Skip to main content

"Every decision there's an outcome." Justin Wilcox on leadership, turnovers and his favorite drill

It feels odd to say, but Justin Wilcox is only 43 years old.

I say that because he seemingly stood on the doorstep of a head coaching job for close to a decade before getting his first job in the winter of 2016. Wilcox's first defensive coordinator job came when he was just 30, working under Chris Petersen on Boise State's unforgettable 2006 team. After four years there, he coordinated defenses for Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin before taking over at Cal ahead of the 2017 season.

Three seasons in, Wilcox has increased Cal's win total year-over-year, from a 5-7 debut in 2017, to 7-6 in 2018, to 8-5 in 2019. And that 8-5 record comes with an asterisk: Cal was 7-0 in games where starting quarterback Chase Garbers played at least a half, and he's expected to be fully healthy in 2020.

Wilcox took some time from his schedule to talk pandemic, turnovers, and what people are missing if they don't play football.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

FootballScoop: First things first, what's your day-to-day look like right now?
Wilcox: I'm in Berkeley. First and foremost, trying to do our part and get through this thing that's a battle for everybody. It's just unprecedented, so our thoughts are with the people out there. In terms of our team, their health and safety of them and their loved ones, that's what's most important. We're trying to keep them educated on that. They watch the news, they know what's going on. We'e able to give them some structure through academic support for their online learning, and then we have designated times to continue to work on our craft and spend some time on football with them.

FootballScoop: Iowa State announced last week all of its coaches will take pay cuts. Has that come up at Cal?
Wilcox: It hasn't yet, but I understand it. Everything is probably on the table for colleges and businesses throughout the country. I go back to, this is just unprecedented. I'm sure that everything is on the table.

FootballScoop: In your three years at Cal you've snapped a 14-game losing streak to USC and a 9-game losing streak to Stanford. How did those wins feel?
Wilcox: All wins are appreciated. Those are some great teams and great programs. We've improved throughout our time here, certainly nobody is content with where we are. I think we've earned the right to expect to improve and be better and raise our expectations around here.

FootballScoop: Your defenses have a long history of producing turnovers. Is that a culture thing, a matter of lady luck visiting you from time to time, or a combination of the two?
Wilcox: Everybody practices takeaways, we're no different. Takeaways are a product of effort, technique, ability. There's a lot that goes into it. There's not one drill that you can do to produce takeaways. It's an emphasis in our program, there's no doubt about that. I know a lot of people emphasize it. Two years ago we took the ball away a great deal, this past year we weren't quite as good. Was it the drill work? Probably not, there's more to it than that, and if anybody had the secret to it then everybody would be doing it. I think it's a combination of effort, technique, ability, and it's something we're going to continue to emphasize in our program because it's the No. 1 determining factor in winning and losing games -- turnover margin.

FootballScoop: I've asked other head coaches this, but I'm curious your opinion. How do you evaluate your performance as a head coach?
Wilcox: Every decision you make there's an outcome, and you measure the outcome and reflect to see if you could have made a better decision. I think that's daily. It's going on right now, it goes on during spring ball, it goes on in the summer. I mean, it's just constant. If there's every a time where I personally didn't reflect on a decision I made and how that impacted our program, then I probably shouldn't be the head coach anymore. That's my job, and our job as coaches to do that. I think it's ongoing. We are in a constant self-scout mode (that) we are looking for the best way to provide guidance and leadership for our team.

FootballScoop: High school football participation is dropping across the country, but it's dropping faster in California than it is elsewhere. Is that something that concerns you?
Wilcox: I don't know if it's day-to-day. It is concerning, however. I understand the concerns. I think we all can do a better job of continuing to educate and teach the game, whether it's Pop Warner, high school, college, NFL, that we can continue to educate and teach the game the right way so it's as safe as it can possibly be. It's a physical game by nature, it's a violent game by nature. I think there's some room to discuss when the right time is for people to start engaging in full tackle football, at what age. I think, again, teaching the fundamentals early in the development is a young player is critically important, I think we can probably do a better job of that.

But yeah, it's concerning. I think football is a great game. It's the greatest game invented. You learn a lot of lessons playing football and being part of a team. I'm concerned that there will be people missing out on some of those lessons as they go through their formative years. I think you can learn a lot from the game, it's taught a lot of people a lot of great lessons, and I want more people to be exposed to that. It's our role to continue to teach and educate the players early on in their development.

FootballScoop: When do you think is the appropriate time to start playing tackle?
Wilcox: To be honest with you, I don't know if I have an answer for you there. To be able to discuss this with the medical professionals, I wouldn't say it's that early. At that age I think flag football is probably appropriate. I knew people grew up playing Pop Warner, I just worry that the less kids that play Pop Warner, especially as we're seeing out west, the less are going to play high school football. You want to get people involved in the game early, as many people as possible. I wouldn't tell anybody not to play Pop Warner, but I think we're going to increase the participation if we can find an age group where the mom and dad are going to allow them to play. If there's a flag league, for example, where they wouldn't let them play if it's tackle.

FootballScoop: This may be akin to asking for your favorite child, but what's your favorite drill?
Wilcox: My favorite drill is some sort of a pursuit drill. I don't think you can play good defense without running to the football. In fact, you can't. Playing great defense starts with effort to the football and proper angles, so I think some form of pursuit drill. I think that's where it should start defensively.