College Football and College Basketball Writer
A few days after Texas Christian stunned Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, Louisiana-Monroe head football coach Terry Bowden called a staff meeting as his assistants returned from the holiday break. He asked his coaches to compare the programs by analyzing how many NFL players each team typically produces, with everyone in the room aware of the Wolverines’ huge advantage in that category.
As the winningest program in college football history, Michigan ranks fifth all-time with 387 players drafted and boasts 43 alums on NFL rosters this season. The Horned Frogs rank 44th all-time with 204 players drafted and have only 21 alumni scattered around the league.
But when those schools met in the first semifinal of this year’s College Football Playoff, the upstart underdogs from Fort Worth built 18-point leads in the first half and 19 point in the second to stun Michigan, 51-45, and earn a spot in the national championship game against Georgia on Monday night. Head coach Sonny Dykes’ team’s performance resonated with Bowden as he enters his third season at ULM.
“It’s like chess,” Bowden said in an interview with FOX Sports. “Some can move the pieces better than other people, and that’s just a fact. I know you win with the players first, but like chess, some people can move the pieces better than others. I think that’s what he did Sonny Dykes.”
TCU vs. Georgia: David vs. Goliath?
Bowden’s knowledge carries weight because of where he found himself many years and many jobs ago, in 1993, as the son of a prominent coach navigating an undefeated debut season. He was introduced to the profession by his father, the late Bobby Bowden, who won two national championships and 12 conference titles at Florida State, and quickly rose to the top of the sport by winning his first His 20 games at Auburn as the youngest coach in the sport. country.
The parallels between Bowden and Dykes, whose own father, Spike Dykes, was a high school coaching legend before guiding Texas Tech to six bowls in 13 years, are striking. Dykes won his opening 12 games at TCU to secure the program’s inaugural CFP appearance and now, after beating Michigan in a thriller, is within a game of a second national title recognized in the school history and the first since 1938.
Bowden won six different coach of the year honors in ’93, and Dykes matched that this season.
“Honestly,” Dykes said in a news conference before the Fiesta Bowl, “it’s been a little bit of a blur. You get a job somewhere, the first year is always a little crazy. There’s so much that needs to be done, from recruiting to hire staff to get to know your current team. I haven’t had much time for reflection.”
From the time Dykes was hired on November 29, 2021, after a little more than four seasons at Southern Methodist until the start of TCU’s fall camp, recruiting efforts were carried out on three different fronts. Dykes and his staff worked to finalize the 2022 recruiting class by mixing 14 incoming freshmen — 10 of whom were in-state prospects — with 14 additions from the transfer portal, where the Horned Frogs they loved eventual starters from Texas (tight end Jared Wiley), Navy (linebacker Johnny Hodges), Colorado (safety Mark Perry), SMU (center Alan Ali) and even Bowden’s squad at Louisiana-Monroe (cornerback Josh Newton) . Overall, the class ranked 28th nationally and third in the Big 12 behind Texas and Oklahoma, both of which are leaving for the Southeastern Conference in 2025.
Dykes’ third point of recruitment focused on retaining players inherited from former coach Gary Patterson, whose 22-year run included 11 seasons with double-digit wins, three BCS or New Year’s Six bowl games and one Rose Bowl victory while guiding the Horned. Frogs through four different leagues. Seventeen players opted to leave the program after Patterson resigned following a 3-5 start to the 2021 campaign, but Dykes and his staff retained a large number of veterans who at the same time believed in the vision his and wanted to end their respective careers in Fort Worth:
— Senior cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson went on to win the Thorpe Award given to the best defensive back in the country.
— Senior tailback Emari Demercado rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown against Michigan after starter Kendre Miller left with an injury.
— Senior linebacker Dee Winters returned an interception for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl.
— Senior offensive lineman Steve Avila became a consensus All-American.
— Senior quarterback Max Duggan, the unquestioned hero of this year’s team, never considered transferring despite losing the starting job in fall camp and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
TCU’s success since winning the transfer portal
“You don’t go in there and get rid of all the other junior players and tell all your fans, ‘He left me nobody,'” Bowden said. “I mean, that’s the biggest thing a coach does that he really doesn’t know. what is he doing or not trusting that he is the man. He goes in there, says to anyone who will listen, ‘They left me nothing,’ and they get rid of the players or put on the bench players that are not theirs to prove that this is what they are going to do. You better learn how to take the players that are there and make the most of the ones you have if you want to have a great first year.”
Questions about how and when Dykes got the team to buy in became a staple of TCU’s media sessions during the buildup to the Fiesta Bowl, and those were precisely the kinds of things Bowden monitored during the first year his at Auburn after former coach and athletic director Pat. Dye resigned following an NCAA investigation. Bowden recalled that he listened back to the interviews his players gave after practices or games to see if their answers echoed the messages he was trying to convey in team meetings. There was a direct correlation between the number of games the Tigers won and how often the players invoked Bowden’s buzzwords.
