Sonny Dykes’ journey from college baseball player to coach in the CFP semis

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Speckled throughout a week of sponsorship commitments, media appearances and team outings to explore the Valley of the Sun were a few moments that placed Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Texas Christian head coach Sonny Dykes in the same locale. And no matter where the ensuing conversations began, they almost always circled back to having football-famous fathers.

There have been thousands of words penned, typed and spoken about a Harbaugh family tree that began with former Western Michigan and Western Kentucky head coach Jack Harbaugh, now 83, and sprouted branches for two sons, John and Jim, who would eventually face off in the Super Bowl as head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.

There have been plenty more words dedicated to the late Spike Dykes, a legendary high school coach in Texas who capped his career with 14 seasons in charge of Texas Tech, where he was named Southwest Conference Coach of the Year three times, and the remarkable turnaround at TCU authored by his son Daniel, better known as Sonny.

“Football is kind of in my blood,” Dykes said earlier this week.

And yet for everything he’s achieved in the sport, from a Western Athletic Conference title at Louisiana Tech in his second season as a head coach to an Associated Press Coach of the Year honor for his exemplary work with the Horned Frogs, there was a time when Dykes wanted nothing to do with football, when the idea of distancing himself from his father’s line of work was more appealing than jumping into the family business.

A well-regarded passing quarterback at Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, where his father coached at the local university, Dykes eschewed the chance to play college football in favor of baseball. He earned two varsity letters for Texas Tech as a reserve first baseman from 1989-90 before the allure of football finally snared him after graduation. And now Dykes finds himself on a brief list of head coaches who never played college football, joining the likes of Charlie Weiss (Notre Dame, Kansas); Paul Johnson (Navy, Georgia Tech); George O’Leary (Georgia Tech, Central Florida); Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss, Liberty, Auburn); David Cutcliffe (Ole Miss, Duke) and his former mentor and close friend Mike Leach (Texas Tech, Washington State, Mississippi State), who died earlier this month.

“My dad and brother were coaching,” Dykes said, “so my approach was, ‘I’m going to do anything but this.’ It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s not going to be football. (But then) I started thinking about your life without it. And that, to me, is kind of what convinced me to get in was my dad had this extended family that were players and coaches, and I started to think what our life would be like as kids without that extended family, without those experiences on Friday night when he was a high school coach or Saturday afternoon when he was a college coach.

“There was kind of a comfort in that, and that’s what kind of led me to the profession. Baseball is different than football. I don’t think you can have as big an impact maybe on a player as a coach in baseball than you can in football. Football, to me, just seemed a little more challenging to coach, felt like you could have a little bit more impact as a coach than you could as a baseball coach. So that’s kind of what I ended up doing.”

But his time on the diamond at Texas Tech means there are a few dozen former baseball players and coaches who’ve embraced the Horned Frogs as their second-favorite team. They’ve followed Dykes’ career through head-coaching stints at Louisiana Tech, California and Southern Methodist before hopping aboard the TCU bandwagon to revel in an undefeated regular season and the program’s first trip to the College Football Playoff (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET).

TCU head coach Sonny Dykes on preparing for Harbaugh and Michigan

TCU head coach Sonny Dykes on preparing for Harbaugh and Michigan

Here’s what they remember about Dykes:

Danny Jordan, outfielder, 1990

“Sonny and I played little league together. His dad was our football coach from when I was in sixth grade all the way through my freshman year (of high school). So I’ve known Sonny for a long time.

“Then we played at Texas Tech, played baseball together. A very good hitter. I always thought he was a very good hitter. … From a personal standpoint, I had a really good day in January in my first week of spring baseball at Texas Tech. I had transferred in. I was really doing well, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘Man, you’re killing it out there. You’re going to start.’ And I had just transferred from Schreiner College, a small school, and I thought, ‘Nah, man.’ And he’s the one who pulled me aside. And sure enough, I started, had a really good season.

“We laughed a lot. We had a lot of fun together. Very friendly. None of us really had any money back then, so we always kind of chipped in and hung out. We just spent time together, played ping pong, shot pool, watched ball games.

“I’ll put it to you this way: I went to hell week, went through my first semester at the fraternity — and (Sonny) was already in it — and the one person that picked me up from it was him. And he took me to Whataburger and said, ‘All right, let’s get you out of here. You’ve had enough.’ Sonny was always there like a big brother even though we were the same age.

“We actually used to go out and hustle baseball cards together back when it was booming because we didn’t have any money. He showed me how the business worked. We’d hit shows and we’d just find a way to hustle, make a few bucks. … We were 19, 20 years old. There were a whole bunch of Don Mattingly rookies and Jose Cansecos and maybe a Mickey Mantle or two. But we were just getting started. Those of us collected in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, it was a boom and someone had to go out and go to the card shows, go to the card shops and make some money. Sonny and I teamed up on it pretty good.

“I played little league with the guy … then I played against him in high school, then we played together in college. He rescued me from hell week. He pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re gonna start,’ and gave me the confidence to keep pushing forward (in baseball). And here I am an artist, a professional artist for 28 years, he gives me a big break and got my painting put in Cal-Berkeley’s football office. I mean, that’s Sonny Dykes. I’m honored to be his buddy. I mean, I’m just a random guy and that’s his impact on me.

“To this day I have a baseball card shop, I have an art gallery and I have an indoor baseball training facility — all of which Sonny had a big impact for me on all of that. … Sonny has had something to do with every bit of that. I can’t think of anybody else that has had that much to do with it, honestly.”

