One on One with Chris Dortch: Jimmy Dykes
One day about 15 years ago, Jimmy Dykes sat in the office of an ESPN executive trying to explain why he could become the next Dick Vitale. The conversation was brief.
Dykes, who had worked five games as a color analyst for ESPN in 1995-96, spent about nine minutes making his pitch. The response lasted about 60 seconds.
“I was just told that ESPN felt like their best analysts were always guys who had really big names that were All-Americans in college, former NBA players or coaches, or a very successful college head coach,” Dykes said. “I wasn’t any of those things.”
No, he wasn’t. But what that ESPN executive didn’t realize then was that Dykes had the perfect background to become a color analyst. From his days as a player at the University of Arkansas through a coaching career that would make a nomad look sedentary to a brief stint as an NBA scout, Dykes never had anything handed to him, never took the easy way out. And the lessons he learned travelling the back roads of college basketball would one day prove invaluable, once ESPN gave him his big break.
Years before he donned his first headset for a television broadcast, Dykes—now a part of ESPN’s primary announce team for Southeastern Conference games—was a mature teenager who during his senior year at Fayetteville (Ark.) High School in the early 1980s made a decision that would impact the rest of his life. Good enough to earn a basketball scholarship at a mid-major school, Dykes opted instead to walk on at hometown Arkansas, coached by Eddie Sutton, then at the pinnacle of his profession. Dykes started out as a student manager—a job that allowed him to sit in on all coaches’ meetings—nearly transferred to a junior college because he missed playing, and then was talked into staying by Sutton, who promised the opportunity to join the team.
“I thought I wanted to be a college coach,” Dykes said. “What better coach to learn the game from than Eddie Sutton? I could have gone other places and got my schooling paid for. That would have been a good short-term decision. But going to Arkansas was my best long-term decision.”
Dykes lettered for three years at Arkansas, but his impact on the court, was, well, consider the line Dykes likes to use about the season he and teammate Joe Kleine, the burly center who would go on to a lengthy NBA career, combined to average 23 points a game: “Joe averaged 22 and I averaged one,” Dykes said.
Dykes tells another story about the time starting point guard Ricky Norton pulled up lame with about six minutes to play in a game against Texas A&M. Sutton called Dykes, the backup point, to his side on the bench.
“That usually meant you were going to play,” Dykes said. “I got up there and coach Sutton asked me my shoe size. I told him 11. He said to take off my left shoe and give it to Norton because he had blown out his left shoe.”
An All-American Dykes was not. But he had a sharp mind that absorbed everything Sutton told him, and when his playing days were over, Dykes embarked on a coaching odyssey that included stops at Arkansas, Appalachian State, Sacramento State, Kentucky, UALR and Oklahoma State. Dykes worked for Sutton at Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State, power conference schools that had every advantage. But he also toiled in the bush leagues of college hoops and learned all about life on the other side.
There was one final job before ESPN came into the picture, and it was life altering. From 1991-93, Dykes was a scout for Seattle SuperSonics. Scouting taught him how to evaluate next-level talent, but it also gave him the vital connection he needed to make the switch to television.
“I was at a game and seated next to a guy from Raycom Sports,” Dykes said. “He gave me his business card and asked if I had ever thought of getting into announcing. I told him no, but he said to give him a call if I ever did.”
About three weeks later, Dykes was emptying out a travel bag when he came across that business card and a moment of clarity struck. One phone call later, he was set up to be a fill-in announcer for five ESPN games. He told the network he’d work any game, anywhere, anytime, and his producers took him at his word. One early game was Iona at Idaho, which tipped off a midnight Eastern.
“Not sure how many people saw that one,” Dykes said.
Drawing on his coaching experience and the work ethic he inherited from his parents, Dykes performed well in his brief ESPN stint, but not well enough to convince anyone he should work any more than five games the next year.
Slowly, Dykes’ I’ll-do-anything attitude began to result in more action. He worked five years for ESPN on a year-to-year contract until he was finally rewarded with a four-year deal. Once on the payroll full time, Dykes jumped on anything he was offered—sideline reporter for college football, host for the Great Outdoor Games, analyst for the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
That last gig must have sealed the deal for Dykes, who was eventually promoted to Mountain West basketball.
“That was my first full package,” Dykes said. “It was part of Big Monday and I saw some really good basketball. That allowed me to grow and figure out who I am as an analyst.”
In between ESPN gigs, Dykes also worked games for the Arkansas Network, keeping his eye on the Southeastern Conference and longing for the day he might jump up to that league on a full-time basis. In 2007 he got his wish, pairing with veteran play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler. The job has been like a homecoming.
“The SEC is a great fit for me,” Dykes said. “I’m a Southern guy and I live in Arkansas. I’m a big fan of the SEC. I’ve got a good relationship with all the coaches in the league. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
And Dykes ESPN bosses have loved his work, because he’s been able to master that rare balancing act of being informative and entertaining at the same time.
“I attribute his success to a few key qualities,” said Dave Miller, senior coordinating producer of college sports who gave Dykes his first job. “First of all his athletic background has helped him develop a very strong work ethic. He also has a unique perspective on what's happening on the court. He relates what he sees to other aspects of life. Finally, he has a creative approach that helps him present the information in innovative ways.”
"Jimmy Dykes sets the standard when it comes to accenting a game broadcast,” said Dan Stier, senior coordinating producer for ESPNU. “He has an informative and entertaining way of taking you inside the game and providing a unique perspective of just about everything associated with the game."
One of the keys to Dykes’ success has been his ability to relate to his audience.
“It’s very, very important to remember that when we’re on the air, there’s a huge audience watching,” Dykes said. “And maybe 10 percent of the audience is well schooled in college basketball, almost at the expert level. Then there are 10 percent that don’t know anything about basketball and are just watching the game because their husband’s watching it. Now we’re down to 80 percent of the people who watch because they enjoy it or have an interest in the game.
“That’s a broad range of people, and I have to serve all of them. I speak to people deep into basketball, but not over talk it so the majority of the people can’t absorb it and enjoy it. It doesn’t do any good to talk above people’s heads. You can have the most factual, highly intelligent insight that’s ever been said, but if nobody gets it, it doesn’t matter.”
Like most SEC fans these days, Dykes is having trouble figuring out a league that, through one fourth of the schedule, features 3-1 South Carolina, a team many thought would finish last in the East, atop that division, and 0-4 Ole Miss, a preseason choice of some to win West, bringing up the rear.
“The one thing that stands out is the East is dominant again,” Dykes said. “You look at the RPI and quality wins; every one of them is in the East. As of right now, I don’t see a West team as being part of the NCAA Tournament. But on the flip side, all six teams in the East could play their way in.”
Lest any SEC fans think Dykes is slighting the West, remember that he played at Arkansas. And Auburn football fans owe him a debt of gratitude. In 1995 while athletic director at Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale, Ark., Dykes hired a then-little-known Gus Malzahn as head coach. Out of sheer desperation while trying to reverse an 0-4 start in his first season, Malzahn developed his patented no-huddle offense.
Had Dykes not hired Malzahn, who would go on to serve as offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn, where his tutelage of first-year quarterback Cam Newton this season was a big key, would the Tigers have won the national championship?
Asked to explain what he saw in Malzahn, Dykes used just four words, words that could define him as well: innovative, hard working, passionate.