Avila, the standout left guard who hasn’t allowed a sack all season, told reporters that Dykes’ arrival was met with a sour taste among veterans who remain loyal to Patterson and the staff that recruited them. It took them a week or two to accept Dykes as a true players’ coach and appreciate his vision of reviving a program that was among the best in the country during Patterson’s peak but had won more from seven games only once since 2017. That the Horned Frogs finished off Colorado, 38-13, in the season opener despite losing starting quarterback Chandler Morris to injury, cemented the team’s belief in its new leader.
“We looked at all the things we went through, and after we won I was like, man, we’re going to be pretty good,” Avila said before the Fiesta Bowl. “We went through a lot and just how we handled ourselves – things didn’t go well during the first game, there were moments (when it was difficult). It was the way we bounced back. That’s when I realized the change from last year for this year. It excited me. I’m happy that it all paid off.”
The victories were collected in thrilling fashion: a 42-34 shootout over Dykes’ old team from SMU; four consecutive wins against ranked opponents to lead the rankings in October; one-score triumph over No. 17 Texas in Austin; 62-14 shellacking of Iowa State in the regular season finale to earn a spot in the CFP regardless of what happened in the Big12 title game, although the timing is uncertain[ietkonsekuttivikontraavversarjiklassifikatibiexiniedul-klassifikaf’Ottubru;trijonfta’skorwieħedfuqNru17Texasf’Austin;62-14shelackingta’IowaStatefil-finalital-istaġunregolaribiexjaqilgħupostfis-CFPirrispettivamentminndakliġarafil-logħbatat-titluBig12għalkemmmakinuxjafudakiż-żmien
The rarity of a coach having such tremendous success in his first season with a new program cannot be overstated. If Dykes can add a national championship to an already bulging trophy cabinet, he will join Larry Coker (2001) and Dennis Erickson (1989) at Miami, and Bennie Oosterbaan (1948) at Michigan as the only coaches that impose their debuts with the ultimate prize.
But even if he doesn’t fall against Georgia on Monday, there are already signs of momentum building on the recruiting trail. Dykes’ recruiting has accelerated to a level the Horned Frogs haven’t seen in more than 20 years as he draws a larger and larger share of the overflowing talent pool in Texas. His 2023 recruiting class includes six high schoolers ranked among the top 360 prospects in the 247Sports Composite, as well as the No. 3 junior college player in the nation. TCU also added five more transfers — all of which are from the SEC; three of them came from Alabama — to round out the nation’s 18th recruiting class. No Horned Frogs incoming group has been ranked that high since 247Sports began collecting the data in 1999.
“I think it’s going to be a game changer,” Dykes said when asked what kind of impact playing in the CFP could have on recruiting. “There’s already a high level of interest from some really good players around Texas and around the country, and I think that’s going to do nothing but enhance our ability to go and recruit some of the best football players in the country.”
Bowden’s team posted an 11-0 season by defeating No. 11 Alabama but was ineligible for both the SEC title game and the national title game due to an upcoming postseason ban from the NCAA investigation. Auburn was the only undefeated team in college football that year but finished fourth in the final Associated Press poll as one-loss Florida State — coached by Bowden’s father — was crowned champion . Bowden’s hitting streak reached 20 games as the Tigers started the following year 9-0, but that never stopped Bobby Bowden from teasing his son by reminding him, “Terry, you’re not even the -best coach in your own family.”
Still, all that winning in 1993-94 infused Bowden’s program with the same recruiting push Dykes is now experiencing at TCU. Suddenly, Bowden could beat his elbow in Florida and compete with his father for some of the best high school players in the country at a time when wins were the recruiting equivalent of currency long before the -beginning of Name, Image and Likeness.
“We started getting players because of our success,” Bowden said, “and then you start winning even more.”
There’s an argument to be made that Dykes and the Horned Frogs are in a good position to sustain the kind of success they’ve experienced this season, regardless of what happens against Georgia. The school’s admission to a Power 5 conference in 2012 was joined by imminent playoff expansion, a new TV rights deal worth $2.28 billion, the imminent departure of Big 12 stalwarts Oklahoma and Texas, effective application of the transfer portal and non-stop supply of in-state recruitment prospects at an ideal moment in sport.
Such potential reminds Bowden of when his father took over Florida State in 1976. The Seminoles had bottomed after winning four games in the previous three years combined to prevent Bobby Bowden’s incredible run that would span four decades. Bobby Bowden built his program on a foundation of elite recruiting in Florida and rode that talent into the stratosphere with two national titles in seven seasons after FSU joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in -1992.
That’s the kind of potential people see at TCU. And now it falls to Dykes to move the chess pieces better than others.
“If you really look at the things that allow you to succeed,” Bowden said, “boy, they’re in the right place at the right time.”
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.
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