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Sonny Dykes Saved SMU Football. Will He Stay to Sustain It, Too?

The program is at a crossroads with its head coach. The wrong path could undo years of progress.
By Laken Litman |
Consider, for a moment, the following scenarios. 

Scenario one: SMU ponies up and makes a serious financial commitment to Sonny Dykes in order to keep him in Dallas. The school and Dykes are negotiating a significant offer, according to multiple reports, and if Dykes accepts, he could become one of the highest-paid—if not the highest-paid—Group of 5 coaches. His assistants would get raises, the facilities would be upgraded. Dykes can continue his grand plan of building SMU into “Dallas’ Team” and create a sustainable winning culture.

Scenario two: Dykes rejects the offer and leaves SMU for the head coaching vacancy at TCU, where there is rumored interest, or another Power Five job opportunity. The Mustangs lose their recently built-up cachet, then plenty of games, before plunging back into national irrelevance.

What’s playing out in Dallas is a pivotal moment in program history. We know about the Pony Express and the Death Penalty and the decades of bad football that followed. Dykes is the one who changed everything. Over the past four seasons, he and SMU have rehabilitated one another, the coach dragging the program out of its depths and, in so doing, restoring his reputation after he flamed out at Cal, where he coached from 2013 through 2016. Now the two sides are at an inflection point. 

“They need to pay him a lot of money,” says starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who transferred to SMU from Oklahoma in December 2020. “Success is contingent on him being here. He’s pretty much everything to SMU.”

This will-he-won’t-he tension of Dykes’ future at SMU is the start of something—or the end of it.

The power of Sonny Dykes isn’t just that he’s succeeding at SMU, but how meaningful it is for anyone to have success there. His offense is among the sport’s best, ranking sixth nationally this year in yards per game (498.7) and ninth in his breakout 2019 season, the first time the Mustangs won 10 games since 1984. Both of those marks are easily the school’s highest since ESPN began tracking that data in 2004. He’s elevated Mordecai into one of the nation’s best: the junior has thrown the second-most touchdown passes in the country (34) and is on pace to break multiple school records, including passing yards in a season—which was set by another Dykes quarterback, Shane Buechele, in 2019.

All told, the 51-year-old Dykes is 30-16 at SMU. The last SMU coach who won 30 games by his fourth season was the late Bobby Collins, who coached the Pony Express teams with Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Should Dykes coach at SMU for even just a few more years, he has a legitimate chance of going down as the winningest coach in program history. That’s because you’d have to go back to 1915 and SMU’s first coach, Ray Morrison, who took 15 years to compile 84 wins.

Dykes has molded Tanner Mordecai into one of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

So it makes sense, then, that rumors have swirled about Dykes jumping ship to TCU (where he served as an analyst in 2017) or the recently filled job at Texas Tech (his alma mater, and the school where his father, Spike, coached from 1986 through 1999) in recent weeks. Neither is the pinnacle of Texas football, much less college football, but each has more clout as a program than his current employer. Even if Dykes stays, it’s a safe bet more schools will inquire about him every year the Mustangs keep winning. 

Nevertheless, Dykes says he doesn’t know why his name gets linked to other jobs. “I guess if you have success, people just assume that you’re not going to stick around,” he says. His SMU roots run deep. Dykes grew up sort of rooting for the Mustangs. His father spent the majority of his 40-year career coaching high school and college football around the state. When the elder Dykes later took jobs out of state in the late ’70s, like at New Mexico and Mississippi State, Sonny needed a Texas team to cheer on. He chose SMU because he liked their uniforms, and he only got more invested once the Pony Express came to town. Dykes found his way to Dallas, coaching at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson in 1994, and would often drive to SMU’s campus to admire its beauty. Now he lives walking distance from it.

So when he says things like “I love being here” and “It’s a very unique situation from a family perspective,” they come off as less cliché than they might otherwise. “I think it goes back to perception,” Dykes says. “People don’t know what your situation is and what’s important to you. I think everybody is different. The assumption is you want to coach in a stadium with 100,000 people, and there’s good things about that and bad things about that. Maybe I haven’t viewed things the same way as other people when it comes to that. 

