Some Long Thoughts on Sonny Dykes and Academics.

This is kind of long, but I think – and hope – that it’ll head somewhere. Bear with me.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that I write about Cal football at a couple different places, working as a reporter and eye on the scene for one, and contributing whatever I can – recruit analysis, opinions, breaking news – for the other. I’ve been very fortunate to do so, mostly because between them, BI and CGB have allowed me to regularly cover the team and program I’ve loved since childhood.

But that same love – word up to Macklemore, I guess – makes writing complicated, at times, becoming another thing to juggle in between taps at my keyboard. Still, I do my best to keep the Yale Blue shades off when I work, and remain level-headed and unemotional in my actual writing, regardless of whatever it is. [1]

Now, with all that being said, allow me, if you will, to put them back on, and write strictly as a fan, over the next…however many words it takes me to finish this. Of course, what I’m about to say will shock very few people, but with a portion of the fanbase already beginning to sour on Sonny before he has even coached a game, I do want to say again…

I believe in Coach Dykes.

Yes, it’s true that I already believed the day he was hired – probably even as early as when  he was only a candidate for the job – but everything he’s done since then has only increased my belief, not lessened it.

[Surprisingly, this has very little to do with the fact that he hangs out with MC Hammer, goes to Mumford and Sons concerts, or strolls through the Glade with his family on the regular. These things make him infinitely more likeable, though, and having a personable guy at the helm of your program can never hurt.]

While there is no denying the impact Coach Tedford had on the program as a whole, the last few years of his tenure saw a program recording few victories on the field, and even less of them in the classroom. We won’t be able to draw any conclusions about the former trend for at least another season or two, but at the very least, the latter looks to be over under Dykes, who has the entire team run after practice if even one player misses class.

Combine that with several academic casualties, a revamped support system, and an increased emphasis on recruiting academically qualified players, and you have the early beginnings of an APR turnaround. Hell, the team’s GPA already increased a full tenth, just six months after Sonny stepped in. [More thoughts on the academic aspect toward the end of this post. God, I would kill for a working “footnotes” section.]

As for the former – the lacking in wins on the field – I am taking the long view on this.

Yes, Cal has some talent stockpiled, and potential breakout players galore. No one is debating that.

But to ask that it all comes together in Sonny’s first season, as he tries to find the right quarterback, shuffles around multiple new offensive linemen, and has two question marks for running backs? To demand seven or more wins from a team playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country? That’s a bit much, and probably not even rooted in realism.

More likely, there will be growing pains, and though Sonny has better pieces at his disposal than he did in Ruston, we must remember that the competition does too. Understanding this, as well as the fact that the 2013 Bears are an incredibly young team, and Sonny’s forecast for immediate success is cloudy at best.

At the same time, it is fair to expect that this youth will work to their advantage in future years – namely, the next one. There should be upwards of 16 starters back come 2014, double the amount of returners this fall. It is then, and only then, that we should demand an end to the excuses – then, that we can start to actually judge Sonny as a coach, then, that 9+ wins is a reasonable prediction, then, that the hopefuls should start dreaming about a Rose Bowl.

I realize that I am not alone in thinking Dykes is capable of all of these things. The only difference is that I’m willing to give him a little longer to try to achieve them.

You may have your own reasons for thinking he may succeed [or not], but here are a few of mine: Sonny’s offense is a perfect fit for our personnel, he understands the unique culture of Cal, and he has the aggressiveness and imagination that Tedford lost later in his career, all of which should help the W column before long.

Time will tell if my belief is misguided, but that’s okay.

I’m patient. You should be, too.

Roses do not bloom in an offseason.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Admittedly, you are the best judge of that, and not me. Note also that this does not apply to my Twitter account, where I generally choose to talk about a variety of things and more or less behave like a dork.

[Aforementioned sidenote]: As someone heavily invested in the education field and planning to one day be a teacher, I don’t think the solution to the APR woes is simply to just “raise admissions standards for players”. To make “good grades” a larger criteria in recruiting is shortsighted, to me, because the right attitude toward learning needs to be there, too.

Remember Gabe King’s series of tweets a few months back, talking about how much he had discovered about himself as a black man? That’s EXACTLY what Cal offers – a chance for these guys to grow as people, to learn and realize things they might not have been exposed to anywhere else. Consequently, we should be looking for kids who recognize, appreciate and want to be a part of the unique academic situation/opportunity we have here.

In fact, I think the way a player approaches academics is just as important to any success at Cal, and perhaps even more telling than a qualifying GPA and SAT. After all, some of the players here qualified out of high school and should have easily made grades, but lacked the drive and discipline to take advantage of their resources, or even do something as simple as go to class.

And on the other hand, there are guys in this program whose numbers suggest they would not belong here, but have graduated just fine. Thrived, even.

I’m willing to bet that within your own college experience, you probably had friends or knew people in both of these categories yourself. Learning and motivation and academics is so much more complicated than numbers, and the numbers themselves only give limited insight if not examined in context.

This is exactly why I don’t mind taking a few calculated risks on a guy like Takk McKinley or Trey Cheek each year – if a guy has clearly demonstrated that they want to be at Cal, and shows a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it work, then numbers be damned, we should take them. More often than not, a guy like that is going to do just fine here, no matter what his SAT score is. Such is the result of sheer force of will meeting existing support networks.

I suspect that when Sonny is talking about “fit”, he refers to the same thing as I do – it isn’t just about finding qualifying students, but equally about finding students who understand Cal is a special place for learning, and want to be there.

To put that as succinctly as I can, and mostly because I feel like I’m getting rambly – we’re not just looking for higher GPA’d recruits, we’re looking for those who are both motivated AND positioned to succeed here.

I take the same philosophy when it comes to admitting marginal students as a whole, who deserve just as much of an opportunity to succeed as high achievers. I’ve taught students whose reason for getting into Cal surely extended beyond their scholarship – students whose SAT scores hovered at the 1400 or 1500 mark, who I have no problem with as my peers. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer in this society, but if we raise admissions standards alone, I really think that we will end up causing more harm than improvement – because one, we’ll be stripping the campus of all the vibrant diversity it deserves, and two, disproving the notion that education is open to everyone.

Cal is not a club that belongs to the 4.0 GPA students exclusively – it belongs to the passionate, the motivated, and the willing. It should never become anything else.

If it did, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in myself.

[Side sidenote:] Obviously, in an ideal world, you want talented, highly rated players who are also motivated to thrive academically. Unfortunately, those guys don’t exactly grow on trees, and are always in high demand. I anticipate that it will, at the earliest, take two or three years before we become a top tier choice for these types of players, if we ever do. Fine by me. I have every reason to trust the staff’s judgment in recruiting – and there’s always the other option of maximizing existing talent, too. Plenty of programs do this. How many top 25 classes did you see Louisville pull in?

There is a perception in the Cal fanbase that every kid who fits this description should want to come here, which just isn’t true. We have plenty to sell and plenty of advantages, but that doesn’t make us a good fit for everyone. That’s the reality of it. It does me no good to complain about who we missed on, personally – I’d rather appreciate every athlete who decided to choose to come here…but that’s just me.

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