have only four players [who] have been in the program for four or five years," he said. "We're dealing with some staggeringly low numbers of upperclassmen. Without guys that have played a lot of football, there is going to be some growing to do."

That's not welcome news for Cal fans, but that won't change reality.

To his credit, Dykes has done his part to try and rectify the source of Cal's major woes a year ago: its defense. He fired defensive assistant coaches Barry Sacks and Randy Stewart in January and eventually parted ways with defensive coordinator Andy Buh in favor of former Cincinnati DC Art Kaufman.

We're dealing with some staggeringly low numbers of upperclassmen. Without guys that have played a lot of football, there is going to be some growing to do.

-- Cal coach Sonny Dykes
"It didn’t work. It just didn’t work," he said of his defensive staff. "Those guys, for whatever reason, never could get on the same page."

Even with the defense's tremendous woes, pulling the plug after one season was tough for Dykes.

"I don't know that it was going to [iron itself out] and that was ultimately what led me to make those decisions," Dykes said. "That's a hard thing to do ... you have to be pretty convinced it's the right move."

As the son of a coach -- his father, Spike Dykes, coached at Texas Tech from 1984 to 1999 -- Dykes, 44, has long been aware of how quickly the perception of a coach can change. He's not blind to his own situation, either.

"You go from being one of the smartest coaches in one year to being one of the dumbest the next," he said. "It’s kind of part of the deal.

"But the thing about buzz is that -- whether it’s good buzz or bad buzz -- it’s all the same, it’s just buzz. You don’t want to be somebody who ignores it when it’s bad and revels in it when it’s good. It’s got to be treated the same way all the time. You have a job to do, regardless. When you've done this job for a long time and it's worked, you have to trust your process, and the method, and work your way through it."

Now that spring practice is in the rear-view mirror and summer is approaching, Dykes' days are a little less structured. During the week, he begins each day by driving his 5-year-old daughter, Ally, to kindergarten. Dykes then makes the 10-minute trip from Piedmont, where he lives, to the football offices beneath Memorial Stadium.

His days are still full, but he has more time to call on others and lean on them for advice on how to improve the program.

"I talk to a lot of guys in the business," Dykes said. "Guys [who] are friends of mine, some first-year head coaches [who] are kind of going through some of the same things -- Dave Doeren at NC State, Mark Stoops at Kentucky -- and then you'll talk to other coaches [who] have been in it a while. I talk to [former Texas coach] Mack Brown a lot, talk to [Kansas State coach] Bill Synder, some guys [who] are older and have some perspective."

He also sent a pair of assistant coaches to Texas A&M in late March to spend time with the coaching staff there and has looked to some of California's most successful high school coaches too, namely former De La Salle High (Concord, Calif.) coach Bob Ladouceur, whose program is set to be depicted this summer in the movie "When the Game Stands Tall."

Dykes isn't hesitant to name the program's long-term goal -- "obviously to win the conference championship," he said -- but that will require patience. For now, it's all about -- cliche, but true -- getting better.

"What’s that look like?" he asked. "You don’t always know. You just have to trust it's happening."

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