EUGENE — Justin Wilcox is a man. He’s 40.
Don’t expect a rant about that.
The new Cal football coach won’t provide a viral tirade as Mike Gundy did 10 years ago or battle the media about coverage like Nick Saban or Butch Jones. He’s not going to promote himself like Jim Harbaugh or show off a unique personality like Mike Leach.
Wilcox continues to do things the way he has since starring at Junction City High, playing at Oregon and serving as a defensive coordinator for 11 years for various colleges before being hired as the head coach in Berkeley nine months ago.
“That’s just him,” said Josh Wilcox, Justin’s older brother and a former Oregon tight end. “He doesn’t have a Twitter account and I don’t think he’s ever been on Facebook. I know that’s the opposite of some people in this day and age, but that’s not his personality. When people learn about him, he’s authentic, and sometimes that’s hard for people to grasp.”
Saturday could be seen as a victory lap for Justin Wilcox, who, 18 years after graduating from Oregon, will lead his own program into Autzen Stadium when the Bears (3-1) visit the Ducks (3-1), but that’s not the route he seeks.
“I’ve never really looked at it that way,” he said. “I’m really humbled and proud to coach this team, so that’s really all it is. It’s never about me. I take this job really serious and care a lot about this team and program, so I’m thankful to have this opportunity to do that.”
Wilcox arrived at Oregon in 1996 as a quarterback after leading Junction City to the 1995 Class 3A state title. He switched to defense for the Ducks and was a second-team all-Pac-12 cornerback as a senior in 1999.
Wilcox will be making his sixth trip to Autzen in 17 years as a coach: His lone victory came as Boise State’s defensive coordinator, a 37-22 win in 2008. He has gone 3-6 overall against the Ducks as linebackers coach at Cal and defensive coordinator with Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and USC.
“Obviously I grew up there and got the opportunity to go to school there and I’m thankful for that, and during my time I was fortunate to be around coaches and teammates whose relationships I cherish,” he said. “I appreciate all of it and don’t minimize that, but this isn’t about me, it’s about our team.”
Josh Wilcox joked that the biggest homecoming game he plans to visit this week will come when Junction City hosts Elmira on Friday night, and Justin isn’t expecting any additional fanfare when he returns to face the Ducks the following day.
“I’m 100 percent invested in our team and players,” Justin Wilcox said. “It’s not hard for me to look at this any different than any other game. We’ll prepare as best as we can for a great opponent. All our focus is on that.”
Cal arrives in town Friday night, when Josh Wilcox will be watching the Tigers host the Falcons. With a 7:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, any Wilcox family reunions will take place on Saturday afternoon.
“I might run over and say hello, but we’ve done enough pregames with him that I know he has more to deal with than me coming over to take up his time,” Josh Wilcox said. “If I do, it’s never about, ‘What are you running on third down and what will we see?’ It’s always more family, brother stuff, nothing to do with football. That might seem weird for other people, but is always the opposite with us. We don’t talk X's and O's until maybe after the game.”
Justin Wilcox is preparing to face Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, whose family has been close to his for decades. That’s another reunion he has downplayed on the trip home.
“I was really close with his parents and grandparents growing up, but when I was getting out of college and into coaching, I haven’t lived there in about 17 years,” Wilcox said. “So it’s been a long time. I think the world of their family — they’re great people and Justin is a really talented kid — but I haven’t lived there in a long time.
“I don’t get to keep up with a lot of people. I’ve followed Justin from afar and I know our guys are excited for the challenge he will bring us.”
Todd McKim, who serves as a radio pregame host and sideline reporter for Cal football, covered Wilcox in high school and college while serving as a sports anchor at KVAL and KEZI in Eugene.
“Justin has always been a humble guy, unassuming, all about the team and not himself,” McKim said. “He was like that as a player. He wasn’t going to be the quarterback at Oregon, so he decided to play another position. That’s always been his nature: a great guy to be around with a great sense of humor. He has a plan that he wants to stick to. He doesn’t need the limelight, like all the media stuff.”
