FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — Jimmy Dykes stood near the same spot on the Bud Walton Arena court where he once proposed to his wife, Tiffany.
The answer from the several hundred Arkansas fans in attendance at a news conference to introduce the ESPN analyst as the school’s new women’s basketball coach was once again a resounding yes.
Surrounded by friends and family, Dykes — a longtime northwest Arkansas resident — was welcomed back to his first coaching job in more than 20 years Sunday night. The former walk-on and three-year letterman for the Razorbacks was given a four-year contract.
It was a surprising hire in the wake of Tom Collen’s firing earlier this month at Arkansas, particularly because Dykes hasn’t coached since he was an assistant under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State from 1990-91.
Dykes has never coached the women’s game, but he wowed Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long and the school’s search committee. He tried to do the same Sunday with a fan base that has wavered as the school has tried to cement itself as a contender in the Southeastern Conference since former coach Gary Blair left for Texas A&M in 2003.
“No one can sell this program, sell the University of Arkansas, sell the state of Arkansas, better than Jimmy Dykes,” Dykes said. “I know that with all my heart.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, on an off day before facing Blair’s Aggies on Monday night in the NCAA tournament, called Dykes’ hire “outside the box” and said “a lot of people will be watching pretty closely.”
Blair, meanwhile, praised the 15-year TV analyst who will attempt to rekindle interest in the program that’s been to the NCAA tournament only once in 11 years since Blair left for Texas A&M.
“I think that people will relate to him; they will take care of him because he’s one of their own,” Blair said. “He’s an Arkansas guy.”
Long said it was Dykes who approached him about the job during the men’s SEC tournament earlier this month. The athletic director, who knew Dykes from his job at ESPN and through his close ties to Arkansas, said he and the committee talked with coaches across the country before settling on Dykes in what he called a “non-traditional hire.”
“We talked to some of the best coaches across the country,” Long said. “Then we compared Jimmy to them, and he won out, (heads above) everybody else.”
Collen was 132-90 in seven seasons at Arkansas, including 40-68 in the SEC and 19-11 mark this season. He was hired after successful stints at Colorado State and Louisville, while the 52-year-old Dykes is faced with rebuilding a program armed with no experience as a collegiate head coach.
Before working as an analyst, Dykes also coached at Sacramento State, Appalachian State, Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock before working as an NBA scout from 1991-93.
He compared his hiring to that of Iowa State men’s coach Fred Hoiberg, an Iowa native who hadn’t been a head coach before being hired by the Cyclones.
“People will say I’ve never been a head coach on the college level or the women’s game,” Dykes said. “Nothing I can do about that. But tell them if you play me, then the pressure’s on you, isn’t it?”
Dykes becomes the eighth women’s coach for the Razorbacks, who lost in the first round of the SEC tournament this season for the eighth time in nine years.
He is returning to familiar ground. In addition to his jobs at Arkansas and Arkansas-Little Rock, he was the high school athletic director at Shiloh Christian in Springdale. He attended high school at Fayetteville and lived in the area while working as a TV analyst.
Dykes said he turned down annual offers to return to coaching since leaving the profession, preferring to remain in Arkansas with his wife and daughter.
The Razorbacks presented him with the opportunity to return to coaching and stay at home — an offer he couldn’t pass up.
Dykes choked up several times during his news conference, during which he promised to keep the state’s best players at home. Several top Arkansas high school players, including former Tennessee standout Shekinna Stricklen and Oklahoma guard Morgan Hook, left the state following Blair’s departure.
He also promised to rely on help from his assistant coaches to help with the areas of the college game that he’s not familiar with just yet.
“We are not known right now as a tough team in the women’s game,” Dykes said. “I’m going to call it like it is. Those days are over.”