Texas Christian University introduced Sonny Dykes as its new head football coach with a flourish last November, flying Dykes and his family into Amon G. Carter Stadium in a helicopter and delivering them to midfield. Fans roared their approval as he stepped down from the chopper. In their minds, this was the right leader to stop the Horned Frogs’ four-year slide.

Ten months later, in that same stadium, the second-largest crowd in school history—49,094 fans—packed the place for a progress report on the reconstruction of TCU football. The results: a 55–24 thrashing of Oklahoma in last Saturday’s game.

After a summer in which Texas A&M and the University of Texas dominated the story lines, it’s Sonny Dykes and the Horned Frogs who are winning the fall. At 4–0, TCU is the only remaining unbeaten FBS program in Texas.

“I saw some things that are really, really important to having a good football team,” Dykes told me this week when asked to assess his team’s most recent win. “And typically, those things sometimes take a long time to teach and to learn. It seemed like our guys got there pretty quickly, and I was really excited about that part of it as much as anything else.

“We played really hard, really fast,” he went on. “You could tell they were excited to play. We had a great crowd and fed off that as well. Even when we got ahead, there was no sense of letup. It was just keep our heads down and keep grinding.

“I think our mentality going into the game was going to be really important,” Dykes added. “Sometimes the most difficult thing is just convincing your guys, ‘Look, we can do this. And we’re capable of doing this.’ Sometimes the biggest thing to beating Oklahoma is just getting past the name on their chest. I never had a sense that that was a big deal to this team.”

In his ten months on the job, Dykes has pushed all the right buttons, from working the transfer portal smartly to signing one of the Big 12’s best recruiting classes to installing an offense that’s averaging close to fifty points per game.

Landing at number seven in the media’s Big 12 preseason rankings surely fueled the Frogs’ motivation, but all the chalk talks and great practices couldn’t come close to generating the kind of excitement and belief in fans and players alike that Saturday’s performance in Fort Worth did. “Just getting the players to buy into the vision and want to do things the right way,” Dykes told me. “When they’re recruited by different people that they know and trust, and all of a sudden there’s all these new people in there—they don’t know you, they don’t trust you, they don’t know if you truly have their best intentions at heart. There’s just a lot going on, a lot of things running through young people’s heads.”

Now they know.

“I  think [a win like Saturday’s] makes you go, ‘Okay, you know, we do have a chance,” Dykes explained. “‘Maybe we can do something, and maybe what they’ve been telling us is true.’ It reinforces all the behaviors you try to teach, and it’s a lot easier to do that kind of stuff when you have success. We’ve got good players here, they want to be good, and they’re very competitive. That’s not always the case. A lot of times when you take over a program, it takes a long time to get people really bought in.”

Opportunity begets opportunity. ESPN is throwing the Horned Frogs a coming-out party of sorts when its College GameDay program broadcasts from Lawrence, Kansas, this Saturday, prior to a suddenly intriguing matchup between still-undefeated Big 12 competitors, ranked numbers seventeen and nineteen, respectively, in the latest Associated Press poll.

That’s what a massive beatdown of OU gets you. TCU went for a mind-blowing 479 yards in the first half on its way to 668 overall yards on Saturday. The Horned Frogs had four touchdown plays of at least 62 yards and led 41–17 at the half. The team is second nationally in both scoring offense (48.5 points per game) and total offense (549.5 yards per game). And against the Sooners, it was all on display.

When Dykes accepted the head coaching job in Fort Worth, he took over a program that had gone 23–24 over the previous four seasons. That, combined with a 3–5 start in 2021, was enough to get Gary Patterson, the winningest coach in TCU history, fired. To dismiss a guy with his own statue on campus, the man who’d taken TCU football to heights—like winning the 2011 Rose Bowl—that even its most optimistic fans considered impossible, was a gutsy move by athletic director Jeremiah Donati.

But with more conference realignment moves on the horizon, Donati couldn’t risk being left behind. TCU has spent more than $400 million in facility upgrades since joining the Big 12 in 2012, and the university’s commitment was too large to chance being thrown off the bus. Donati believed the program needed a shake-up, and for that, he reached thirty miles down Interstate 30 to swipe Dykes from SMU, where he’d led the Mustangs to three straight winning seasons for the first time since Bobby Collins did it in the eighties.

Dykes comes from Texas football royalty. His dad, the late Spike Dykes, was one of the great gentlemen of the sport. During his long career, the elder Dykes worked at every level of football, highlighted by fourteen seasons as the head coach at Texas Tech, with his final year in Lubbock coming in 1999.

