The Golden Bears may have gotten it right this time.
Cal moved quickly to replace fired head coach Sonny Dykes with Justin Wilcox, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football. And judging from the early returns, it looks like an excellent hire.
Wilcox has earned high marks as defensive coordinator at a number of the top programs in the country -- Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and most recently, Wisconsin. This year his Badgers’ defense ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense. Cal’s, by contrast, was No. 125.
The hiring sends an important message that defense, which has been an embarrassment at Cal for the past four years, is of prime importance. For the Bears to move into the elite in the increasingly-competitive Pac-12, they can’t survive with offense alone. Witness Dykes’ 10-26 record in conference play, the ascent of defensive-minded Colorado this season, and Chris Petersen’s championship blueprint at Washington, which features one of the nation’s top defensive units.
Wilcox also is a much better fit culturally than Dykes, who’d spent most of his career in Texas and the South. Wilcox knows the Pac-12 very well. He played at Oregon and coached the linebackers at Cal from 2003-2005 prior to his recent stints at Washington and USC. Wilcox clearly understands the conference, the West Coast, and the cultural and academic environment at Berkeley, which he called the “most dynamic place in the country.”
Hiring a new coach so late in the game could pose problems with respect to assembling a staff and recruiting, but again, Wilcox is off to a great start. He lured Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, architect of some high-octane offenses at EWU, to come aboard as offensive coordinator. He also nabbed Steve Greatwood, a former colleague at Oregon and one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in the country.
Wilcox has a reputation as a strong recruiter. Indeed, three highly-regarded recruits -- defensive lineman Gabe Cherry (Bakersfield), DB Elijah Hicks (La Mirada) and WR Taariq Johnson (Buena Park) arrived on campus this week as mid-year freshman enrollees.
At his press conference Wilcox appeared smart, poised, classy and businesslike. He refused to be baited into criticizing his predecessor. He also appealed to Cal fans to support the program and make Memorial Stadium a tough place to play. The stadium was pretty noisy during the Jeff Tedford regime, but lately it’s borne no resemblance to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, where Wilcox played, and Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where he coached this year.
If he can turn the program around, I suspect Memorial Stadium will be rocking once again.
2017 Schedules: The Pac-12 has released its 2017 football schedule, and both Wilcox and Stanford coach David Shaw are looking at some tough sledding. Both teams open Pac-12 play in September against a loaded USC squad. Cal’s non-conference games include the season opener at North Carolina and home games with Weber State and Ole Miss, followed by USC in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 23. Wilcox also has conference road games at Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA. Ugh!
Stanford, meanwhile, opens on the road (probably in Australia) against Rice, then kicks off Pac-12 play at USC on Sept. 9. However, the Cardinal will benefit from having UCLA, ASU, Oregon, Washington and Cal on the home schedule, along with Notre Dame.
New ticket policy at Stanford: Speaking of the Stanford home schedule, the Cardinal brass notified thousands of season ticket holders this week that to retain their sideline seats, they must make a substantial donation to the Buck/Cardinal Club athletic scholarship program. The “Priority Seating Expansion” means that ticket holders in 10 sections of the stadium will need to cough up about three times as much money to keep their seats. For example, a fan with two season tickets who would normally pay $1,078 for two seats this season now must ante up an additional $1,000 per seat. Bottom line: a total tab of $3,078 instead of $1,078. With six home games, that translates to $513 per game for two tickets.
Although the home schedule is attractive this season, it’s hard to fathom the reasons behind the new policy. Stanford had no home sellouts last year, and there were plenty of good seats available for every game. A similar policy was implemented several years ago at Maples Pavilion, and the result has been lots of empty seats at Stanford basketball games.
Nationally, college football attendance declined this season for the sixth year in a row. Among the many reasons were rising ticket prices, the increasing number of night games, uncertainty over starting times, and the quality of the home viewing experience.
Greed, it seems, has trumped fan loyalty. Instead of raising prices and repeatedly asking the same people to spend more money, college athletic departments might consider rewarding loyal fans by lowering ticket prices. That way, they could fill some of those empty seats, improve the atmosphere in their stadiums, and give their coaches more of a home field advantage.
Beamer Selected: The College Football Playoff folks just added former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer to their selection committee. A better choice could not have been made. Beamer retired last year after 29 years with the Hokies, and he is widely regarded as one of the best coaches and finest human beings to ever grace the sport.
