FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Calli Berna ran into ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes at a restaurant two weeks ago.
The two chatted for a few minutes about Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long’s decision to fire Berna’s coach, Tom Collen, after the season. Berna told Dykes the unknown was a little nerve-wracking and scary. But she said the Razorbacks were making it a point to stick together through the uncertainty.
Then Berna told Dykes what she was hearing about potential replacements.
“I said, ‘I’m hearing so many rumors. I even heard it could be you,’” Berna said. “I laughed and he didn’t say anything. Somebody had said it, but I thought they were joking. So when I talked to him today I was like, ‘Well, the joke is on me.’”
Berna wasn’t alone Sunday. There weren’t many who could’ve predicated what Long described as a “non-traditional” hire. And what Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma told The Associated Press was an “outside the box” move.
Dykes was introduced as the eighth women’s basketball coach in the program’s history during a pep rally in Bud Walton Arena on Sunday afternoon. The surprising decision wrapped up Long’s three-week search to replace Collen, who was fired after going 132-90 in seven seasons with the program.
The 52-year-old Dykes was chosen to take control of the women’s basketball program even though he has not been a college basketball coach since the 1990-91 season, when he worked on Eddie Sutton’s staff at Oklahoma State. He has never coached women’s college basketball in his career. And, even more, Dykes has never been a head coach in a career that had several stops as an assistant.
But Dykes had a bold message for any other women’s basketball coaches who believe he isn’t qualified for the position after working as an ESPN analyst since 1995.
“People will say I have never been a head coach on the college level or in the women’s game,” Dykes said, addressing the crowd during his introduction. “Nothing I can do about that. But I tell them if you play me, the pressure is on you.”
Dykes was offered a four-year contract after emerging from a group of candidates that included seven face-to-face interviews, according to Long. He first expressed his interest in the position while working at the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament and was the last candidate Long interviewed for the position.
Long said Dykes “won the day. He won the show.”
“I think it’s the total package,” Long said. “I think it’s the fit. He has the passion for this job. He has the passion for this university. And I believe strongly that he has the leadership and the basketball knowledge to impact these young women, the ones that are here today and the ones that he’ll bring here in the future.”
Dykes, who was a walk-on and graduate assistant at Arkansas under former coach Eddie Sutton, said the Arkansas opportunity wasn’t the first offer he has received to return to coaching throughout his tenure with ESPN. Dykes would not disclose any of the offers he received because “it wouldn’t be right,” but said coaching women’s basketball at Arkansas was the only position he desired.
“For me to uproot and leave Northwest Arkansas, just didn’t make sense,” said Dykes, who lives in Northwest Arkansas. “I said it: this is the one job in the country that would left for. I’m a big believer in women’s basketball. I want to be not only a voice for the University of Arkansas women’s basketball, I want to be a voice for the country. I think our game needs that right now.”
Dykes’ first priority will be with a team that hasn’t been a major player in the SEC, which has five teams in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 this season.
The Razorbacks went 19-11, including 6-10 in the SEC, during Collen’s final season with the program. Arkansas has reached the NCAA Tournament once under two coaches — Collen and Susie Gardner — in 11 seasons since Gary Blair’s departure.
Dykes said X’s and O’s will be his strength. His basketball philosophy centers around a motion offense and man-to-man defense. The slogan “hard to guard and guard ‘em hard” was posted on the big screen Sunday. Dykes said those fundamental principles were developed during his time as an assistant coach and an analyst, where he estimated calling 950 games and observing 3,000 practices while with ESPN.
“I’ve seen what works and I know what doesn’t work, which is very, very important,” Dykes said. “If I were standing here as a coach that only knew one way to do it, I wouldn’t be the best coach for this program. But I’ve seen it all.”
Dykes also said he will make sure the Razorbacks develop toughness.
“We are not known as a tough team in the women’s game,” Dykes said. “I am going to call it like it is. Those days are over.”
Of course, there are plenty of other responsibilities in running a program.
Recruiting players to the program is one of the most important.
Dykes still must take and pass an NCAA test before he can begin recruiting. But Dykes said he spent time Sunday speaking with high school coaches in Arkansas, expressing his desire to keep the best high school players in the state.
It’s a message Dykes reinforced Sunday.
“No more in the state of Arkansas if you are good enough to play on the University of Arkansas’ women’s basketball team will you leave this state,” Dykes said. “It has gone on too long. We will build a fence around this state. We will own this state. I make this promise to you (Sunday night).”
Dykes also will be counted on to raise the program’s visibility after attendance — and interest — slumped over most of the past decade. Dykes said no other candidates for the position could sell the program better because of his love of the Razorbacks. He started by challenging fans to purchase tickets Sunday.
Berna said she already was impressed by the interest Dykes has generated.
“But I think he’s going to bring that recognition and he’s going to bring fans and he’s going to bring excited fans that are ready to see good basketball,” Berna said. “And I think that’s something we’re going to have to produce for them. But I’m excited that people are finally paying attention to Arkansas basketball.”
Blair, who excelled in making the Razorbacks viable both on and off the court during his tenure at Arkansas, also praised the hire Sunday.
“I think that people will relate to him; they will take care of him because he’s one of their own,” Blair told The Associated Press. “He’s an Arkansas guy.”
Long believes those qualities made him the right choice Sunday.
Long did acknowledge the risks involved considering Dykes hasn’t been on the sideline as a college coach in 23 years. And the fact he hasn’t been a head coach. But Long said there are always risks in hiring coaches at any level.
“There is in any hire. Any hire,” Long said. “Anybody who tells you they know the sure bet, they’re not being honest with you. There’s a level of risk in any hire. But do I think it’s low in this one? Yes, I think it’s low.”
Dykes promised Long he’ll prove it at Arkansas.
“I told him when I shook his hand, ‘I will not let you down,’” Dykes said. “I’m all in.”