“At the end of the day, I’m happiest when we have an opportunity to win. You know what I mean? When I go back and look at my life, it didn’t matter where I coached. The thing that made me happy was winning and being successful. I think we have an opportunity to do that here, so I view this differently than maybe some other people do.”

After Texas and Oklahoma announced their plans to bolt for the SEC in July, the Big 12 expanded by adding BYU and three of SMU’s neighbors in the American Athletic Conference, Houston, UCF, and conference bellwether Cincinnati. They snubbed SMU. In response, the AAC played the realignment game, too, absorbing UAB, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, plus three Texas schools in Texas-San Antonio, North Texas, and Rice. While SMU relishes its annual non-conference DFW rivalry with TCU, maybe this is a chance for the Mustangs to build a new one with UTSA or enhance an existing one with UNT.

“Success is contingent on him being here. He’s pretty much everything to SMU.”

But the real opportunity is much greater. While the AAC’s realignment doesn’t sit well with Dykes—he calls being left out of the new Big 12 a “gut punch”—he recognizes that there’s now a power vacuum at the top of the conference. The window is open for the Mustangs to become the dominant program in the AAC. 

“And I think we would have [had that same opportunity] had the league stayed the same anyway,” he says. “But I think with the new repositioned league, certainly we have an opportunity to be one of the best teams in the league and we should be.”

Cincinnati is a great example of where good coaching can take a program. Luke Fickell is 51-21 in his fifth season in charge, which includes but is not limited to a conference championship victory, a New Year’s Six Peach Bowl game against Georgia last season, and finally, an invitation to the Big 12. If Dykes stays, why couldn’t SMU, a program with a richer history, enjoy the same destiny and make the Big 12 sorry for passing them by? 

Another reason to feel confident SMU can get there is because of the guy Dykes chose to lead the recruiting effort in Dallas. Running backs coach Ra’Shaad Samples, whom Dykes plucked from Tom Herman’s staff at Texas in 2020, was a smart addition for the Mustangs. That’s because he has prepared his whole life for this job.

In 2013, Samples was a four-star receiver at Skyline High School playing for his father, legendary high school football coach Reginald Samples. When it came time to choose a college, all he wanted was to stay home and play for SMU. But then-head coach June Jones did not recruit him, so Samples ended up going to Oklahoma State before later transferring to Houston. He was a textbook case of the sort of player the Mustangs should have kept in Dallas—and didn’t. Samples believes his recruitment would have been totally different if Dykes’ staff had been in place back then.

“I think Sonny would have been around more,” Samples says. “He’s more familiar with Dallas and the territory I come from. He would have hung around, and I probably would have had the chance to go to SMU.”

Samples guesstimates he has somewhere between 30 to 40 years of relationships in DFW high school football circles by way of his father. “These relationships were being built before I was born,” Samples says, referring not just to high school football coaches but also owners of local stores and restaurants. ”Part of it is me, but part of it is the people in this city. They really rally behind me and support me and push for me. They’re my biggest advocates. And that’s made [the job] easy.” His time in Houston, where he was an assistant for two years, and Austin only expanded his circles. 

Those relationships, along with the social media savvy one might expect from a 26-year-old, have helped him emerge as one of the country’s premier recruiters. That makes him a perfect fit alongside Dykes, who got his job in part by selling SMU on his vision to lock down the Dallas area, which historically is one of college football’s most fertile and contested recruiting grounds. He wants to be all up in the faces and minds of every major middle school and high school player in the area. Hence a blitz of local advertising, which includes erecting billboards of hometown players all over the city. The next phase is to become more active in the community, which he hopes to implement this spring by having players and coaches volunteer in mostly underserved areas. He wants everyone in Dallas to feel like SMU football is theirs and for them.

