I have to admit that, despite his status as a Duck alum, I’ve never been a huge fan of Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. But that all changed last week. And it changed for reasons that may not make sense to anyone but me. Nevertheless, I feel these reasons are important, and worth sharing, as they go beyond the game of football.
I remember when Wilcox was recruited as a quarterback to play at the University of Oregon. His days at quarterback did not last long, and he quickly converted to defensive back. He was a decent player in his heyday, but to my recollection, nothing spectacular.
I lost track of Mr. Wilcox for a few years as he wandered around as a grad assistant at Boise State and linebackers coach at Cal. But he certainly came back to my attention when he was the defensive coordinator at Boise State, especially when the Broncos beat my Ducks on the blue turf in 2009, a game in which Oregon scored only eight points and which culminated with “the punch” from star running back LeGarratte Blount.
Wilcox got a great deal of credit for that win and for the way that he shut down Chip Kelly’s offense. He then bounced around a few bigger programs, including Tennessee, Washington, and USC. Quite frankly, I thought he was a bit overrated as a defensive coordinator–he certainly didn’t have much success stopping the Ducks after his initial success at BSU.
[FishDuck.com note: Justin, who ran a slow 4.71 time for the NFL combine, filled in at cornerback when Rashad Bauman went down with a season-ending knee injury early in the 1997 season. Despite not have the wheels, Justin utilized great defensive back technique and did not get burned for a touchdown pass that season. It showed everyone that he could become a great coach later …
He has some notoriety on this site as Mr. FishDuck wrote quite the scathing article about him years back that brought howls from the Wilcox family.]
Nevertheless, I was impressed with the job he did this year as a first-year head coach in Berkeley. A team littered with roster deficiencies and expected to attain almost nothing nearly made it to a bowl game. That is no small feat. I can see why he is now a hot coach; so hot that Oregon was interested in interviewing him for its head coaching vacancy just last week.
Recent history has shown us just how much of a pull “coming home” can be. Willie Taggart taught us this lesson with a flair most Duck fans will never forget (or forgive). Certainly many of you know that Wilcox’s father and older brother also played for Oregon, and that he grew up just a few miles from Eugene in Junction City. In fact, his family has long been close to the family of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. Back in the day, Wilcox would play catch with a younger, smaller Herbert in the backyard, despite being twice the age of the current Duck star.
Yet, when Rob Mullens came calling, Wilcox flat out rejected the opportunity to interview with his alma mater.
I cannot claim to know Justin Wilcox. But I can guess what his rationale was. A year ago, he made a commitment to Cal Berkeley, to the administration and to the players, much like Taggart did at Oregon. I think he appreciated the fact that the university gave him an opportunity to be a head coach in a Power 5 conference. I can assume that, unlike Taggart, he felt a certain amount of loyalty and responsibility to keep his word to those that gave him that opportunity.
I think Wilcox understood that taking a job as a college football coach and leaving after just one year, even for the opportunity to get back to his home state, would be dishonorable. He would lose the respect of others and probably even himself. He probably just could not bring himself to entertain the possibility, knowing that if he went down that road, it might be too difficult to eventually turn down what might be his dream job.
So thank you, Justin Wilcox, for rejecting even an interview with the University of Oregon. You have gained my respect and certainly retained the respect of the players and administrators at Cal Berkeley. You have shown your true colors, and I have no doubt that your career as a head coach will be long and successful.
And perhaps, when the time is right, you may still end up at Oregon. I would certainly be proud to have you back. In the end, once a Duck, always a Duck.
Top Photo Credit: Scott Kelly
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