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Why Five Basketball Prospects Signed Up To 'Be Arkansas'

"No more, State of Arkansas, will you leave this state if you're good enough to play for the University of Arkansas women's basketball team. You will not leave this state anymore. We will put up a fence around this state, we will own this state and the state of Arkansas' best players will be Razorbacks. I make that promise to you."

-- Jimmy Dykes on March 31, 2014, in his introductory news conference as the new women's basketball coach at Arkansas


Jerrod Handy recognized the voice.

As a basketball fan and the girls' basketball coach at Maize (Kansas) High School, Handy had watched plenty of college basketball games on ESPN. He might not have been able to identify all the announcers, but he knew what they sounded like and he knew their signature phrases.

Handy never realized that he would be put to the test and have to put a face to the voice when he first talked with Jimmy Dykes.

"I didn't know," Handy said of Dykes being named the eighth head coach in the history of Arkansas women's basketball. "It was news to me. I knew I should recognize him because I had heard him so many times on ESPN doing games. While he was talking to me, I looked at his picture [online] and I said, 'OK, now I know who I am talking to.' "

Antonia Tookes, on the other hand, didn't know much about Dykes when he was hired in March. She, too, is a basketball fan, and like Handy with three-star recruit Keiryn Swenson, Tookes had a prospect in Briunna Freeman that Division I coaches were interested in. But Tookes considers herself a "good person to pick people," so all it took was a first meeting with Dykes for her to get a read on the new Razorbacks coach.

"I told my assistant coach, 'If I was being recruited, I would go to Arkansas, too, because I like the things he is saying," Tookes said. "He is such a genuine person."

Handy and Tookes are two of the many people Dykes has won over. His hire was criticized by many -- including the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, which released a statement calling it "disappointing" -- because Dykes lacked coaching experience in the women's game. Over the past seven months, the longtime TV analyst has had to reintroduce himself to players, parents, and coaches and to sell his vision for the Razorbacks.

All of that hard work came together this week when Dykes received national letters of intent from five players. Dykes' first class features Jordan Danberry, a 5-foot-7 point guard from Arkansas ranked 47th in the nation; Malica Monk, a 5-5 point guard from Arkansas ranked 64th; Bailey Zimmerman, a three-star forward from Arkansas; Freeman, a three-star guard from Georgia; and Swenson, a three-star forward from Kansas.

"These five recruits have the talent to help us get better," Dykes said. "They will have an immediate impact on our program and we are thrilled they have decided to become Razorbacks. Our staff is committed to the promise to keep the best in-state players at home, and we certainly did that with this class."

'Be Arkansas'

The Natural State might want to reconsider changing its slogan.

If you look back at Arkansas' history, the state has had three slogans in the past 90-some years -- The Wonder State, The Land of Opportunity and The Natural State. Dykes, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, would make a case to have one of the state's informal slogans -- The Razorback State -- assume official status.

But Dykes has been busy putting another slogan -- "Be Arkansas" -- to work. It involves his passion for the state, his love for the school, and his desire to see the state's best girls' basketball players stay home and play for the Razorbacks. He didn't waste any time unveiling that philosophy at his introductory news conference when he told recruits he wants them to "Be Arkansas." He said he has been across the country in the past 15 years doing more than 900 games and he has seen the best crowds. He highlighted the fan base in the state and said there is "something special about being a Razorback." He also spoke from experience when he said the atmosphere in a packed Bud Walton Arena, the home to the school's basketball programs, is "unparalleled."

A longtime Northwest Arkansas resident, Dykes was a walk-on and a three-year letterman for the Arkansas men's basketball team. His wife, the former Tiffany Beasley, also is a graduate of Arkansas, and was the head cheerleader at the school from 2000 to 2002.

Even though Dykes hasn't coached since he was an assistant under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State from 1990-91, he has coaching experience at Arkansas, Sacramento State, Appalachian State, Kentucky and Arkansas-Little Rock. He also worked as an NBA scout for the Seattle SuperSonics from 1991-93. This is Dykes' first job as a women's basketball coach at any level.

Dykes replaced Tom Collen, who led the Razorbacks to a 19-11 record last season and a 132-90 mark in seven seasons. But Arkansas was 40-68 in the SEC in that span and advanced to the NCAA tournament once in the past 11 years since former coach Gary Blair left to become coach at Texas A&M in 2003.

The Razorbacks also failed to keep some of the state's top recruits, like Shekinna Stricklen, who went to Tennessee, and Morgan Hook, who went to Oklahoma. Dykes plans to change that by stressing the significance of what it means to go to Arkansas and be a Razorback.