The marketing push has momentum and is leading to a talent influx of North Texas kids who have bought into staying home and representing their city. SMU’s 2021 signing class was ranked No. 51 nationally by 247Sports, the highest-ranked group in program history. Twelve of the 18 commits were from the Dallas area. This included the highest-rated signee in SMU history, four-star quarterback Preston Stone, who was the first commit ever to pick SMU on national television at the 2020 All-American Bowl. Stone, who threw for more than 13,000 yards in high school and led Parish Episcopal to consecutive state championships, had a hat lineup that also featured LSU, Penn State, Texas, and USC. The momentum is continuing with 2022; nine of the current 11 commits are local kids. The standouts, Garland High School wide receiver Jordan Hudson and safety Chace Biddle, are four-star players with other offers from places like Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU and Michigan.

Dykes sold SMU on a vision to keep DFW’s best talent local. Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

“I knew [Dykes] was brilliant and his plan was brilliant,” says Samples, who is also featured on one of the billboards posted on the outside of Gerald J. Ford Stadium. “I knew it would work.”

If Dykes were to leave—now or later—what would that mean for local high school football coaches and players who developed relationships with him and his staff? How would the perspective and reputation that SMU has built since Dykes’ arrival change?

“If he wasn’t here, it would be different for sure,” Samples says. “It takes Dallas to recruit Dallas. You can bring a guy in with Texas ties, but if they don’t know this city, they don’t have relationships in this city, and they haven’t bled and sweat and walked the streets of this city … I mean, Dallas is one of those cities where you can’t just jump in. They’d have to bring in [a coach] who had that and if not, things would be a lot different.”

The easiest thing, of course, would be to ensure they don’t have to. It’s the way to guarantee that the program stays on its current trajectory, one that makes Mordecai, who experienced college football at the highest level during his time at Oklahoma, confident in saying “SMU is on its way” to being a team that consistently wins 10 or 11 games a year. “I know they’re on the right track with Dykes as the head ball coach,” he adds. Samples agrees that if they keep doing what they’re doing, SMU can get to where it has always wanted to be.

“I think they think we’re coming,” Samples says of SMU’s national perception. “I think they think we’re trending and I think we think we’re just getting started. They haven’t seen half of what we can do. I’m excited about the future.”

Dykes remembers when he first got the job at SMU. He often talked about his vision and what he was going to do with the program, how they were going to win. He remembers the weird looks and annoying taps on the shoulder from people expressing the sentiment of, “Well, it’s going to take some time.” Then came that breakout 2019 season, when the Mustangs raided the transfer portal to plug holes and won far sooner than anyone anticipated. This year’s current 8-2 record confirms that’s no fluke. 

What SMU needs now more than ever is more of that consistency, which is something the football program has lacked for a long time. It needs to get over the hump and win in November and finish each season strong. It needs to draw larger crowds and build bigger and better facilities.

“I guess if you have success, people just assume that you’re not going to stick around.”

Their greatest chance to do so comes this weekend against Cincinnati, No. 5 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. Beat the Bearcats, and recruiting soars. There would be no ignoring SMU any longer. “It would make a huge difference,” Dykes says. “For us, we have to do it consistently. If we could win that game, I think it puts us on the map.” 

But even if they don’t, Dykes hopes the Bearcats “can go in there and win them all and show people what they can do,” Dykes says. He’d be pulling for them should Cincinnati cause all the chaos and make it to the College Football Playoff. Perhaps because, if they do, it could set a precedent SMU could one day follow in the AAC.

While beating Cincinnati would be a huge step for Dykes’ program, there are so many more for SMU to take. In the last four years, SMU has made it to two bowl games, but now they need to win one. They need to make it to the AAC championship game. And then win that, too. SMU still hasn’t won its league since 1984. “We just have to keep chipping away at those things that haven’t been done in a while,” Dykes says.

It’s easy to imagine all of that happening under Dykes, perhaps sooner than anybody outside of the program might think. While perception is something that’s very slow to change, the solution here is easy. Do as Mordecai says and pay Dykes “a lot of money”—then reap the benefits.

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