Washington Head Coach Steve Sarkisian’s calling card since taking over up in Montlake for Tyrone Willingham has been that of a true oddity; leader of a team that stuns the nation one week, then look completely incompetent the next. He loses to teams Washington should have beaten, and manages to pull off huge upsets over programs that the Huskies have no logical reason to defeat, at least on paper.
There has perhaps been no program that has been more of an enigma in recent years, or at least on par with the likes of Clemson and Cal, than Washington in terms of how far up or down the Huskies may play on any given week. One game they may give up 500 yards and 40 points, and follow that up by beating a highly-ranked USC team, then go on the road and get shutout. They are the epitome of a head-scratcher, never quite sure what will come when a team plays the Huskies…and that makes them inherently dangerous.
Last Thursday night Washington managed to squeak out a victory over #8 Stanford on national television, leaving only Oregon and Oregon State as the two undefeated teams in the Pac-12 North. The win was highlighted by the stellar defensive performance as a whole unit, stout as had ever been witnessed in recent memory, while images of Baylor racking up a half-a-bajillion yards and points in last year’s Alamo Bowl against them under then defensive coordinator Nick Holt still remain fresh in the eyes of so many that anticipated a bloodbath.
It was strange, seeing a competent Husky defense confound a Stanford attack that had taken down USC two weeks prior, this with a Husky offensive line that has been decimating by serious injuries, and Stanford boasting a defensive line that tore USC apart. It had all the makings of another Husky beat-down, but it wasn’t to be, as it was actually Washington’s defense that completely controlled the game start to finish. Just even mentioning Washington and defense in the same sentence still feels a little like an oxymoron.
Leading the way for that re-structured defense is a familiar name to Oregon fans…Justin Wilcox.
The Wilcox Family Legacy
The Wilcox family are Oregon royalty, four of them having previously suited up for Oregon Ducks football including Justin; only the Wynn family (Harvey Dick, Mark, Eric) can make an equal claim. Dave Wilcox is one of six Oregon Ducks in the NFL Hall of Fame, his brother John also played at Oregon (both Dave and John originally playing at Boise Junior College–now Boise State–before transferring to Oregon), while Justin’s older brother Josh is one of the all-time great characters and players ever at Oregon, an iconic figure from the legendary 1994 Rose Bowl team, now as a radio host in Portland.
Justin Wilcox meanwhile I can’t help but have mixed feelings about; as a player I absolutely loved the guy, personally one of my all-time favorite players, but as a coach I wish he would stay as far away from Oregon as possible–because Oregon fans know just how good he truly is at his job, having witnessed it first-hand three times now.
As a Duck player in the 90’s he made the rare transition from quarterback to cornerback to help the team after Kenny Wheaton left for the NFL, and he quickly became one of the most proficient, fundamentally-sound CBs to ever play at Oregon, if not in the Pac-10.
Teams would test him time and again, and he’d never get beat. It was obvious he would be a great coach someday, nobody had better fundamentals than Justin. I absolutely loved watching him play, seeing how frustrated opposing coaches and players would become, so confident that their fast receivers could torch Justin all day, only to find out with his flawless technique that try as they might nothing was going to come over the top on Wilcox’s side of the field. At first glance it seemed an obvious mismatch, but good technique can overcome any physical advantage, and Justin it appeared had been trained to play and study football from birth. Considering the family history, it’s quite possible he had been.
Becoming Coach Wilcox–the Most Feared Man in College Football
He completed his degree and time on the field in 1999 as a fine-fitting example of the Wilcox name, a leader on the field who did what was asked and shut down whichever receiver he was assigned to, continued the family Duck legacy, and performed exceptionally well in his role on the team.
Destined to become a coach, he began as a graduate assistant at Boise State (2001-2002), before joining the Cal staff as the Linebackers Coach under former Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s regime, from 2003-2005.
As his stock rose as a coach, he was asked to join the Boise State staff once more, once again a former Oregon assistant coach recognizing his extraordinary grasp of the game of football. This time it was former UO Wide Receivers Coach Chris Peterson, now the new head coach at Boise State replacing Dan Hawkins, who had left for the Colorado job.
