Head coach Sonny Dykes has brought a previously dismal CAl football team into the national discussion. (Ben Margot/AP)

Dykes restores big-game vibe

SALT LAKE CITY — Not that he needs a Kickstarter campaign or anything, but Sonny Dykes will make less money this year than 54 of America’s college football coaches. His total compensation is a few bucks above $2 million, which is chump change compared to the $5.1 million for Texas’ soon-to-be-nuked Charlie Strong — whom Dykes beat last month in Austin — and the $7-million golden parachute waiting for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan after Jed York dumped him.

A bargain? This is a heist in progress. Cal has robbed the bank, the Apple Store and the jewelry boutique, and you might say the university recouped most of its investment on a landmark Saturday in the Wasatch foothills. The signature of any soaring program comes when ESPN brings its traveling “College GameDay” studio to a weekend showdown. For the first time in eight autumns, the Golden Bears received visits from Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the gang in advance of the prime-time collision with Utah. And while Dykes hasn’t quite reached the status where smart-ass students from the opposing school taunt him with evil audience signage, the attention Cal received all day and night — from the emerging rock stardom of Jared Goff to the gradual rise of a program left ravaged by deposed coach Jeff Tedford — is invaluable for the future foundation.

“I like where we are as a program,” Dykes said. “If you become the program you want to be, you’re going to play in games like these. That’s the goal, where you’re playing in what people perceive as big games.”

It’s impressive stuff from the third-year coach, a Texan who arrived in Berkeley by way of Louisiana Tech. He brought a drawl and a radical spread pass offense to a campus that always has liked radicals except for one problem: The students, too committed to high academia to care about losing sports teams, stopped watching when the Bears went 1-11 in Dykes’ first season and collapsed last year after a 4-1 start. But campus credibility rises when kids go to television or social media and see Goff, their breezy 6-foot-4 classmate, plastered everywhere as college football’s best quarterback and the potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. As gradually as Dykes is losing that drawl in the Bay Area, Cal is losing its stigma as a football wasteland. Such is the cachet of playing in the weekend’s top-billed game. Who knew that USC — with another endangered, high-paid coach in Steve Sarkisian — would have two losses before mid-October while Cal and Utah would be the Pac-12’s only remaining unbeatens.

“When you get coffee or something in the morning, maybe those people are a little nicer to you,” Dykes said. “I don’t have to worry about somebody poisoning my coffee like I used to.”

If the players once were met by poisonous looks on campus, they were feeling love all week before boarding flights to the most important game of their young lives. “There’s definitely more people interested now that we’re winning,” wide receiver Bryce Treggs said. “If you go out on the weekend, they say, ‘Keep it up,’ or if we’re going to class, ‘Way to go.’ In the past, it was almost like we were irrelevant. It’s good to see the student body getting involved.

“It shows a great deal about where we are now and where we’ve come from. We’re trying to stay in the national conversation.”

But as the son of a coach — father Spike was a disciple of Texas legend Darrell Royal and a successful head coach at Texas Tech — Dykes also knows how to maintain an equiibrium. “We were ranked last and we didn’t talk about it. Now that we aren’t ranked last, we’re not going to talk about it either,” he said of the noise quotient. “I’ve always stressed to our players: Worry about what we can control. Let’s work hard, go to class, be a good student, be a good person. Let’s train in the offseason and care about each other and listen to the coaches. We can control those things. We can’t control who votes for them and who doesn’t. You can only control your performance.”

He needn’t worry about Goff. The national media machine finally has found him — namely, ESPN, the owner and operator of college football — and he was kept busy last week by the network’s various website writers and TV producers. In a season when the stock of some potential pro quarterbacks has dropped, when Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg may have played their way out of the top 15, Goff is soaring up every chart and mock draft. But what’s most remarkable is that he doesn’t seem fazed by the buzz.

When told that he set another school passing record — most touchdowns in a career, in a program where Aaron Rogers, Kyle Boller and Steve Bartkowski played his position — Goff just shrugged. “I don’t even know which one it was,” he said. “I’m not thinking about it, not celebrating it. I’m a hundred times more happy when we win.”

“The Goff media madness might unnerve some teams. The Bears have fun with it. “He’s a great leader. He works hard and holds himself to a higher standard,” senior safety Stefan McClure said. “We look at some of those throws, man — standing in the pocket, taking shots, doing everything he has to do. But sometimes, we kind of give him a hard time. We say, ‘Oh, they’re going to start inventing records for you, like first guy to throw a touchdown with his chin strap unbuckled.’”

Dykes, whose reputation as a rising coach in the profession is tied to Goff’s progress, welcomes the commotion that could involve a Heisman Trophy watch, Mel Kiper vs. Todd McShay debates, scrutiny by NFL executives and, ultimately, a handshake and hug from commissioner Roger Goodell.

“I hope that’s something we’re dealing with,” Dykes said. “Those are the good problems in life that you have. We’ll certainly find a way to deal with them with a very excited attitude.”

He might be more excited when Texas calls in December, offering to more than double his pay. But that’s another topic for another “College GameDay.”

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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