Cal head coach Sonny Dykes admits that “things weren’t going great” with his football team, but he wants to “make sure we’re improving always.”
California head coach Sonny Dykes has seen his young team start 1-7 this season. The Golden Bears host Arizona on Saturday.
Sonny Dykes is in the midst of a rough start as the new head coach of Cal’s football team. Rough, like sandpaper with shards of glass. Rough, like the hands of a lumberjack, calloused and broken. Rough, like 1-7.
Beset by injuries and inconsistency, he’s had to persevere through weeks of misfortune, which all added up to one grim stat: Of the 40 players from the Bears’ 2009 and 2010 classes, just one currently starts.
We talked with the former Arizona Wildcats offensive coordinator Thursday, as his team prepares for a visit from his old team:
To start, how do you reconcile your hopes for the future with the frustrations of the now?
A: “Any time you take over a program, the key is to make sure you get better. Every day is about getting better. Look, I’m here for a reason. Things weren’t going great. They made a change, and when you go to a place, that’s why you’re there. What we want to do is make sure we’re improving always. On the field, in the classroom, building a culture. Whatever it is that needs to be fixed. The funny thing about football — with so many moving parts — typically the last step is seeing results on Saturday. We feel like there’s a lot of good things going on, below the surface, things people don’t get to see — buy-in, the culture we’re establishing, all the things we needed to get a handle on. Next thing we want to do is play better on Saturday.”
We spoke with a high school coach last night who described high school football as “a bunch of mini-wins.” Is that what you’re looking for at this point?
A: “That’s what going through this process is all about. It is a process – when I got to Cal, we went through spring football, came out and felt like we’ve got some experience. Felt good about our starting lineup. We were going to be very young on offense, so it’ll take some time. But by the time we finished the Northwestern game, we’re down seven starters on defense. The guys we thought would be our bellcows, they’re not there. They’re hurt, not around, and that has forced us to play a lot of young players, and when you play with young players, you do focus on the mini-wins, the guys getting better, steady improvement. We’ve seen that individually. We’re hoping that translates into us performing better on Saturdays.”
When things are going the way they have, how do you make sure the players still can see brighter days ahead?
A: “It’s a hard thing to do. That’s difficult. It requires a lot of character on your team, kids who can see things from a big-picture standpoint. That takes maturity. You’re dealing with young players, and that’s not necessarily their strength. But the kids are working incredibly hard, still practicing hard. At times, you can see we don’t play with a lot of confidence. Those guys need to see some results at some point. But to their credit, they show up every Monday and practice hard all week. We’re still learning what that means — to play hard — and what our expectations are, how physical we want them to play.”
When dealing with young players like this, how important is it to instill the good habits before the bad ones creep in, even habits like self-belief?
A: “What we’re dealing with here is most experienced guys have gotten hurt, and they’re the leaders, so it’s hard for them to be leaders. Young players are looking for guidance. When the guys we expected to be in those roles aren’t playing, you get a void in your leadership, and we’re suffering from that. We just don’t have a lot on this football team. Leadership is important. You have guys who are around each other all the time who can help them focus on the positives. Help the young guys see the big picture. We’re struggling with that right now.”
I hear you coughing, sniffling a bit – have things caught up to you?
“Man, you put your life into this, you work so hard to get to this point where you have an opportunity to coach at a place like Cal and in the Pac-12, and it’s hard on you. It’s hard on everybody – hard on staff, players, fans. Good thing we have is we’ve been through this situation, and the coaches have. I’ve been through things like this, went to programs that are on the ropes, helped restore them. We can call on our experience, that gives us a little more confidence than the players. They haven’t gone through this. When you’re not used to losing, it’s hard to lose. But we have a plan, a formula. It works, and we’ve gotta stick with it.”Is that something that helps, having such a recognizable, successful system that you can point to?
A: “Certainly, when you have an identity and have been successful with a system, it does help you from that standpoint. One thing we can do is point to numbers we’ve had in our system, going all the way back to Kentucky, Texas Tech, Arizona, Louisiana Tech. The numbers are always there. That helps you sell your players a little bit.”
The youth isn’t just on the defensive side…
A: “Funny thing is offensively, we have two players who play for us who’ve played for more than two years. That’s it; everybody else is either a true sophomore or a true freshman. All these kids are very, very, very young. They’re a little bit raw. They have talent, but it’s still developing. We’re behind physically. The offensive line has to get a lot stronger, receivers have to get a lot stronger, bigger, more physical. Only way you get stronger is by working out and taking the time. And they also have to refine themselves off the field. Those are the things that make a good offense.”
Can you give us a lesson you’ve learned at each of your stops?
A: “Well, I started out as a high school coach, and I didn’t have a desire to do anything but. I got a job doing that in Texas, and I thought I’d do it forever. But I realized I spent more time teaching English — more time on Shakespeare — than my passing game. I thought if I wanted to focus attention on football, I’d have to do college football. Started at a junior college, then Kentucky, and I was real lucky to go there — Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, to be involved in something groundbreaking — it was the right place, right time. Long time at Texas Tech with Leach, got to see what it was like to run a program, build a program. Then making the move to Arizona was great — exposure to a different conference — and we had to take our system at Tech and mold it to the players at Arizona. Once we did that we were pretty good. Then becoming a head coach was a whole different set of challenges. Every job is unique, every situation is different, so I think as coaches, we always have to have things we believe in and a specific philosophy, but you have to be to change it to where you’re coaching. What works at Texas Tech may not work at Louisiana Tech or Arizona or Cal, but the philosophy stays the same.”
OK, back up, English teacher? Favorite author?
A: “Yup, sophomore English. Favorite author, though? Chuck Palahniuk, “Fight Club” — he’s out there, and that’s interesting stuff. I like John Steinbeck a lot. Opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Do you miss the simple life?
A: “Yeah, when you’re struggling a little bit you do. You do miss being anonymous at times. As a coach, you’re basically as good as the last game you coached. One year, you’re smart, next year, you’re dumb. One year you’re nice, the next, you’re mean.”
When you started in college, did you expect this life?
A: “That’s part of what I like about college coaching is you never know where you’re going to end up. If you would’ve said 10 years ago that I’d be the head coach at Cal today, I would’ve said you’re crazy. I’ve loved every place I’ve ever been. The culture at Texas Tech was different at Arizona. We loved our time at Arizona, being in Tucson, that culture. To go from Tucson to Louisiana was a big change, then Louisiana to Bay Area was even bigger.”
Favorite thing about Tucson?
A: “The people were awesome. I got to know a lot of people in our time who are still good friends. People from Tucson really care about Tucson, real charitable attitude about the town. The people were really nice, welcoming. I loved the restaurants, the weather was awesome. We really liked where we lived. Lived up there in Oracle, Casas Adobe area, and that was a cool place to live. It was just a good lifestyle.”
Any players make your time in Arizona special?
A: “Yeah, we were lucky. I still talk to Nick Foles regularly; it’s fun talking to him, and the success he’s had has been fun to watch. Once-in-a-lifetime type of guy, so unselfish. He really gets what being a quarterback is all about. Really love Matt Scott. Robbie Gronkowski has done some good things in his career, and it’s fun to keep up with him.”