Of the many questions raised by Sonny Dykes' firing Sunday as Cal's head football coach, the two most prominent were "Why?" and "What Next?"
In his hastily-called Sunday press conference, athletic director Mike Williams shed little light on either, although he did drop a massive hint on the first one.
Amidst the usual blather of wanting someone "committed to building a winning football program on the field. … committed to academic achievement. … athletes to have a tremendous experience. …" was the telling sentence, "We also want somebody who is committed to Cal for the long term, somebody who really wants to be at Cal."
Dykes certainly didn't act like someone who "really wants to be at Cal". As early as 2014 he was casting eyes at other jobs. At the end of the 2015 season he interviewed at Missouri. At the time most observers thought that was just for leverage to get a contract extension. Dykes got his extension (his deal runs through 2019) yet as recently as last month he was sniffing around for the Baylor and Houston jobs.
But if that, even that combined with Dykes' less than stellar 19-30 won-lost record in his four years, was the motivating factor, the timing is curious. Nothing was new on those fronts in the last six weeks, yet Williams waited until now to pull the plug. With recruiting about to begin in earnest and National Signing Day less than a month away, the Bears are suddenly at a disadvantage with prospects. Williams said that all verbal commits had been contacted and none has announced a change of mind. Still, this is turmoil the Bears did not need.
Two possible reasons for the timing, both admittedly speculative, are that something happened behind the scenes or Williams has a successor in mind and figured he had to strike now.
The latter lends credence to the now hot rumor that Williams is pursuing former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, recently fired by the 49ers. Hugely successful in his four years in Eugene, going 46-7, including 33-3 in conference play, Kelly is owed a boatload of money by the 49ers and Eagles, who both fired him with time left on his contract. He might not demand big bucks from his next gig, wherever it might be. That makes him attractive to Cal, especially since the Bears, operating at a $22 million deficit, will have to pay Dykes somewhere north of $5 million to buy out his contract.
But would Kelly really want the job? When Oregon fired coach Mark Helfrich, Kelly said he had no interest in returning to Eugene. Granted, he was still employed by the 49ers at the time, but if he really didn't want the Ducks' gig, why would he consider the Bears'?. Berkeley is a much harder place to win consistently than Eugene (just ask Jeff Tedford). Oregon has superior facilities, (thank you, Phil Knight) and lower academic standards.
Williams said he has "a short list" of candidates and, in a letter to Bear boosters, said he had enlisted the services of CarrSports Consulting, an athletic head-hunting firm.
Some of the other names on the rumor mill include Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was a Cal assistant for three years and would bring a needed defensive emphasis, USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin, former Cal All-American Ron Rivera (unlikely because he is still head coach of the Carolina Panthers and has never coached in college) and current Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who has been handed the weighty task of keeping things together as Cal's interim head coach.
From all indications Dykes was as stunned by the announcement as anybody. He sent out the following message to the Cal players, who were notified of the move by social media.
"I am as surprised as you all about the news today. I am sorry you all found out the way you did. All I can say is I am incredibly proud of each and every one of you; it has been an honor to be your coach. If you keep working hard and doing things the right way, you will have success in everything you do. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me any time. God Bless."
Even being members of the 21st century social media generation, some of those players were not that thrilled about how they got the message.
"The whole Cal football team just all found out on twitter that there coach was being fired something is wrong here," was tweeted by cornerback Darius Allensworth.
He and several other players voiced their support for Spavital as a successor. A highly-regarded young assistant, Spavital, 31, took over the Cal offense last season, and oversaw a seamless transition from three years of Jared Goff at quarterback to graduate transfer Davis Webb.
It was on defense that the Bears suffered under Dykes, and last year the Bears ranked 120th (out of 128) nationally in yards allowed per play. That was the main reason the team, despite its prolific offense, managed just a 5-7 record after going 8-5 with a victory in the Armed Forces Bowl in 2015.
The football team's academic performance, which had fallen to unacceptable levels under Tedford, certainly improved under Dykes, a fact duly noted by Williams, but he had just one winning season.
That led to empty seats and unsold tickets in the expensively revamped Memorial Stadium.
The firing continues a trend that began a quarter century ago. If Cal hires you as head coach, they will probably fire you. Since Bruce Snyder left following the 1991 season, Cal has had five head coaches. Four of them were fired, Keith Gilbertson, Tom Holmoe, Tedford and Dykes. The fifth, Steve Mariucci, quit after one season to take over the 49ers.
Williams better make a choice that he doesn't have to reverse five years from now.