More than six weeks after coach Sonny Dykes finished his fourth season at California, he was called into a meeting Sunday with athletic director Mike Williams and promptly fired.
Williams said the decision wasn't about one winning record in four seasons and was made in spite of dramatic improvement in academics under Dykes.
“We're not connecting this in any way to on-field performance,” Williams said. “I'm very pleased with what Sonny has done with the culture of the football program and with the academic performance of our student-athletes.”
Without giving specific details for why he made his decision, Williams repeatedly talked about wanting a coach committed to the program after Dykes flirted with job openings at Houston, Missouri and Baylor in recent years and wanting a program that excited the fan base.
After evaluating all of that, Williams made his decision at the unusually late time, leading Cal to start a coaching search just a few weeks before national signing day.
Fox Sports first reported Dykes had been fired.
Dykes left Louisiana Tech to replace Jeff Tedford and took over the struggling Cal program in 2013, but could never get the Bears turned around. They went 8-5 in 2015, but then slid back to 5-7 this season.
While rival Stanford has built a powerhouse in recent years despite high academic standards, Cal has not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1958 season.
“With all of our programs, we have success in the classroom, we have tremendous academic accomplishment and we win championships,” Williams said. “That's the standard for football also.”
Dykes and the administration seemed to be at odds after that 2015 season during a prolonged negotiation of a contract extension. The deal was finally worked out and Dykes' deal was extended through the 2019 season. Cal owes Dykes more than $5 million under terms of the deal finalized in March because he was fired without cause, although that will be off-set by money he earns at any job he gets during the next three seasons.
Williams said he believes this move will help the financially struggling program reach long-term sustainability.
“In order to do this, we need to continue to invest in football,” he said. “The football investment is critical. We believe this change will re-invigorate the program, stimulate lagging ticket sales and renewals and energize our donor base.”
Dykes finished his tenure with a 19-30 record, including 10-26 in the Pac-12 as the Bears struggled to sell out games at its remodeled stadium.
Dykes said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the move and called Cal a special place.
“I am comforted, however, that I leave this program in much better shape than when I arrived four years ago,” he said in a statement. “I am confident Cal will find a great coach to lead these great young men, they deserve nothing less.”
Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital will serve as interim coach and could be a candidate for the full-time job as well.
Speculation will now turns to Dykes' successor, with former Oregon and San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly's name likely to be linked to the job. After a dominant run at Oregon, Kelly had less success in the NFL and was fired earlier this month by the 49ers, a year after being dismissed by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former assistant at Cal, is also a likely candidate.
The Bears had been consistent winners for nearly a decade under Tedford, with only one losing season from 2002-09. Things started to slip after that. The athletic department struggled financially and the football team's Academic Progress Rating of 930 was the worst in the Pac-12 at the end of Tedford's tenure.
The academics bounced back under Dykes, posting APRs of 969, 946 and 997 the past three years to raise the four-year average to 960 — the program's highest since 2008-09. But on the field there were few victories, despite record-breaking offenses. With quarterback Jared Goff, the Bears were one of the most prolific teams in the country but only managed one bowl appearance. Cal beat Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl last season.
“Coach Dykes clearly built up the program both on the field and in the classroom,” Williams said. “He leaves Cal in a stronger position than when he arrived. For that alone, he deserves credit and our thanks.”
Goff went first overall in the NFL draft last year and transfer Davis Webb stepped in to keep Cal's offense rolling. The defense, however, was again one of the worst in the country, ranking 122nd in yards per play.
In four seasons under Dykes, the Bears never ranked better than 102nd in the nation in yards per play allowed.