Larry Hays, head coach, 1987-2008

“Sonny played at Coronado High School in baseball, and of course his dad was football coach. I think he decided to go the baseball route rather than go in football because I don’t think he wanted to be on the team just because he was the coach’s son. … We really had some good players at the time. He was a valuable teammate. He was a unifier. I didn’t know he’d coach football; I figure he’d coach something. And I think he picked the right one.

“We had a No. 1 draft pick that year, Donald Harris (No. 5 overall in 1989). Donald had a football background and he was on the football team (in addition to baseball). And I think he would have had a tough time switching to baseball, playing football in the fall and then coming in, and I credit Sonny for him being able to get that done. I think Sonny kind of knew what we were trying to do. I think he did a better job explaining to Donald what it took to be a good baseball player. And, of course, obviously, he figured it out being a No. 1 draft pick by the Rangers.

“I just know I had good feelings (about Sonny). He was one of those guys that when you talk to the team, you can tell he’s listening. You can tell he’s understanding. I’m not saying I’m surprised that he went in football, but I knew he ought to go into something. At the time, I probably thought he’d go into baseball as a coach. … I wish I could remember things better, but in my mind (I recall) explaining, ‘Here’s what we want to do, here’s who we want to be,’ and I just knew he understood. And it was comforting. You’ve got to have leadership. Well, he wasn’t old enough to be a leader, so he led in his way with a couple key players who were his age. I just was confident he was heading us in the right direction.

“It’s a heck of a story for him to be where he is right now. His dad was a great football coach and did a lot of great things, helped a lot of people, one of the best coaches you could ever be around. But he never got to this point.”

Can the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs stop the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines offense?

Can the No. 3 TCU Horned Frogs stop the No. 2 Michigan Wolverines offense?

Gilbert “Bert” Arredondo, outfielder, 1988-89

“I was a senior when he was a freshman there at Tech, you know, and man, he was just a good, grounded guy — just like his dad, you know? Just good ole West Texas-grown and just a great guy.

“The thing about a West Texas guy, you can not talk to somebody in 10, 15 years and then just meet and pick up the conversation where you left off. That’s what I feel is a West Texas guy is that they’re approachable. They don’t let fame or fortune or whatever just go to their heads. They never forget all the people they’ve met, you know, in the process.

“He’s a great guy. You can approach him and he’ll remember you, and man, he just doesn’t let where he’s at go to his head. He’s a great guy. I’m sure his guys love him and that’s what they play for.

“A couple of years ago when he was at SMU coaching, I ran into him at a Hall & Oates concert there in Dallas. Train opened up for Hall & Oates, and I saw him and I was like, ‘Man, that’s Sonny Dykes.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I wonder if he’ll remember me.’

“And at intermission, he saw me — and my name was Bert in college — and he says, ‘Bert!’ and I was like, ‘Ah man, he remembered me!’ So anyway, I was like, ‘What are you doing at this concert?’ And it’s a funny thing. He was saying one of his assistant coaches at SMU was wanting to propose to his fiancé, right? And I don’t know if it was (a member of Train or someone connected to the band) but I guess his son or something played for Sonny there at Cal. And he set it up to where this guy was able to propose to his fiancé there on stage when Train sang ‘Marry Me.’ And he said, ‘That’s all I’m here for, man. I just know him and I wanted to do this for him.’

“I’m so proud of him. Hopefully they’ll beat Michigan. … My wife gets tired of me wanting to watch TCU football. I never did before, but since Sonny is their coach, I’m watching them and all that. And every time they show his picture on the tube, I say, ‘I know that guy. I played with that guy.’

“So she probably gets tired of that. But it’s good. It’s good. I’m proud of him.”

Kevin Kirk, pitcher, 1988-91

“One memory that stands out is Sonny and I went to a Willie Nelson concert together at Jones Stadium in Lubbock. … Of course, if you know much about Willie Nelson, him and Spike were friends. It was a nice experience. … That was the year that he was on the baseball team.

“He contributed (on the baseball field). He was intense. He was there to win, which, obviously, 30-something years later he’s doing that in football. He was a good, level-headed guy. He understood what his role was. He understood the time you put in and the effort you had to put in to perform. He was just an all-around good guy. I’m really proud for him and glad to see the success that he’s having.

“You could tell he was the son of a coach. He had the awareness of not only just the Xs and Os but kind of the psychology about it. Not getting too high, not getting too low, being able to focus on what your task or what your role was. I remember he had qualities like that back when we were teammates.

“Sonny was kind of friends with everybody. Obviously, everybody on the team knew who he was and who his dad was. There was some respect for that. But Sonny was a good guy, and I’m not surprised where he’s at with his upbringing and with his dad. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, and I’m really not trying to speak for him, but when you grow up in a family like that with your father being an influential coach like that, that stuff has no choice but to rub off on you. Sonny had a desire to learn all of that and get good at all of that, or he wouldn’t be where he’s at.

“I wish it would have wound up where he got the head coaching job at Texas Tech somewhere after they ran Leach off, but it didn’t work out. TCU is about my second favorite team now besides Tech since Mike Leach has passed away, and that’s because Sonny Dykes is there. He’s a good guy. If I was a parent now with a kid and had an opportunity to go play for Sonny Dykes, that’s where I’d want him to go.

“I’m real proud of him and proud for him. And if I see him on TV, I’m not scared to tell somebody, ‘Hey, I played ball with that guy and we were teammates and went to a Willie Nelson concert together.'”

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