Wilcox was rising in the ranks, under Peterson he was now the defensive coordinator for that weird blue Bronco team playing on that weird blue field. It made sense, with his dad and uncle having played at Boise Junior College, BSU had almost as many family connections as Oregon did, especially with Coach Peterson leading the charge Boise was even more like a second home, and it didn’t take long for Justin to make his presence felt.
Boise State’s defenses consistently became a terror, the class of the WAC and a nightmare for out-of-conference opponents, seemingly so perfect in their fundamentals and never out of position. To get players that on paper should have been outmatched by athletes at premier programs to perform at such a high-level, it was a mark of great coaching, and the finger pointed squarely at Wilcox as the one to thank (or blame depending on perspective).
But then Justin AND Chris Peterson both had to go and break our hearts…
In 2008 Boise State was scheduled to come to Autzen Stadium to face Oregon. The Ducks were hurting a little but still rolling along, reduced to the third string QB Jeremiah Masoli due to injuries to Nate Costa and Justin Roper, but Masoli had proven to be a quality leader, leaving Oregon still confident of success on the day to come.
Instead, Wilcox’s head-hunting defense knocked Oregon’s quarterback out of the game on the opening drive with a concussion, then proceeded to headbutt their way to a victory at Autzen Stadium reducing Oregon to its 5th string QB, a heartbreaking knife-in-the-back kinda victory accomplished by former Duck coaches. It stung, it still does, and bad blood over the way Boise State had won permeated amongst the Oregon fans and players, stewing over hopefully getting revenge on the blue turf in 2009 for the rematch.
The next year the feat was repeated on national TV, followed by the infamous LeGarrette Blount incident that still resonates with some outside perspectives against the program to this day…not that Wilcox was the one taunting Blount, but still, it remains a low-moment for the Oregon program. It was official, Oregon fans HATED Boise State, considered on par with Washington and Oregon State, the blue menace that couldn’t be beaten.
It was the first game Oregon had played under new head coach Chip Kelly, who had been the offensive coordinator the prior two years. During Mike Bellotti’s final years as coach and throughout the transition to Kelly, rumors persisted among fans that it was only a matter of time before Peterson and/or Wilcox returned to Eugene to lead the Ducks forward. Instead, both stayed in Boise, and any validity to the rumors of either Peterson or Wilcox returning to Eugene remain to this day are merely hearsay.
Wilcox Heads East to Tennessee
With Justin’s name being rumored for various head coaching jobs, he was hired away thankfully from the blue Boise St. turf where the Broncos had amassed an unbelievable home-winning streak during his four years as DC, to take over the Tennessee Volunteers defense, a team floundering in recent years after a proud history in the almighty SEC; looking to rebuild in the wake of a disastrous albeit short year under coach Lane Kiffin, now having hired Derek Dooley to rebuild the Vols.
While the Volunteers didn’t become the #1 defense in the conference, Wilcox’s crew certainly became drastically improved in a short time, and in an odd twist of fate once again would face his alma mater in 2010, the Ducks traveling to Knoxville.
Oregon fans that were at first thankful Wilcox had moved east and hopefully far away from ever having to coach against Oregon were nervous, somehow Wilcox was leap-frogging his way through coaching jobs to face off against the Ducks, the last thing any knowledgeable Oregon fan ever wants to see happen.
For much of the first half of the 2010 Oregon-Tennessee game Wilcox’s defense, just like in the two Boise State matchups, gave Oregon all they could handle and more. It took a nearly hour long lightning delay in the first half for Oregon to regroup and figure out just how to attack Wilcox’s D, returning from the locker room a completely different team than the one that appeared on its heels from the start of the game.
The storm may have been Oregon’s only respite, as the man who knew all of Oregon’s secrets intimately from growing up as a ball-boy on the sidelines with his brother Josh, to playing for Oregon, to now coaching against them seemed to know exactly what the Ducks would do at every turn. After the storm, Oregon did manage to pull away, and in the end racked up the largest home loss deficit for Tennessee in their history at Neyland Stadium. But before lightning struck, the Ducks coming away with the victory was far from a sure thing.
