As soon as I heard the news Tuesday about Jeff Tedford losing his job as football coach at the University of California, my first thought wasn’t to bemoan a harsh business that makes good guys expendable, even when they’ve built legacies of accomplishment.
My first thought was how the firing at Cal could have a major impact on the Washington Huskies, whose 2012 MVP — Most Valuable Person — is defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, an obvious candidate to succeed Tedford.
If there’s a better pass-catching collegiate tight end than sophomore Austin Seferian-Jenkins, I’ve yet to see him. Running back Bishop Sankey, a redshirt sophomore who last spring penciled in third on the depth chart, has turned the Huskies’ ground game from a liability into a reliability.
But the catalyst of Washington’s surge to No. 25 in the latest BCS rankings is Wilcox.
Hired from Tennessee hours after Nick Holt’s UW defense got stomped in the 2011 Alamo Bowl, Wilcox signed a contract guaranteeing him a base salary of $2.4 million over three years.
Crazy money for an assistant coach, to be sure, and it’s looking like a bargain. Wilcox’s schemes liberated the defense from a read-and-react mode into a maul-the-man-in-front-of-you mode. Last season, 115 FBS teams allowed fewer passing yards per game than the Huskies. This season? Eight teams are allowing fewer passing yards per game.
Washington has held seven out of 11 opponents to 17 points or fewer. At the Alamo Bowl, Baylor scored 17 points during the time it took the broadcasters to pronounce “RG” and “3.”
If you’re Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, and you’re searching for a bright mind who can figure out a way to energize fans whose apathy wasn’t shaken by stadium improvements that left the school with a $321 million renovation bill, don’t you consider Justin Wilcox?
The only knock against Wilcox is that, at 36, he’s got no head coaching experience. (Neither did Steve Sarkisian, who was 34 when the Huskies hired the USC offensive coordinator to replace Tyrone Willingham.) If influential Cal boosters are pining for a big-time name – in other words, their version of Washington State’s Mike Leach – Wilcox isn’t in the discussion.
Otherwise, he fits the prototype offered Tuesday by San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy.
“The perfect Tedford successor,” Purdy wrote, “is probably a younger guy who can connect with today’s recruits (online and offline) and knows the West Coast recruiting landscape … and who can hire and retain sharp assistant coaches in an area where housing costs are high … and who can deal with a campus community that enjoys football but does not blindly worship the sport.”
Wilcox, as head coaches go, is a younger guy who can connect with recruits online and offline. During the 13 years he’s been coaching since playing his last game as an Oregon defensive back in 1999, Wilcox has spent all but two of those years on the West Coast. As linebackers coach at Cal, as defensive coordinator at Boise State, as defensive coordinator at Washington, I suspect he’s so familiar with the West Coast recruiting landscape that he knows every Shari’s and Denny’s serving coffee on I-5.
Can he recruit sharp assistants? Well, he brought UW linebackers coach Peter Sirmon with him from Tennessee, and it’s no coincidence defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi showed up from Cal after his buddy was given the keys to the Huskies’ defense.
Dealing with a campus community that enjoys football but does not blindly worship the sport? Wilcox, the son of former San Francisco 49ers star and Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Wilcox, is more than familiar with the football culture of the Bay Area. It’s a central component of his DNA.
When you connect all those dots, Justin Wilcox emerges as the most plausible candidate to coach the Cal Bears in 2013.
Except there’s this: Wilcox, a talented quarterback who converted to a full-time college cornerback to address an Oregon team need, has built a sterling reputation on his inclination to do the right thing at the right time. Wilcox is due to earn $800,000 next year, and $850,000 in 2014. If Cal calls, he’ll listen — he’d be foolish not to — but he’ll proceed with caution.
That Wilcox owns the chops required of a head coach is beyond a doubt. He communicates with players and presents a polished version of that communication with the media. He schemes. He thinks. He exudes confidence.
My hope, very far from Strawberry Canyon, is that Cal will go after a poster-board name: Boise State’s Chris Petersen, for instance, or Carolina Panthers head coach (and soon to be ex-head coach) Ron Rivera, a renowned and respected Cal alum. And if none of the big names is snagged, an offer will be extended to Wilcox, which he turns down because business is unfinished on Montlake.
Hold onto those hopes. Justin Wilcox is the real deal, a brilliant defensive mastermind biding his time until he gets the chance to become a peerless head coach.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com