The formula behind Sonny Dykes’ instant success at TCU
A few days after Texas Christian stunned Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, the head football coach at Louisiana-Monroe, Terry Bowden, called a staff meeting as his assistants returned from their holiday break. He asked his coaches to compare the programs by analyzing how many NFL players each team typically produces, with everyone in the room aware of the Wolverines’ massive edge in that category.
As the winningest program in college football history, Michigan ranks fifth all-time with 387 players drafted and boasts 43 alums on NFL rosters this season. The Horned Frogs rank 44th all-time with 204 players drafted and have just 21 alumni scattered across the league.
Yet when those schools tangled in the first semifinal of this year’s College Football Playoff, the upstart underdogs from Fort Worth built leads of 18 points in the first half and 19 points in the second to stun Michigan, 51-45, and clinch a spot in the national championship game against Georgia on Monday night. The performance by head coach Sonny Dykes’ team resonated with Bowden as he embarks on his third season at ULM.
“It’s kind of like chess,” Bowden said in an interview with FOX Sports. “Some guys can move the pieces around better than other people, and that’s just a fact. I know you win with players first, but like chess, some people can move the pieces around better than others. I think that’s what Sonny Dykes has done.”
Bowden’s insight carries weight because of where he found himself many years and many jobs ago, in 1993, as the son of a prominent coach navigating an undefeated debut season. He was ushered into the profession by his father, the late Bobby Bowden, who won two national championships and 12 conference titles at Florida State, and quickly vaulted toward the sport’s upper echelon by winning his first 20 games at Auburn as the youngest coach in the country.
The parallels between Bowden and Dykes, whose own father, Spike Dykes, was a high school coaching legend before guiding Texas Tech to six bowls in 13 years, are striking. Dykes won his opening 12 games at TCU to secure the program’s inaugural CFP appearance and now, after defeating Michigan in a thriller, he’s come within a game of the second recognized national title in school history and the first since 1938.
Bowden won six different coach of the year honors in ’93, and Dykes matched him this season.
“Honestly,” Dykes said in a news conference prior to the Fiesta Bowl, “it’s been a little bit of a blur. You get a job someplace, the first year is always a little bit crazy. There’s just so much that needs to be done, from recruiting to hiring staff to getting to know your current team. Haven’t had a whole lot of time for reflection.”
From the time Dykes was hired on Nov. 29, 2021, after a little more than four seasons at Southern Methodist through the beginning of TCU’s fall camp, the recruiting efforts were carried out along three different fronts. Dykes and his staff worked toward finalizing the 2022 recruiting class by blending 14 incoming freshmen — 10 of whom were in-state prospects — with 14 additions from the transfer portal, where the Horned Frogs snagged eventual starters from Texas (tight end Jared Wiley), Navy (linebacker Johnny Hodges), Colorado (safety Mark Perry), SMU (center Alan Ali) and even Bowden’s squad at Louisiana-Monroe (cornerback Josh Newton). As a whole, the class ranked 28th nationally and third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Oklahoma, both of which are departing for the Southeastern Conference in 2025.
The third prong of Dykes’ recruiting focused on retaining players he inherited from former coach Gary Patterson, whose 22-year run included 11 seasons with double-digit wins, three BCS or New Year’s Six bowl games and one Rose Bowl victory while guiding the Horned Frogs through four different leagues. Seventeen players opted to leave the program after Patterson resigned following a 3-5 start to the 2021 campaign, but Dykes and his staff retained a slew of veterans who simultaneously believed in his vision and wanted to finish their respective careers in Fort Worth:
— Senior cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson went on to win the Thorpe Award given to the top defensive back in the country.
— Senior tailback Emari Demercado rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown against Michigan after starter Kendre Miller left with an injury.
— Senior linebacker Dee Winters returned an interception for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl.
— Senior offensive lineman Steve Avila became a consensus All-American.
— Senior quarterback Max Duggan, the unquestioned hero of this year’s team, never considered transferring despite losing the starting job in fall camp and wound up finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“You don’t go in there and just get rid of all the other guy’s players and tell all your fans, ‘He left me nobody,’” Bowden said. “I mean, that’s the biggest thing a coach does that really doesn’t know what he’s doing or doesn’t have confidence that he’s the guy. He goes in there, he tells everybody who will listen, ‘They left me nothing,’ and they get rid of players or they bench players that aren’t theirs to prove that it’s what they’re going to do. You better learn how to take the players that are there and get the most out of the ones you’ve got if you wanna have a great first year.”