Rising up the ranks
Wilcox began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Boise State in 2001 and 2002, then spent three years as linebackers coach at Cal. He worked four years as defensive coordinator at Boise State, and then served two years each in that job with the Volunteers, Huskies and Trojans. He was defensive coordinator at Wisconsin last year before returning to the Bears to become head coach when Sonny Dykes was fired in January.
“A lot of the duties are different, on a day-to-day basis and during the game,” he said. “You’re looking through a different lens no matter if you are in this role or a coordinator or graduate assistant.”
Wilcox hired former Oregon assistants Steve Greatwood and Jerry Azzinaro to coach the offensive and defensive lines, respectively. His two coordinators are former head coaches: former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin runs the offense and ex-Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter leads the defense.
With his history of coaching defense, Wilcox brought in a staff of coaches on that side who ran systems similar to his, including DeRuyter, Azzinaro and defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander, who played for him at Boise State, along with linebackers coach Tony Tuioti.
“I was fortunate to get a great group of coaches as well as interaction with the players,” Wilcox said. “Their attitude toward change has allowed us to make significant gains day-by-day. ...
“It’s never seamless, but it was as good as it could have been in our mind, and I appreciate them being eager and coming in with an open mind.”
Cal made a late coaching change when Dykes was fired on Jan. 8, several weeks after the Bears’ season ended and less than one month before the national signing date for high school players. By comparison, Oregon hired Willie Taggart on Dec. 7, 2016.
“Getting a staff together on short time and getting the kids in the locker room to buy in — sometimes guys leave or whatever — but one thing he did was always say it was his guys from day one, no matter what,” Josh Wilcox said. “That probably gets everyone on the same page. He’s always been a smart dude. Everyone knew that whatever he did, he would be successful.
“People I ask, whose opinion in football I value, they say the staff he has put together, for a young guy to do that with those connections, every piece has fit together, and that should be up there in terms of why he’s doing all this and having success.”
Wilcox did not bring in a full first signing class with the Bears, choosing to save some scholarships for next year when he has an entire recruiting season.
“Everyone said Justin needed to hire coaches right away and jump on some recruits, but he said he would take those who fit his program, whether they committed now or in a week or in a year from now,” McKim recalled. “It was the same with coaches: He was not going to hire someone just to fill a position. He had a plan to what he’s doing and he’s on the right track. That’s evident based on the first four games. He has changed the culture here. Defense is no longer a four-letter word.”
California emphasized offense under Dykes, and the Bears’ defense allowed more than 39 points per game during three of his four seasons, including a conference-worst 42.6 points per game last year. The Bears are giving up 24 points per game this year during their 3-1 start.
Cal was tied 13-13 with USC entering the fourth quarter before the Trojans scored 17 points in four minutes and won 30-20.
With three wins, the Bears have already met or exceeded expectations of the Pac-12 media, which picked them to finish last.
“It’s a two-way street,” Wilcox said. “It’s not like you show up and give a speech and they all do it like you want it. Over time, you set expectations and standards and hold them to it. We got here in January and it’s not perfect now, but you’re always working toward getting more guys to get it right. They’ve done a good job of that, and it’s a tribute to them to continue to build and make gains.”
Josh Wilcox, who played two seasons with the New Orleans Saints and also spent time playing in NFL Europe, the XFL and indoor football leagues, watched Cal’s 27-16 victory over Mississippi two weeks ago and came away impressed.
“Being his brother, I try to take that out, but being around football enough and seeing guys with a new coach and not a lot of expectations, the feeling of kids and coaches buying in is pretty impressive from a football standpoint,” he said.
McKim sees Wilcox’s approach — and early success — winning over a fan base that has seen one bowl game since 2011.
“He plays his cards close to the vest,” he said. “I imagine he’s a pretty good poker player. He doesn’t reveal a lot. I hope he has success, and I think he will. He has the right idea, attitude and plan. I like what I see so far.”