The California Golden Bears had plenty of directions they could go in trying to replace Jeff Tedford. They could have replicated their relatives to the south and taken an NFL coach and tried to manage up a good team. They could have found a good fit with California ties who was simple and conventional.
But Sandy Barbour went swinging for the fences. She went bold. She went for the underdog. She went and got Sonny Dykes.
There are plenty of window dressing reasons as to why the Bears decided Dykes was their guy, but it should be clear to anyone who's watched the man's development as a coach over the past decade as to why the Bears went with him. The reason Barbour hired Dykes (and by proxy Tony Franklin) is the offense. The two Hal Mumme disciples have brought one of the most prolific offensive schemes in college football to Strawberry Canyon.
What Dykes ran at Louisiana Tech has evolved beyond Mumme's typical Airraid attack that is still best employed by Mike Leach. With Leach, the offense is almost entirely set up by passing the football ad nauseum, with stick and short routes replacing run plays for short running gains. It can be extremely effective when it gets going, although it never really sputtered to life in Leach's first season at Washington State.
That isn't what Dykes does. His offense relies heavily on both the passing element of the Airraid (or has Cal fans now like to call it, the "Bear Raid") and a lot of zone run plays that give the football to the running backs once the defense loosens up in the box. If you've watched Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, Art Briles at Baylor, or Kliff Kingsbury at Texas A&M (all three who were on Leach's staff/roster in 2002), this is the type of offense that Dykes is bringing to the West Coast. It definitely has its own unique flavor, and if employed properly with Cal's offensive talent has the potential for huge upside in a Pac-12 that hasn't quite yet met this evolved strand of Mumme's and Leach's philosophy. The Bears have always been brimming with skill talent, and this crop of personnel will rival among the most talented players to ever suit up in this style of offense.
The hope with Franklin and with Dykes is that with their innovative scheme, they can revive a moribund Cal offense brimming with talent but lacking execution in the final days of the Tedford era. There is definite talent at almost every position: At quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, the Bears have a myriad of options to choose from to try and make this gameplan work. The big question is how long it'll take; Cal has been average to mediocre in the Pac-12 the past few years, and the fans are clamoring for results in a hurry.
Cal might have remembered the first dark blotch of the Tedford era came at the hands of Dykes, as his wide recievers torched one of the best Cal defenses that ever walked through Memorial. The Red Raiders humbled a Bears team that felt it had every right to be in the Rose Bowl, with nine of Dykes's receivers combining to haul in 39 passes and 520 yards through the air.
Dykes's offense has kept his teams in dozens of games that otherwise seemed lost, and exploded for points to turn close games into routs. The most famous game was the 2006 Insight Bowl, when Texas Tech trailed Minnesota 38-7 and rallied for the biggest bowl game comeback ever, scoring 31 points in just under 20 minutes.
In Louisiana Tech, his Bulldogs trailed 34-7 in the second quarter to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. In the incredible span of 23 minutes Lousiana Tech rallied all the way back to rip off a 37-12 run to cut the lead to two. When the Aggies seemed to seal it away again on a Manziel 72 yard scamper and a 59-44 lead with two minutes left, Louisiana Tech came RIGHT BACK and scored two touchdowns in ninety seconds, and only another failed two point conversion ended that upset bid.
Louisiana Tech would do the same thing against Utah State, rallying from 34-10 to come back and send the game into overtime. Talk about never giving up; Dykes's offense is like the water pushing at the cracks of a run-down dam. All it takes is just one little spike...
But his biggest comeback came during a season, not a game. After a 1-4 start in his sophomore campaign with the Bulldogs (all close losses except a shocker to Hawaii), Louisiana Tech rolled off seven straight wins to end the season to win the WAC. Dykes's teams have proven to be not only highly competitive, but resilient and able to withstand tough odds, and the fact that he did that with a freshman quarterback had to be even all the more impressive. Those attributes had to really attract Barbour to go after Dykes.
Dykes feels like a good hire on paper, but he's far from a sure bet. He definitely has experience setting up powerful offenses in Texas Tech, Arizona and Louisiana Tech. He has proven he can win in all those places and compete with the best of them. He has proven he can win the run and the pass, and will maximize his personal and adjust properly to any disadvantageous situation. That is the type of coach Cal definitely wants around so that they alawys have the ability to compete with everyone.
There are drawbacks to being so prolific offensively. Louisiana Tech had a horrible defense last year to offset the great offense; despite winning nine games and having the best offense in the country, there was some feeling that Dykes's ability to score too quickly taxed the defense, and they'd end up hemorrhaging as many points as the Bulldogs had just put on the scoreboard. Obviously, Cal's defense is way more talented than Louisiana Tech's, but so should their offense. The concern is whether talent personnel can keep up with the up-tempo pace Dykes is sure to set the moment spring practice starts in Strawberry Canyon.
There are some big cultural questions we can only guess the answers to at this point. Can Dykes improve Cal's sagging APR and graduation rate, which are threatening to put the Bears on the brink of academic probation? Can he get his players to become more disciplined after a year filled with penalties in both schools? Can he get the assistants he wants at Cal and retain them long enough for the Bears to thrive long-term? Can he recruit successfully in California after spending most of his life scouring the hotbeds of Texas?
There are so many questions. But one thing is for sure. Cal isn't playing around anymore. The Rose Bowl is serious business for the Bears, and this hire proves that they're ready to go outside the box to try and get themselves to Pasadena. The expectation with Dykes is that he can build a Pac-12 champion-ready offense in a short time span, and he'll have to do it in a hurry.
You've changed Cal. You really have.