Sonny Dykes followed a similar career arc. He worked at the high school and junior college levels before starting his FBS head-coaching career, beginning with three seasons at Louisiana Tech, four at University of California, Berkeley, and four at SMU (plus a win in the 2017 Frisco Bowl) before that helicopter ride to TCU. In his first season with the Horned Frogs, he has constructed a wildly entertaining offense that gobbles up yardage in chunks thanks, in part, to quarterback Max Duggan, a dual-threat signal-caller who who leads the nation in passing efficiency (202.2) and ranks third in completion percentage (74.5), along with eleven touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Duggan moved into the starting job after Chandler Morris was injured in the first game of this season. The quarterbacks are surrounded by playmakers, beginning with running back Kendre Miller, who’s averaging 10.5 yards per carry against AP Top 25 opponents. Three wide receivers had big plays against Oklahama, including Taye Barber, who had three catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.

TCU’s defense has improved markedly, allowing just 22 points per game this season after giving up 35 per game last year. That defense includes four newcomers, beginning with true freshman nose tackle Damonic Williams and three others from the transfer portal: linebacker Johnny Hodges, cornerback Josh Newton, and safety Mark Perry.

TCU’s first three wins, over Colorado, Tarleton State, and SMU, got pretty much no one’s attention. But beating Oklahoma—even a Sooners team coming off a loss to Kansas State—put the Horned Frogs right back onto the national radar. Dykes is the first TCU head coach to start 4–0 since Francis Schmidt in 1929, and the program has burst from nowhere into making its first appearance in the AP poll since 2019.

This perfect start comes after an off-season that raised some concerns among Dykes and his assistants. It was only after the coach had been on the job for a few months, when he noticed dozens of players skipping off-season workouts, that he realized how far off the rails TCU’s football program had gone. That’s when he did something coaches don’t usually do. He did not lay down the law. He didn’t read the riot act to anyone. Instead, he embarked on a listening tour, giving his players the opportunity to vent about whatever was on their minds. In return, he explained his expectations for them and set ground rules for what he would tolerate and what he would not. 

“There was a little bit of a stare-down moment,” he recalled. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, you guys got to do this,’ and you have guys saying, ‘We’re not gonna do it.’ At the end of the day, we can’t afford to blink. You have to have principles in your program that you cannot sacrifice. If you make exceptions, it’s not gonna work. You can’t have a team that way. You can’t run a business that way. Successful organizations don’t work that way.

“I think we all want to be held accountable,” he went on. “We all want to know that somebody cares enough to hold us accountable. We have to say what we mean and mean what we say. Players are always checking us on that. Is it really important to go to class? Are you really going to suspend me if I don’t go?”

With this direct approach, Dykes has turned an experienced roster into a mature team. Fifty-seven of the 97 players that have been on the field this season are juniors or seniors. Eighteen players already have their degrees. TCU has turned the ball over only once in its first four games, and the Horned Frogs haven’t trailed since the opening 24 seconds of the second quarter in Colorado.

As for their projected seventh-place finish in the conference, there’s some sweet history in that number. The Horned Frogs started the 2014 season ranked number seven in the Big 12, and that was the last year the team won the league championship.

“I think guys were just tired of losing, of being talked down on the last three years,” Duggan told reporters after Saturday’s victory. “We deserved it. We didn’t play very well since I’ve been here, and I think guys were just tired of it. It was a fresh start with Coach Dykes and Coach [Garrett] Riley” (TCU’s offensive coordinator and the brother of USC head coach Lincoln Riley).

Dykes has cautioned his players against getting distracted by the road ahead. Unbeaten Oklahoma State is on the schedule after Kansas, and the Horned Frogs have difficult road games in November against Texas and Baylor. “Our guys are smart enough to know we’re certainly not a finished product,” he told me. “We certainly haven’t arrived. We don’t have anything figured out. We’ve played one good game, we’ve got eight more conference games. I think you’re always fighting for credibility if you’re not at a name-brand institution. It’s about people respecting your program and respecting your players. 

“The great thing is we’re at TCU, where Coach Patterson did that for so long,” the coach added. “He built this program on the mentality of we’re going to do more with less. We’re fortunate, because with all the success he had, we don’t have to do more with less. We’ve got great facilities, we’ve got great buy-in, we’ve got a great fan base. We have all those things that make it a lot easier now than it was twenty years ago for Coach Patterson.”