I can speak from personal experience as a bowl director. Virginia Tech played in our first post-season game in San Francisco back in 2002, when it was known as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. Coaches can bring a lot of baggage -- and ego -- to a post-season game. Some might have viewed a bowl game in its infancy as something of a comedown for Beamer, whose team had played in the national championship game two years earlier. But not Frank. He treated everyone associated with our bowl with the same warmth, graciousness and respect, enthusiastically did everything we asked of him, and was a total delight to deal with.
His wife, Cheryl, was another class act. A week after the bowl game, I got a thank you note in the mail from Cheryl, along with a $20 bill. She apologized for not having gassed up her rental car before returning it, and didn’t want to saddle me with the bill.
People like that just don’t come along every day.
BERKELEY — With more than a half-century without a Rose Bowl berth, tougher academic standards than most Pac-12 schools and lackluster fan support in a pro-sports focused market, there are plenty of hurdles for a football coach at California.
Coach Justin Wilcox took the job for the Golden Bears because he embraces those obstacles and he wants players who feel the same way as he seeks to rebuild a program that has one winning record in the past five years and no conference championships since 1958.
"When you come here, there are challenges," Wilcox said at his introductory news conference Tuesday. "You don't come here and go through school and just go through the motions. You'll be challenged in the classroom, challenged on the football field and learn to interact in a dynamic society. I believe in that and that helps guys grow."
Wilcox faces many hurdles in his new job replacing the recently fired Sonny Dykes less than three weeks before national signing day. He has to put together a coaching staff, evaluate the players already on campus and try to keep together, and even add to, a recruiting class that committed to a different staff.
Athletic director Mike Williams fired Dykes after four seasons on Jan. 8 because he wanted a coach committed to Cal instead of flirting with other jobs and needed someone who could excite a fan base that often stayed away from Memorial Stadium in recent years as the Bears teamed porous defenses with sometimes exciting offenses while posting a 19-30 record.
Williams had five finalists for the job but chose a former Cal assistant with a defensive background and familiarity with the Pac-12 as an assistant for seven years at three schools in the conference.
"He truly gets this place, he truly gets coaching in the West," Williams said. "He came in and was very organized and thoughtful. He knew what he wanted to do and who he wanted to hire. ... It's a special place and I think he'll treat it as a special place."
While Dykes flirted with job openings at Houston and Baylor this past offseason in part because of his concern about increased academic standards for recruits, the Bears hope Wilcox is someone who wants to stick around after more than a decade of being on a self-described "windy" path as a top defensive coach.
The former Oregon defensive back began his coaching career in 2001 as a graduate assistant at Boise State. He spent three years as linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford at Cal from 2003-05 when the Bears nearly ended their Rose Bowl drought during a 10-win season with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback in 2004.
Wilcox has spent the past 11 years as a defensive coordinator with stops at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, Southern California and finally Wisconsin, where he helped the Badgers field a top 10 defense and win the Cotton Bowl.
Wilcox has worked and played for many successful coaches, including Tedford, Chris Petersen, Dan Hawkins, Mike Bellotti, and Paul Chryst.
"I've been extremely fortunate to work for and with people I learned so much from," he said. "Each step along the way, I've seen it done a lot of different ways. I'm not trying to be any of those people. I always try to take pieces and make it my own."
Wilcox has begun putting together his staff, having hired former Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin as offensive coordinator and longtime Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood to fill that role on the Bears.
The Bears will look very different under Wilcox than Dykes. Wilcox said he will recruit tight ends as Cal moves from the spread "Bear Raid" offense that relied on four receivers almost exclusively to a more balanced offense with tight ends and more power concepts.
While he will delegate most of the offensive responsibilities to Baldwin, Wilcox said he will be more involved on defense where he wants to find players who can fit into his base 3-4 system.
Cal ranked 125th in total defense, 127th in scoring defense and 122nd in yards per play out of 128 FBS teams last season on the way to a 5-7 record.
"Every second is critical right now," Wilcox said. "I will not sacrifice the long-term good of the program for what everyone wants which is certainty. Things will happen quickly. I understand the recruits have some anxiety about the situation and there's emotions involved. That's totally understandable. I'd feel the same way."