Building A Program At Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech
Brent Pry is doing some of the things at Virginia Tech that Sonny Dykes did at LA Tech and SMU. (Ivan Morozov)

For a hot second, TCU head coach Sonny Dykes was on the long list of candidates to replace Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. Dykes worked under Hal Mumme, so he’s part of the original Air Raid lineage and continues the style; as a head coach he’s sandwiched good runs at LA Tech and SMU around a rough go at Cal. He’s talked at length about how he’s approached his different jobs, and out of all the coaches I’ve read and listened about program building, he probably caught my ear more than anyone else.

What he has to say about coaching makes a lot of sense to me, and it also strikes me as relevant to how someone might coach a program like Virginia Tech. If you look at his experiences and compare them to what we saw with Justin Fuente and what we’re seeing with Brent Pry, I think you’ll see some parallels.

The Job is Job #1

Dykes’ biggest point is that understanding and working to the strengths and weaknesses of the job is the most important thing a coach can do. He learned this the hard way in his first season at LA Tech when he chose to emphasize his own strengths as a coach and the strengths of the Louisiana recruiting bed over the school. Dykes had recruiting connections in big high school programs in Dallas and Houston from his years as an assistant at Texas Tech, and he knew the major programs in Louisiana put out big-time talent, so that’s where he put his recruiting focus. Then he invited those big-time recruits who had high schools with 12,000 square-foot weight rooms, and they saw LA Tech’s locker room and the training center that had a grand total of two squat racks, and those recruits politely ended their recruitment.

As a result, he had to change his entire recruiting strategy in just the first year of his job. He changed the strategy to one focusing on the school, which, relative to its peers and regional recruiting competition, seemed to be hamstrung by two major issues: its unimpressive facilities and its rural location. LA Tech is based in Ruston, a small city of about 20,000 people that’s found in rural northern Louisiana. Dykes realized that Ruston would likely appeal most to recruits from small towns and small schools, i.e., he needed the kind of kids who would be impressed by the new Chili’s being built in Ruston.

Then he realized something: junior college recruits met both criteria, and they would also have an appreciable developmental advantage over high school recruits. That year, he signed 16 JUCOs who became the main factor in a 5-7 team turning into an 8-5 and then a 9-3 one. Going crazy on JUCOs wasn’t a new idea by any means, but it was the right one.

He turned those two good seasons into getting the head job at Cal, launching him from rural Louisiana to the Bay Area. There, he recruited kids not just from the neighboring hotbeds, but from Houston, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, and other major metros. Even with Jared Goff on the team, though, it seemed that the Golden Bears had major talent deficits (they had zero players drafted in 2015) that a chalk-talker like Dykes couldn’t overcome. He probably didn’t fit with the Berkeley culture much either, and he had some unlucky timing with revenue issues, but I think most of his problems were with talent.

He took a year to work as an offensive analyst for TCU, then was hired at SMU. At SMU, he leaned on transfers to give him the same experience edge he cultivated at LA Tech. He also took a page from the Howard Schnellenberger playbook