Make Them Gold: Justin Wilcox comes to Cal with the pressure on

Justin Wilcox
Don Feria/cal.ISIPhotos.com/Courtesy

Justin Wilcox doesn’t want to be positioned as a hero.

Even as he begins helming the football team of the nation’s most debt-ridden athletics department — the program that Cal Athletics desperately hopes can scrounge up enough money to help end the financial disaster — Wilcox wants the attention to be on everyone else. He even refused to have a photoshoot centered on him accompany this story.

No, Wilcox, who comes to Cal after years as an acclaimed defensive coordinator, is more concerned with espousing the ever-important cliches desired of a new head coach. Who can blame him? He insists the attention should be on his players, his assistant coaches — hell, even the cafeteria staff.

“Everybody in our program is important. We depend on everyone,” Wilcox says. “From a student manager to the people who work in our cafeteria to our equipment room to the strength and conditioning to our academic supports — on and on, so many people impact our players on a daily basis, and I’m one of those people.”

He’s saying all the right things, and it’s convincing — Wilcox is clearly already prepared to smooth-talk donors and recruits. Still, his words are hard to believe, as Wilcox is a head coach in a sport where head coaches are everything. Just look at what Chris Petersen or Jim Harbaugh has done to resuscitate dormant programs.

Both have taken over teams in worse shape than Cal and propelled them right into the national conversation.

That’s why it is so challenging to keep your eyes off Wilcox.

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Whether or not he wants to admit it, he is the man who will be tasked with doing the same with Cal. He’s the one responsible for every decision the Bears will make these next few years. He’s the one who will be standing in the bright glare of the spotlight.

And with spring ball already underway and the regular season creeping up on the horizon, that spotlight isn’t going anywhere.

Wilcox insists it hasn’t always been his goal to end up a head coach. The prestige and the title, they aren’t what appeal to him.

“Some of the best coaches I ever met are position coaches in small colleges,” Wilcox says. “They don’t see bigger stadiums as better for them, and I appreciate that. I think it changes as you grow as a coach — why do you do this? The more and more you do it — for me anyways, and a lot of guys on our staff — you want to create a lasting influence on the guys you’re around.”

Wilcox was a defensive coordinator for 11 seasons — recently coaching at programs such as USC, Washington and Wisconsin — before finally moving on to the Cal head-coaching job.

Although he faces a gargantuan task with fixing the Bears, Wilcox knows it’s important to build the smaller connections with his players. He and his staff eat with the team every day and try to get to know whom they’re working with. After all, just about every player on the team was brought in during Sonny Dykes’ tenure.

To really change the culture of the team, Wilcox needs the players to trust him and buy in. That’s what the meals help with.

“Every player gets to have a conversation with him,” says outside linebacker Cameron Saffle. “He has breakfast with us every morning, which is awesome. Those little conversations are building up a conversation between each other.”

Wilcox was hired during winter break — after Dykes was abruptly fired — but his habit of using meals as a chance to connect with his players was something that started on day one of his new job.

The night after he was hired, he gathered the players who were on campus and threw a pizza party as an informal introduction to the team.

“That’s who we’ve got with Justin Wilcox,” Athletic Director Mike Williams told The Daily Californian. “He’s not going to stand up and give you a rah-rah. … He’s going to understand how you, as a person, are best motivated.”

Spring practices have started and players are already getting a taste of Wilcox’s unique coaching style. Saffle says he’d never even heard of a coach quite like Wilcox.

 “He’s not going to stand up and give you a rah-rah. … He’s going to understand how you, as a person, are best motivated.”

-Mike Williams

“He came in for our first team meeting, and he made everyone — all the coaches, all the trainers, all the staff members — everyone leave the room and just told us, ‘I’m not going to give you a big speech to motivate you guys. I’m going to earn your trust, I’m gonna earn your respect through this whole process,’ ” Saffle says. “That was so different and so much more influential for us.”

Players already seem to have bought in, even though they’re in the unenviable position of having to relearn everything. The players seem looser than they did under Dykes, but they’re still motivated and getting a hint of what’s to come with spring ball underway.

“It’s just fresh air, a new slate for everyone,” says quarterback Chase Forrest. “Coach Wilcox came in and was all about the team and culture. Sometimes, change is good.”

As Wilcox himself has stressed, however, establishing a winning environment around a team not exactly used to winning will not be his job alone.

Both of Wilcox’s coordinators, Beau Baldwin on offense and Tim DeRuyter on defense, were head coaches in 2016. The remainder of the staff is an amalgamation of some of the West Coast’s most well-received coaching names, ranging from defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro to passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo.

Perhaps most important in helping establish a culture, however, will be strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton. He inherits a program that has faced a lot of strife. Damon Harrington, the former head of strength and conditioning, came under fire for his alleged advocacy of violence in the locker room and his grueling workouts.

In 2013, freshman running back Fabiano Hale was sent to the hospital after a teammate injured him during a locker-room altercation. Ted Agu, who had a sickle cell disease, died after a Harrington-led team training session in 2014.

“(Becton’s) gotten us right, that’s what I have to say,” Saffle says. “He came in and he’s kept us on our toes ever since. The first thing he preached when he got in here is that when you’re comfortable, that’s when you start making mistakes.”

Keeping everyone uncomfortable seems like a taboo thing to emphasize when taking charge of a whole new group of people. But Wilcox isn’t just taking over a team — he’s reshaping a program.

