During a bye-week in 2002, then-Cal football head coach Jeff Tedford took a recruiting visit to Butte Community College in Oroville, California, where he and his staff were recruiting Butte tight end Garrett Cross. At Butte, he discovered an undervalued Chico-native who became the Bears’ starting quarterback for the 2003-04 seasons and led Cal to its first back-to-back postseason bowl appearances since the 1992-93 seasons. Although the quarterback — a guy named Aaron Rodgers — decided to forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, the Bears continued to clinch bowl bids in the five seasons following Rodgers’ departure.
The same year that Rodgers debuted in Berkeley, Tedford entrusted the Bears’ defensive core with a newly hired linebackers coach, a 26-year-old graduate assistant from Boise State who had no coaching experience prior to his time as a GA. Under Cal’s “swarm-to-the-ball” philosophy, the young coach helped lead the Bears to a 26-12 record in three seasons. After spending time with five different teams as defensive coordinator, the coach — a guy by the name of Justin Wilcox — is back to lead Cal football back to better days.
With 14 years of coaching experience now under his belt, Wilcox is undertaking a program that is desperate for big victories on and off the field. Many home games featured a half-empty Memorial Stadium, a testament to the fact that the Bears haven’t played in a bowl game in five of the past seven seasons. While many view Wilcox as radically different from his predecessor, Sonny Dykes, he is a better fit for this program in a number of ways.
At Wilcox’s introductory press conference, the new coach emphasized that his goal is “to consistently compete for championships, graduate our student-athletes and leave them with a fulfilling experience here in Berkeley.” Obviously, any collegiate athletic program wants its student-athletes to not only graduate but also have a memorable experience. Overall, the Bears have improved upon their recent Pac-12 low graduation rate and should continue to do so with this change in leadership.
But what stands out most about Wilcox is his accentuation of championships. When Dykes’ teams stepped onto the field the past four seasons, the term “championship” was just a sarcastic fantasy that we all laughed about. Hell, our biggest victories in recent years came in the form of an Armed Forces Bowl win and when our quarterback was taken No. 1 in the NFL Draft. While USC won its 25th Rose Bowl Game this month, only the most devoted Cal fans know that the Bears haven’t won the “Granddaddy of Them All” since 1938. But in comes Wilcox, who played in three bowl games as a player at Oregon and has never missed out on postseason play as a coach. Although fans shouldn’t expect immediate contention for a conference championship, Wilcox is establishing that the Bears won’t just settle for striving to clinch that decisive sixth win.
Another thing that makes Wilcox a great fit is his familiarity with Cal. Since his three-year run as Cal’s linebackers coach, Wilcox has gained valuable experience with winning programs at Boise State, Washington, USC and Wisconsin. It’s not like the Bears will enter the 2017 season without any familiarity. But the early departure of receiver Chad Hansen and graduations of quarterback Davis Webb and four-year tailback Khalfani Muhammad will result in vast adjustments offensively. Thankfully, Wilcox coached at Cal under Tedford just 12 years ago and isn’t a completely new face himself.
As awesome as improved graduation rates, a championship tone and unwavering commitment are, the biggest reason why we should all praise the Wilcox hire is this: defense. Under Dykes, Cal’s Bear-Raid Offense put up big numbers with Webb and Jared Goff under center. And while the offensive firepower has been instilled under Dykes and will linger with his remaining players, to call Cal’s defense “mediocre” would be a vast overstatement. The numbers speak for themselves: 42.6 points and the fourth-most yards allowed per game in the country. Will Wilcox change our lackluster secondary into a national force to be reckoned with? Probably not. Will there be more mistakes and frustrations in the near future? Absolutely. But in order to become contenders in the Pac-12 again, athletic director Mike Williams knows that the program’s culture must start to shift more toward keeping its opponents from running up the score. Enter Wilcox.
Get excited, get pumped, but most importantly, give Justin Wilcox time to change Cal football.