CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmy Dykes' abrupt career change from ESPN analyst to first-time college head coach at age 53 drew criticism from those who said such a move was highly unlikely in prestige sports like football or men's basketball.
At the Southeastern Conference Media Day on Tuesday, Dykes offered an impassioned defense of himself and Arkansas' decision to hire him as women's basketball coach.
"The people in charge of the hiring, I think you have to trust that those people are going to hire the best person for their job," he told reporters. "Was Jimmy Dykes the best person for the women's job at Texas Tech? No. Was I the best person for the (men's) head coaching job at North Carolina? No. Was I the best person for the head women's basketball job at Arkansas? Yes. Because of my experience, my passion for the game. It's my alma mater. I can rally the fan base. I can recruit the state of Arkansas."
Dykes was a walk-on player for Eddie Sutton at Arkansas in the early 1980s. He had worked for ESPN as a college basketball analyst for more than a decade, and he was lead commentator for the SEC for several seasons.
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"I went through the same hiring process, the same procedures as everyone else in this job," Dykes told reporters. "Everyone else had an opportunity to apply. Everyone else had an opportunity to sell themselves in a two- (or) three-hour interview with people that were on that selection committee. I did it better than anyone else. So, I don't have anything to apologize for. The job was open. I applied for it. And I got it."
Dykes acknowledged his lack of coaching experience. He had worked on the staffs at Arkansas, Sacramento State, Appalachian State, Kentucky, Arkansas-Little Rock and Oklahoma State from 1984 until 1991.
"I've never been a head coach, never pulled the trigger on the sidelines making the decisions with live ammo flying around us," Dykes said. "But I've seen it, and I've been a teacher on the air. I've tried to teach the game of basketball. I think that's why I rose up in the profession like I did as an analyst, because I think I was a pretty good communicator and teacher on my nightly broadcast."
When pressed about his hire suggesting something dismissive about women's basketball, Dykes bristled. He described the hire as a progressive idea.
"Am I a little bit of a trend-setter? Did I maybe break some ground? Maybe. Maybe," he said. "I hope it's a positive going forward. I hope everyone in the women's game views my hire as a positive, that Arkansas thought outside the box. They brought in someone that has a passion for the women's game, has a passion for that job, has a passion for his alma mater. I hope it opens up doors for other people like me that are out there right now.
"For someone to say I didn't pay my dues, they don't know the track record. I've paid my dues. I've done a lot of things in this game of basketball. People don't realize the grind that goes through ESPN, the travel, the amount of film and the amount of practices that you attend. I attended over 3,000 practices in the last 11 or 12 years. I have a tremendous amount of resources, and a notebook to fall back on."
Charlotte might seem an odd place for the Southeastern Conference to hold its annual Media Day for basketball. Isn't Charlotte in the heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference?
"We consider every state SEC territory now," associate commissioner Herb Vincent said with a chuckle. "We have a national network out."
The league launched its SEC Network in August. It's run by ESPN, which has its southern hub in Charlotte. Thus, SEC Media Days this year included stops at the ESPN studio in addition to interviews in a nearby hotel.
When asked whether the idea of Charlotte as host city for SEC Media Days was a chance to have programming for the SEC Network, Vincent said, "it is programming. Sure. Absolutely."
As part of Media Day, SEC players will appear on panel discussions with ESPN personnel and play on an outdoor court outside the studio (fortunately, sunny, warm weather was in the forecast).
The players wore uniforms and warmups rather than the customary suits. That was also true for coaches.
"We're trying to make it a little more comfortable, a little more fun for the student-athletes than we have in the past," Vincent said.