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Impervious to change

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022

In 2017, Justin Wilcox became the head coach of Cal football. Now, two Big Game wins, an upset over a ranked Oregon team in 2020, a bowl game victory, two winning seasons and zero major controversies sit proudly in his metaphorical trophy cabinet. 

On Saturday, the Bears lost 42-24 to No. 8 Oregon. Two of Cal’s touchdowns came well after the Ducks put the game to bed. Kai Millner finally entered the game midway through the fourth quarter down 38-10 and completed two touchdown passes in the span of about five minutes. Now that the Bears are 3-5 and 1-4 in conference play, no reasonable fan can expect Wilcox to add another bowl game appearance to his CV. 

As compared to Cal’s previous head coach, Sonny Dykes (19-30), Wilcox (29-33) holds a much better record. But if Dykes’s 2013 season is taken into account, during which the Bears went 1-11 with a team that Dykes inherited from Jeff Tedford’s awful final season in the Bay, the two head coaches become comparable. 

Their respective records with the Bears provide the only point of comparison. In almost every other category the two coaches are like chalk and cheese. Dykes, an offense guru who ran a “Bear-Raid” offense under multiple offensive coordinators, hoped to win games by being the last team to score. Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator at five different schools, hopes that his offense can put just enough points on the board before time expires while his defense does the heavy lifting. 

And while Dykes’ tenure took a bad turn in his final season, he somehow managed to make a losing program into a winning one in just two years time. In 2015 Cal went 8-5 after winning just one game two years prior. Wilcox, on the other hand, has found a way to take what he made into a winning program in 2018 and 2019 and turn it into a Pac-12 bottom feeder. 

Dykes’ tenure is not a success story by any stretch of the imagination. But Dykes can at least be credited with making changes when he felt they were needed. After that abysmal 2013 season, the former HC demoted defensive coordinator Andy Buh and fired two assistant coaches. New defensive coordinator Art Kaufman was not a significant upgrade, to be sure. But Dykes at least made a change where change was desperately needed, and an improved Cal defense along with a Jared Goff-led offense resulted in a 8-5 season in 2015. 

Wilcox, on the other hand, might be allergic to change. It took a head coaching job offer from Cal Poly to lure offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin away from Berkeley. He occupied the position for three years. In his final two seasons in Berkeley, Cal’s offense ranked 116th and 112th in the country in scoring. Current offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave might also feel good about his job security despite the fact that he coaches the 101st ranked scoring offense in the country. Nothing indicates that Wilcox will make changes, even if changes seem like the only possible solutions to major issues. 

Wilcox’s only coaching staff change came in 2020, when he inexplicably demoted defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter to co-defensive coordinator and promoted his friend and former linebacker teammate during his playing days at Oregon, Peter Sirmon, to co-defensive coordinator. In practice, Sirmon made all of the play calls. After the demotion, DeRuyter accepted the defensive coordinator position at Oregon in 2021, a position he deserved to have at Cal. In his one season in Eugene, the Ducks’ defense finished ranked 5th best in the FBS. 

So unless another friend needs a job or Musgrave or some other position coach is miraculously hired by some other school, no Cal fan should expect any much needed staff modifications. Wilcox seems content to rest on his laurels, as few as they may be.

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

NOVEMBER 02, 2022