Though changing a team’s culture seems like a Sisyphean task on its own, that’s just step one of getting the Bears back to respectability. On the field, Wilcox, a longtime defensive coordinator, is taking over a team that allowed 42.6 points per game last season (second worst in the nation). Very few of the players on the team fit well into the 3-4 base defense Wilcox is implementing.

There are no natural stand-up pass rushers, nose tackles or rangy middle linebackers on the roster. Guys will have to play out of position for at least the first year. It won’t be easy. James Looney could shift into a nose tackle role. Saffle is going to be an outside linebacker after adding 40 pounds before his freshman year in order to play defensive end.

“I know that we’ve been watching film on mostly Wisconsin, ’cause that’s where he came from, and it’s gonna be exciting to change up the defense a little bit, and we’re going along with the process,” Saffle says.

There will be bumps along the way of adjusting to a whole new, multifaceted scheme. Along with the base 3-4 defense, Wilcox expects to show a lot of nickel looks and even some 4-down looks, depending on the opponent.

If the transition goes smoothly, however, the results are going to be well worth it. All it takes to confirm that improvement is coming is comparing Wilcox’s old defenses to what Cal did under Dykes. Last season, the Bears’ defense ranked 117th out of 128, according to Football Outsiders’ DFEI rating.

And as fun as it always was to guess some of the teams Cal actually finished behind — here’s looking at you, San Jose State and Florida International — those unseemly numbers are going to change under Wilcox. He led a Wisconsin unit that ranked fifth in the nation, according to Football Outsiders.

While the 3-4 defense has generally been Wilcox’s base, he insists he’s not married to the system or to finding starters right away.

“Who ends up where on the depth chart, we’re really less concerned about that right now than just getting them ingrained to how we do things … teaching them the techniques, the expectations on how we practice, just all those things,” Wilcox says. “But that’s fun — that’s what this is all about. At the end of the day, this is football, and we’re gonna put our guys in the best positions we can for them to be successful.”

This philosophy will need to apply to the offense as well. The Bear Raid, Cal’s offense under Dykes, succeeded at putting big numbers on the scoreboard, but nothing is staying constant. Baldwin is not generally a proprietor of the air raid offense and is already shifting Cal toward more of a multiple offense, with pro-style principles as a crucial base.

This means a big change for an offense that managed to put up more than 37 points per game last season.

Adding to the challenges will be the fact that, for the second straight year, Cal is searching for a new starting quarterback. There could be as many as five guys in the mix, led by redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers and Forrest, a redshirt junior. Again, however, Wilcox preaches patience before naming a starting quarterback.

“Spring practice is just a piece of it, and then you got summer workouts and fall camp, and then you got the season and it changes,” Wilcox says. “So to say, ‘Hey, at the end of spring practice, we’re having this position set and that one set,’ I don’t think is fair to say.”

Given the immense undertaking shifting from the air raid to a pro-style offense is, that patience makes sense. The terminology is different, the huddling strategies are different, where the quarterback takes the snap from is different. Perhaps most importantly for quarterbacks is that protections from the line are — you guessed it — completely different.

Even NFL-caliber quarterbacks struggle to handle this shift — Jared Goff showed exactly this during his rookie season with the Los Angeles Rams this year — so it’s only fair to expect some challenges along the way.

While it’s hard not to focus on those on-field challenges during spring ball, it’s no secret that taking the head job with Cal brings with it a unique set of off-field obstacles. For one, Wilcox is stepping into what’s been called one of the least athletics-friendly campuses in the major conferences.

With a stadium that struggles to fill up and what Williams calls a small group of faculty that question the value of athletics, Wilcox is definitely entering a different scenario than what he saw at Wisconsin, which is the heart of the football-friendly Big Ten. But he comes in with experience at Cal, having served as linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford from 2003-05.

But Tedford, who declined to comment for this story, coached the Bears when academic standards fell so far that the faculty spoke up, and he faced criticism for not integrating athletics with campus academics as well. Wilcox seems intent on establishing an identity for the team that is more connected with the student body.

“We want to be engaged with campus,” Wilcox says. “Our guys are gonna work in school and take the time to do that, but I want them engaged in campus. I want us to be involved down the hill. Sometimes you get up (to the stadium) and you’re a little bit further away, but the student body is one of the great things about college football.”

The football team’s increased campus presence will be especially crucial given the pressure placed on the team to produce revenue, with Cal Athletics operating at a $20 million deficit last year and this year’s overall campus deficit projected at $110 million.

Wilcox’s hiring comes at an even more pertinent time — a task force is currently meeting to decide how to best reduce the Cal Athletics deficit. There are rumors that teams will be cut, but there’s also speculation that nothing will happen until decisionmakers see what Wilcox’s football team can do.

“Not just Cal Athletics, but the campus understands how important football is as a revenue driver going forward,” Williams says. “Winning football is an important part of how we look at the finances of the athletic department.”

Dykes’ tenure was growing stale with fans and donors, so higher-ups are likely hoping for things to turn around under Wilcox. With the added pressure of saving a debt-ridden department added to the normal pressures of elevating a football team out of mediocrity, Wilcox has to confront myriad questions he wouldn’t face with most other programs.

What’s the longtime defensive coach going to do to one of the nation’s worst units? Is the high-powered offense going to keep producing? Can he get butts in those seats at Memorial Stadium? Can he save teams from getting cut?

Is he ready to lead a program for the first time?

And what if it all goes wrong? Wilcox may not want to be a hero, but Cal might need him to be one.

The infographic accompanying this article incorrectly switched the titles of Nicholas Edwards and Steve Greenwood.

Contact Hooman Yazdanian at [email protected]