A tale of 2 coaches

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In January 2017, Justin Wilcox put pen to paper on a five-year, $9.6 million contract to become Cal football’s head coach. Ten months later, Chip Kelly flew down to Westwood and signed on for the same amount of time with UCLA, but for $23.3 million.

The Bears and the Bruins finished with similar records in 2016 (5-7 and 4-8, respectively), so the two biggest public school football programs in the state were to start new eras in similarly tough spots. Who would win out — the young, defensive-minded, promising but yet unproven Wilcox, or the wise, older offense guru Kelly with a national championship game appearance and a chip on his shoulder from a short, unsuccessful stint in the NFL?

On Saturday, that question was answered. UCLA amassed 446 yards of total offense en route to a 42-14 beatdown. Running back Zach Charbonnet kept breaking off huge runs as the Bears’ D-line struggled to fill the gaps. In its first four drives after halftime, Cal managed just 14 net yards while Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambled repeatedly with hardly any resistance. In their final possession, the Bears failed to find pay dirt after earning a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line and turned the ball over on downs.

For those nearly 3 ½ hours at Rose Bowl Stadium, it was clear that one team had been coached well while the other was just trying to keep up.

And if that blowout wasn’t enough evidence, Wilcox and Kelly’s respective records so far this year indicate that Kelly has, indeed, built something at UCLA while Wilcox is still struggling to make a lean-to. The 8-4 Bruins boast an early season win over LSU and, after their victory over Cal, four wins by at least 24 points. Hiccups in the middle third of the season kept Kelly’s team from sitting among college football’s elite this year. But a projected Holiday Bowl appearance against No. 21 NC State is nothing to frown at, and UCLA fans should count their blessings considering the state of their program in recent years.

Granted, Kelly is still UCLA’s worst-ever head coach in terms of his overall record. But four years after his hiring, it is evident that Kelly’s system is finally starting to work. He has recruited well with his unique brand of fast-paced, confusing offense in mind. On Saturday, Cal’s defense looked just as lost and weary as every traveling Bears fan who had to brave Los Angeles’ freeways.

While Kelly was steadily shaping his program into one with a clear identity, the Bears were gradually losing theirs. In Wilcox’s first few years at the helm, Cal’s overachieving defense — led by a stifling secondary and coached by current Oregon defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter — was at the core of that identity. But since DeRuyter left in January after Wilcox inexplicably demoted him to co-defensive coordinator, the Bears have struggled to hang their hat on any part of their game.

A significant difference in recruiting success between the two programs over the last few years might explain why UCLA has found its stride while Cal sits at 4-7. But Wilcox and his staff have not lagged too far behind Kelly. In 2019 and 2020, the Bears finished just two spots below UCLA in the Pac-12 recruiting rankings and this year put together the third-best class in the Pac-12 behind only Oregon and USC.

Because Wilcox now coaches a team made up of almost exclusively players he recruited, losing records ultimately come down to his coaching. At the time, that above-average 2019 season in which the Bears finished 8-5 with a bowl win felt like the beginning of a new and prosperous era for the program — an era in which Wilcox would build his own brand of football, create a strong team identity and maybe even leave for a better job in the near future.

But as of 2021, the old guard has won out over the new. It is almost as if Kelly has “been here and done that” before while Wilcox, well, clearly has not.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].