That message hit home for Danberry, a five-star recruit from Conway High School in Arkansas and the state's reigning Gatorade Player of the Year.

"['Be Arkansas'] really stuck out to me a lot because a lot of good players in the state normally go off to other places, like Rutgers [Tyler Scaife] or Oklahoma State [Roshunda Johnson], so when he told me I could be the one to stay home, that was pretty cool," Danberry said. "I figured I could stay home and make Arkansas a place everybody wants to come to."

Danberry said Dykes' personality helped sell her on his vision and the school. She said she was impressed Dykes didn't have a "fake laugh" and that he convinced her that Arkansas was her "home."

Vision for program

Bailey Zimmerman always dreamed of going to Arkansas.

Growing up in a family of Arkansas fans and having a cousin, Matt Zimmerman, who was a student manager under former men's basketball coach Nolan Richardson, helped forge her love for the Razorbacks.

As Zimmerman honed her skills growing up on a farm with six chicken houses, pigs and cows, she continued to follow the women's basketball program and wondered if she would get a chance to pursue her dream.

It wasn't until the summer when Zimmerman, who was playing with Danberry on the AAU Arkansas Mavericks, got a phone call from Dykes that kick-started the dream. She said she went to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to watch the team and that Dykes visited her to watch her play. As the relationship grew, Zimmerman could tell Dykes knew the game and that he was going to bring excitement to the program. While she was considering other options, she said she "really hoped" Dykes would offer her a scholarship.

"He just wants to be better than everybody and to show them Arkansas isn't weak and that we're strong," Zimmerman said when asked about Dykes' "Be Arkansas" message. "Jimmy Dykes just wants to make a difference, and he wants to make a difference for Arkansas. I really like that. He also wants us to be good students and is really passionate about that. I like that. It is kind of cool to have a coach like that."

It also will be "cool" that Zimmerman gets to join Matt, who is an assistant on men's basketball coach Mike Anderson's staff. She feels this will be an exciting season at Arkansas because Dykes is trying to recruit athletic players who fit his "relentless" style of basketball.

Swenson fits that bill, too. As one of the nation's top javelin throwers, Swenson was intrigued by Dykes' persistence when he first expressed interest in her. At the time, Swenson said she also was considering Tulsa, but she said Dykes' energy and willingness to allow her to compete on Arkansas' track and field team gave her the confidence she could play in the SEC.

"The way he would talk to me, it's, like, inspirational," Swenson said. "I am ready to go there now."

Swenson said his body language and how he looks people straight in the eye when he talks to them made an impression on her.

"He always talks about pushing everybody and making them work harder for everything," Swenson said. "The way he says that and his overall game plan, I really don't know how to explain it. It just makes you want to be out on the court then and there."

Swenson said it didn't matter to her that Dykes wasn't involved in the women's game or hasn't recently been a coach. She said it is easy to tell Dykes knows the game from his days as a player, coach and analyst.

Swenson also feels she fits the mold of the "hard-working, get-up-and-run player" Dykes is recruiting. She said her parents always taught her to be the first one up and down the court on both ends, and she doesn't see that changing at Arkansas.

"Everything he has offered me and his game plan is literally just perfect for me," Swenson said. "I have no second thoughts about anything. Everything just fits and it is right."

Selling the program

After not being able to put a face with the voice, it took Jerrod Handy only a 30-minute conversation with Dykes for him to think, "Holy cow."

In that time, Dykes told Handy about his professional background and about his life growing up in Arkansas and why that influenced his decision to become the Arkansas women's basketball coach. For a high school coach who has a daughter, Daley, who has been recruited to play basketball at Wyoming, meeting and getting to know Dykes was a different experience for Handy.

"I think the biggest thing that I felt separated him from all the contacts and the other college coaches was he was willing to spend time to get to know me and my program first," Handy said. "He really spent a lot of time talking to Keiryn once that was made available to him, and he got to know her and her family and showed he really cared about her."

Ashley Nance, who coaches Danberry at Conway High, said Dykes' willingness to work hard to keep the best players in the state will help him succeed. She said Dykes called within minutes of his hiring and expressed an interest in having Danberry become a Razorback.

"As soon as I saw it on Twitter, it was like, boom, boom, he called," Nance said. "I don't know if he could call Jordan at that moment, but he started calling people and getting on the phone."

If you still need convincing about Dykes, just ask Tookes. It didn't take Dykes long to go from an unknown to someone whom Tookes considers the right coach for one of her players.

"I guess I can look into people and see if they are real or not," Tookes said. "I can't remember exactly what he said or how he said it, but he said he wanted to make Briunna into a good person, and that is what my program is about."

Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Mississippi.