Questions about how and when Dykes got the team to buy in became a staple of TCU’s media sessions during the buildup to the Fiesta Bowl, and those were precisely the kinds of things Bowden monitored during his first year at Auburn after former coach and athletic director Pat Dye stepped down in the wake of an NCAA investigation. Bowden recalled listening back to interviews his players gave after practices or games to see if their answers echoed the messages he was trying to get across in team meetings. There was a direct correlation between the number of games the Tigers won and how often the players invoked Bowden’s buzzwords.
Avila, the standout left guard who hasn’t allowed a sack all season, told reporters Dykes’ arrival was met with a sour taste among veterans still loyal to Patterson and the staff that recruited them. It took a week or two for them to accept Dykes as a true players’ coach and appreciate his vision for how to rework a program that was among the best in the country during Patterson’s peak but had won more than seven games just once since 2017. That the Horned Frogs disposed of Colorado, 38-13, in the season opener despite losing starting quarterback Chandler Morris to injury cemented the team’s belief in its new leader.
“We looked at all the stuff we have been through, and after we won I was like, man, we’re going to be pretty good,” Avila said prior to the Fiesta Bowl. “We have been through a lot and just how we handled ourselves — things didn’t go well during the first game, there were moments (when it was dicey). It was the way we bounced back. That’s when I realized the change from last year to this year. It got me excited. I’m glad all of this paid off.”
The wins piled up in thrilling fashion: a 42-34 shootout over Dykes’ old team from SMU; four consecutive victories against ranked opponents to launch up the rankings in October; a gutsy one-score triumph over No. 17 Texas in Austin; a 62-14 shellacking of Iowa State in the regular season finale to earn a spot in the CFP regardless of what happened in the Big 12 title game, though they didn’t know it at the time.
It’s rare for a coach to have such huge success in his first season with a program, let alone put enough pieces together to win a championship. If Dykes is able to pull it off he’ll only be the fourth to do so, joining Larry Coker (2001) and Dennis Erickson (1989) at Miami, and Bennie Oosterbaan (1948) at Michigan.
But even if he falls short against Georgia on Monday, there are already signs of momentum toward building something big, and recruiting has begun to accelerate at a level not seen by the Horned Frogs in more than 20 years. Their 2023 recruiting class includes six high schoolers ranked among the top 360 prospects in the 247Sports Composite, as well as the No. 3 junior college player in the nation. They’ve also added five more transfers — all of which are from the SEC; three of which came from Alabama — to compile the country’s 18th-best recruiting class. No TCU class has been ranked that highly since 247Sports began compiling data in 1999.
“I think it is going to be a game-changer,” Dykes said when asked what type of impact playing in the CFP can have on recruiting. “There’s already a high level of interest from some really good players across Texas and across the country, and I think this is going to do nothing but enhance our ability to go and recruit some of the best football players in the country.”
Bowden’s team capped an 11-0 season by defeating No. 11 Alabama but was ineligible for both the SEC title game and the national title game because of a postseason ban stemming from the NCAA investigation. Auburn was the only unbeaten team in college football that year but finished fourth in the final Associated Press poll as one-loss Florida State — coached by Bowden’s father — was crowned champion. Bowden’s winning streak reached 20 games when the Tigers began the following year 9-0, but that never stopped Bobby Bowden from teasing his son by reminding him, “Terry, you’re not even the best coach in your own family.”
Still, all that winning across 1993-94 infused Bowden’s program with the same recruiting boost Dykes is now experiencing at TCU. Suddenly, Bowden could elbow his way into Florida and compete with his father for some of the best high school players in the country at a time when wins equated to recruiting currency long before the dawn of Name, Image and Likeness.
“We began to get players because of our success,” Bowden said, “and then you start winning even more.”
There’s an argument to be made that Dykes and the Horned Frogs are well-positioned to sustain the kind of success they’ve experienced this season, regardless of what happens against Georgia. The school’s admission to a Power 5 conference in 2012 has coalesced with impending playoff expansion, a new TV rights deal worth $2.28 billion, the looming departures of Big 12 stalwarts Oklahoma and Texas, an effective application of the transfer portal and a ceaseless supply of in-state recruiting prospects at an ideal moment in the sport.
Such potential reminds Bowden of when his father took over Florida State in 1976. The Seminoles had bottomed out after winning four games the previous three years combined to preempt Bobby Bowden’s incredible run that would span four decades. Bobby Bowden built his program on an elite recruiting base in Florida and rode that talent into the stratosphere with two national titles in seven seasons after FSU joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992.
That’s the kind of potential people see at TCU. And now it falls on Dykes to move the chess pieces better than others.
“If you really look at the things that will allow you to be successful,” Bowden said, “boy, they are in the right place at the right time.”
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.
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