University of Texas officials may never publicly admit that they should have hired Sonny Dykes two years ago when they had the chance. Nor is athletic director Chris Del Conte likely to admit that Dykes was his first choice when Steve Sarkisian ended up becoming the Longhorns head football coach.

That’s the kind of admission that sometimes takes years—and, in some cases, multiple adult beverages—to even be whispered by a school’s high rollers.  To do so now would shine an uncomfortable light as much on the UT power brokers who believed Sarkisian was the right man to lead the Longhorns back to national prominence as on the coach himself.

One thing is for sure: so far, the program under Sarkisian is nowhere near national prominence. The coach has followed up last year’s 5–7 debut season with an uninspiring 6–4 campaign in 2022, with two games remaining. For a school that prides itself on having the deepest pockets, the finest facilities, and the largest egos, 11–11 is not going to cut it—but that could be the new normal in Austin, with the Longhorns seemingly destined to finish out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the ninth time in thirteen seasons. 

Meanwhile, Dykes has Texas Christian University at 10–0 and positioned for a berth in the College Football Playoff, after the Horned Frogs’ 17–10 victory in Austin on Saturday. Dykes took over at TCU after going 30–18 in four-plus seasons at Southern Methodist. He became a hot commodity in the college-football coaching market over the last two years, with Texas, Oklahoma, and other Power Five conference schools expressing interest in him. In Texas’s case, missing out on Dykes may end up being a “what if” that torments Longhorns fans for years to come.

According to the Austin American-Statesman‘s Kirk Bohls, Dykes was Del Conte’s first choice when UT looked to replace Tom Herman after the 2020 season. “The deal was all but done,” Bohls reported, adding that “Del Conte and Dykes had in-depth discussions about everything from salary to the nitty-gritty of staff and an introductory press conference.”

Del Conte denied the report, but Bohls has a half century of credibility in reporting on all things UT football. And Dykes might have been a perfect fit on the Forty Acres, in part because of the regard his peers and Texas high school coaches have for him. Dykes has occasionally been underestimated because of his low-key demeanor. He also believes in old-school football fundamentals, lessons he learned from his late father, Spike Dykes, who had a stint on Darrell Royal’s Texas staff before spending thirteen seasons as Texas Tech’s head coach.

“Relationships are the most important thing,” Dykes told me earlier this season when I asked what he’d gleaned from his dad’s coaching career. “X‘s and o‘s are important. Recruiting is important. Facilities are important. All this stuff’s important. But at the end of the day, relationships are the most important thing. He was really good at that. Every single player on the team meant something to him, whether they were the best player or the worst player. They were all important.”

In his first season at TCU, Dykes has infused the football program with discipline, accountability, an explosive offense, and a relentless work ethic. TCU had gone 23–24 over the previous four seasons, and it was Gary Patterson’s dismissal last season that opened the door for Dykes after an offer from Texas failed to materialize the previous year.

In a blistering commentary in the San Antonio Express-News, columnist Mike Finger wrote that Dykes probably wasn’t tapped for the UT position because he had “capably paid his coaching dues but never earned much notoriety or mystique along the way.”

Hiring Dykes, Finger wrote, “wouldn’t have satisfied the donors, it wouldn’t have excited the fan base and it wouldn’t have made for much of a news conference.

“At UT, see, winning the news conference is priority one. The Longhorns always are selling, and nothing sells quite like the next big thing.” Texas officials might have believed Sarkisian would bring more buzz to the program because of his reputation as an offensive innovator and his experience as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.

Again, to be fair, UT’s Del Conte disputes the narrative that he preferred Dykes for the job and that Sarkisian was chosen over Dykes. In Bohls’s reporting, Del Conte characterized his discussions with Dykes as part of the program’s standard vetting process during its 2020 coaching search. Regardless, discussions between Del Conte and Dykes did not lead to an offer.

This is where UT Board of Regents chairman, Kevin Eltife, enters the picture. Only a few dots need to be connected to wonder if Eltife might have vetoed the hiring of the SMU coach. “To be clear, I was involved in the process from start to finish,” Eltife told Bohls, “and Sark was always at the top of the list.”

That’s an extremely flattering assessment of a coach who arrived in Austin with a so-so 46–35 head coaching record from previous stints at Washington and USC. Apparently, Texas decision-makers weren’t about to let a little thing like Sarkisian’s track record interfere with their gut instincts telling them, “This is the guy!

“From my perspective, Steve Sarkisian was our guy from the beginning,” Eltife said. “And I’m thankful it all worked out because he’s the right man for the job.”

As for Dykes, he told Bohls he ended up where he’s supposed to be. Which is a slot in the Big 12 title game and a chance to take the Horned Frogs to the national semifinals on New Year’s Eve. “I think that’s the way this stuff goes sometimes in college athletics,” he said. “I think you’re always going to end up where you’re supposed to, and I’m lucky to be here at TCU.”

Bohls’s scoop became a fascinating backdrop for Saturday’s TCU-Texas game. Having rattled off nine straight victories by scoring points in bunches, TCU showed it could win a different kind of game, limiting the Longhorns and their five-star roster to 199 yards and one touchdown.

Among the 104,203 attendees at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium was one Arch Manning, UT’s five-star recruit from the first family of quarterbacking, who has been designated the latest in a very long line of program saviors. He apparently intends to enroll in January. Whether Sarkisian remains head coach throughout Manning’s college career is now an open question. Sark is the third head coach who’s been hired to try and turn the Longhorns around since Mack Brown was shoved out the door after the 2013 season.

If Texas could get a do-over, it might reconsider ever parting with Brown, the only Longhorns coach to enjoy sustained success in the last quarter century. But when Texas finished with records of 8–5, 9–4, and 8–5 in Brown’s final three seasons, boosters and fans alike were happy to help him clean out his desk. Never mind that seasons like those would be an upgrade these days, and that Brown arguably deserved more patience from the program, considering his teams went 101–16 between 2001 and 2009 and twice played for the national championship, defeating USC in 2005 and losing to Alabama in 2009.

Brown spent five seasons working for ESPN before North Carolina lured him back into coaching at the age of 67. Brown is now 71, and his Tar Heels are 9–1 and ranked thirteenth in the latest AP poll. Since Brown left the Texas sidelines, Charlie Strong went 16–21 in three seasons and Tom Herman 32–18 in four before Sarkisian’s arrival. 

And after watching TCU shut down the Longhorns’ five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers and the rest of UT’s blue-chip talent over the weekend, it’s impossible not to wonder how different things would be in Austin if Del Conte had hired Dykes in 2020.  Would Texas still be mired in mediocrity? Asked to assess the job Sarkisian has done, Eltife didn’t blink.

“I would give Sark an A-plus,” he told Bohls. “I think Steve’s doing an outstanding job. He’s doing everything I had hoped would happen when he became our coach. He’s rebuilding our team. He’s a class act. He’s a man of integrity. I love that he doesn’t make excuses, win or lose. He’s doing what was desperately needed to rebuild our team.”