TCU’s unlikely run to national championship play serves as a blueprint for success in the era of player empowerment

LOS ANGELES — Few coaches have ever had the success in their freshman season with a program like Sonny Dykes experienced at TCU. And when the No. 3 Horned Frogs beat No. 1 Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship Monday night, Dykes will become only the fourth coach in college football history to end that first campaign with a national title. TCU’s run was unlikely but well-documented, but the seeds of 2022’s success were planted by a coach and staff who wanted to make it clear from the start: this was a player-led operation.

With player empowerment being one of the greatest ongoing stories in esports, it’s fitting that the team that’s garnered so much attention and admiration have described themselves as a player-led group – and is led by a coach who supports these ongoing changes in college football.

“I’m probably in the minority in my belief that anything that’s good for the players is a good thing in my opinion,” Dykes said during Saturday’s CFP media day. “And that’s how NIL complicates things. It benefits the players. I think it’s a good thing. Transferportal [is] complicated, hard for trainers. Good for players – can be if the guys make good decisions. I am in favor.

“So I think that’s always been our thing, the game changes daily,” he continued. “And it’s my job to adapt and not just keep up, but try to face these changes and take every opportunity to make our team and our program better. And I see all of these things as really, really positive. I think it’s all about empowering the players. I firmly believe in it.”

But Dykes failed to convince the team by supporting NIL or the transfer portal. He and his staff built players throughout the offseason, spring practice, and fall camp, and made it clear that if the players were to achieve anything special in that first season, they had to lead by example.

Dykes also put in work, like a one-time trip to Quentin Johnston’s home shortly after he took the job simply to meet with the star wide receiver’s family and discuss the year ahead. His message to the entire team in those early weeks and months brought a sense of calm to a group fractured amid the atypical losses of the previous 5-7 season.

“He just seemed peaceful,” said TCU cornerback Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson, recalling his first impressions of Dykes. “He came in and told us, ‘This is our team. This is a player’s team and he’s here to make the calls.’ And he was able to adapt to us and build a new culture because initially we were everywhere.

“We were kind of separate teams, a little bit divided because that comes with losing,” he continued. “I feel like everything was at peace for them to come back and get everyone back together. It was great that he came in and said he’s here for us.”

Dykes assembled a staff that would share that philosophy — not just personable positional coaches, like cornerbacks coach Carlton Buckels, but also support staff who have played a big part in building confidence in each and every player. Kaz Kazadi oversees the strength and conditioning program as Assistant Athletics Director for Football Human Performance, and his messages go beyond archetypal physical demands; He challenged the Horned Frogs to think about emotional flexibility and sanity.

That focus on the emotional and mental side of the game paid off this season with some dramatic second-half comebacks from TCU, sure, but senior offensive lineman Steve Avila saw a change in this group right in the first game of the season. Trailing 3-0 at the end of the first quarter in Colorado, TCU didn’t fall into old habits of panicking and complaining. The team kept their cool, beating the Buffs the rest of the way 38-10 in a 25-point win.

“Earlier this year, even at the first game when things were going badly, I looked back at the year before and saw people panicking and doing all these different things,” Avila said. “I really didn’t see panic on everyone’s faces in that first game. We kept our heads on our shoulders. I feel like we did that at halftime.

From its versatility on the field to its approach to empowering players off the field and creating a cohesive entity, TCU exemplifies the top-to-bottom approach that may be necessary to thrive in the modern era being. It pays off with a group that never gets too high or too low, and developing healthy mental and emotional habits fueled this amazing run. There are voices in college football who fear changing power dynamics between coaches and players, but Sonny Dykes and TCU have shown what a championship-level team looks like in the modern era of player empowerment.

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