Of All the Teams He Could Have Joined, Wilcox Picks the Huskies
This past off-season, following two years in Knoxville, Justin Wilcox was hired by Steve Sarkisian to repair the Washington Huskies defense that had been flat out embarrassed by Baylor in the bowl game. Wilcox’s first move was to bring with him to UW a former Oregon teammate who had joined him in Tennessee, linebacker Peter Sirmon, a rising star in the coaching ranks in his own right after playing for six years in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans.
Sirmon, one of the best linebackers in Oregon history who tormented the Huskies and the rest of the Pac-10 for years, had been busy learning the tricks of coaching as well. He was the Linebackers Coach with Central Washington University in 2008, followed by a 2009 stint with Oregon as a graduate assistant, then joined Justin Wilcox’s defensive staff at Tennessee as the Linebackers Coach. The two teammates were now coaches working together, using all the tricks they had learned as Oregon players to now mold Tennessee Volunteers athletes into trying to stop the Duck menace.
Now, both Wilcox and Sirmon head up the defensive brain-trust at Washington, looking to continue the reputation of being duck killers earned at Boise State, and nearly repeated at Tennessee, if not for mother nature’s intervention.
Now 1-2 against Wilcox-led defenses, Oregon once more must face quite possibly the best up-and-coming assistant coaches in college football today, a homegrown talent in Wilcox and a fan favorite in Sirmon that many fans wish both would someday return to coach at Oregon…or at the very least take a coaching job far away with a team that will never again be on Oregon’s schedule. Why? The results don’t lie, when it comes to maximizing talent and teaching schemes to shut down better teams, Sirmon and Wilcox are as good of coaches as it gets.
Come Saturday, Oregon will be facing off against the fourth Wilcox to play for the Ducks, for the fourth time. It will be the return to Autzen of two prodigal sons in Wilcox and Sirmon. For many, it is hopeful that it will be the last time either stand on the opposing sideline, Oregon somehow escaping with a W to even the score against Justin at 2-2. It won’t be easy, whether on the field wearing a jersey or a headset, these Wilcox’s are tough to beat.
And just maybe, someday Wilcox and Sirmon will be coaching back where they belong, in Eugene for the Ducks. For now though, wherever Wilcox goes, opposing teams and fans should fear. In an era of unprecedented offensive numbers being tallied by teams with innovative new offensive schemes, Wilcox is the ultimate kryptonite, a defensive nuclear deterrent. To take a Wilcox-led defense lightly no matter how decimated is in Cold War terms MAD (Mutually-Assured Destruction), Wilcox’s teams may not always win, but he’s taken yours down with him, scrapping and clawing for a full 60-minutes in what can only be at best a pyrrhic victory.
No coach save perhaps TCU head coach Gary Patterson has consistently managed to shutdown prolific offenses better than Wilcox in recent years, Justin has become the guru of 21st century college football defense in an age when point totals are often more akin to what would be expected at college basketball games.
maybe Oregon will continue the streak over Washington come Saturday, certainly as the #2 team in the country boasting an eight-game winning streak stretching back to 2005 there is every reason to have Oregon as the favorite. But any time Wilcox has been on the opposing sideline victory is never assured, 1-2 is the current mark for the Ducks, and that should be taken very seriously going into Saturday wondering if perhaps fourth time is the charm to overcome the Wilcox thorn in Oregon’s side.
After it was so easy to love Wilcox for his play on the field as a Duck in the 90’s, he sure has made it tough to love him as a coach who has three times now given Oregon fits, but damn easy to respect the guy for it.
There is no greater compliment that can be given than to wish that Justin Wilcox would be hired for a prominent head coaching position as soon as possible at some program as far away from Oregon as can be found, meeting on the field only if it is in a bowl game. He certainly deserves it. Either coach for Oregon, or go far, far away from here, Washington is too close for comfort for Ducks to feel confident in winning against any team where Wilcox is coaching, even going into the game with an eight-game winning streak.
Fear this man, because he is really, really, REAAAALLLLYYY good at his job.