Huskies' new defensive coordinator, who grew up on a farm and played for Oregon, is an overachiever who succeeded quickly with focus and hard work.
Who is Justin Wilcox, the man entrusted with reviving the moribund Washington defense?
By all accounts, Wilcox is the polar opposite of Nick Holt, the Husky defensive coordinator who was the delight of TV cameramen with his bald head and snarling sideline demeanor.
“He’s not going to be on the sidelines jumping up and down and all that,” said Bob Gregory, who coached Wilcox at Oregon and later worked alongside him with staffs at California and Boise State. “He gets fired up, but he’s not going to be a big rah-rah guy.”
That’s fine with most Husky fans, who grew weary of Holt and wearier still of his defense, which last year had the worst season statistically in UW history.
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But talk further to those who know Wilcox best, and a fuller picture emerges — a portrait of a young man driven to succeed with a work ethic groomed by a small-town upbringing and a fervor for football under the tutelage of a father whose bust is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“A perfectionist,” says older brother Josh. “He wants to do everything right. He’s just a real hard worker at anything he does.”
Adds his father, Dave, “He was always very competitive. He was one of those kids who when he was little he’d be practicing free throws in the dark, that sort of thing.”
That competitive focus led Justin Wilcox to a career in football, first as a player and then as a coach.
In the state of Oregon, the mere mention of Dave Wilcox needs no explanation.
A native of the small town of Vale, near the Idaho border, Dave Wilcox would play at Boise Junior College (now Boise State) and Oregon before going on to an 11-year career with the San Francisco 49ers and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
Wilcox was a two-way player in college, and became a linebacker with the 49ers from 1964 to 1974. Before Bill Walsh, Joe Montana or Jerry Rice were winning Super Bowls in San Francisco, Wilcox pushed the franchise within one game of the Super Bowl in 1970 and 1971.
The Wilcox name is big in Oregon.
“Everybody knows his dad,” says Gregory, now a linebackers coach at Boise State.
After retiring from the NFL, Dave Wilcox bought a house with a small farm outside Junction City, Ore., a town of 5,300 about 15 miles outside Eugene. Then Dave and his wife Merle started a family.
“We didn’t want to live in a big city because we wanted them to go to a smaller school,” Dave Wilcox said.
Josh was born in 1974, and Justin arrived in 1976. Dave ran the farm, which consisted of wheat fields and cherry orchards. Merle raised her sons and later ran a travel agency.
The Wilcox boys grew up doing chores on the farm. They moved pipe, and rode with dad on tractor and combine.
“We weren’t like the Clampetts or anything,” Josh recalls, “but we’d go out and work and that showed us what work ethic is about.”
Always, there was football.
Josh and Justin Wilcox accompanied their father on trips to the Bay Area for 49ers games, where they met Montana and other players. They served as ball boys at Oregon Ducks games. And there were the endless games of Nerf football in the yard.
“He was my quarterback,” says Josh, later a tight end at Oregon and two years with the Miami Dolphins. “We’d just go out there, being little kids, throwing the ball and losing all the Nerf balls in the hedges.
Josh, three years ahead of his brother in school, was a star at Junction City High School and signed to play at Oregon. He played tight end and had a career day in the 1995 Rose Bowl loss to Penn State, with 135 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Justin, meanwhile, became a star quarterback, leading Junction City to the 1993 Oregon Class 3A state title.
He seriously considered Arizona and Stanford before following in his family’s footsteps to Oregon.
He was signed as a quarterback, but after redshirting one year, moved to the defensive secondary.
“The reality was, he wanted to play,” says Mike Bellotti, who then coached Oregon. “And he recognized the type and style of offense we were running at the time and that his chance to play was going to be elsewhere. He voluntarily made the move.
“He said, ‘Hey, coach, I want to play,’ ” Belotti recalls. “And I said, ‘Great, I’ve got a spot for you.’ “
Adds his brother, Josh: “He was too good of a football player to be the fourth-team quarterback and not play.”
Within a few weeks, Justin was Oregon’s nickelback, and though he missed most of the 1996 season with a knee injury, he soon was a fixture as a starting safety. As a senior in 1999, the Ducks had needs at cornerback and asked Wilcox to move there.
“He probably is the smartest player that I’ve ever been around,” said Gregory, then Oregon’s secondary coach. “We moved him his senior year and he didn’t give up one touchdown pass the whole year, and it was by great technique, understanding the game and playing smart.”
Wilcox was named second-team All-Pac-10 at the end of the season.
“A good coach someday”
Wilcox has always made the most of his opportunities, on the field and off.
“He was always one of the most prepared players on the field,” Bellotti said. “What he lacked in just flat-out speed he made up in being a great technician and understanding of all the defenses and where everyone else was and where his help was. That’s probably what’s made him a great coach.”
Wilcox spent a few weeks in training camp with the NFL’s Washington Redskins in 2000. The next year he accepted an offer Boise State, to join the Broncos’ staff as a graduate assistant.
“From the start when I was coaching him, I thought, ‘This is a guy who would be a good coach someday,’ ” said Gregory.
His ascent in coaching was rapid. Gregory became the defensive coordinator at Cal in 2002 under Jeff Tedford, another former Oregon assistant. Wilcox soon followed him, working as linebackers coach for the Bears from 2003 to 2005.
When Chris Petersen, yet another former Oregon assistant, was named head coach at Boise State in 2006, Wilcox was hired as defensive coordinator. The Broncos went 49-4 in his four years. They were known mostly for their offensive ingenuity, but Wilcox gained renown when Boise State shut down Oregon’s high-flying offense in a 19-8 win to start the 2009 season.
Wilcox isn’t the most fiery guy on the sideline.
“What his players get from him is that they know he knows what he is talking about and that they are going to be in the right position,” Gregory said. “And I think the biggest thing they get is that he shows them that he cares about them. I think the players know that if their coach really cares about them, they are going to work very hard for him.”
Wilcox left Boise State for a larger paycheck and the bigger challenge of the Southeast Conference as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in 2010. He brought along Peter Sirmon, his college roommate and teammate who was a linebacker for the Ducks from 1996 to 1999. Sirmon played with the NFL’s Titans from 2000 to 2006 before becoming a coach.
The Volunteers went 6-7 and 5-7 in Wilcox’s two seasons, but few blamed his defense, which this season ranked 36th nationally in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
“Because of the talent, he didn’t get amazing results,” said Austin Ward, a Tennessee beat writer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “But when you looked at the job he did as a whole … they had a converted fullback playing middle linebacker who ended up leading them in tackles. They had one senior on the defensive line, no seniors in the secondary. So people looked at that, and thought he’d done a tremendous job based on the resources he had.”
Wilcox reportedly turned down a chance to become the defensive coordinator at Texas following the 2010 season.
Return to the Northwest
But the job at Washington and a chance to return to the Pacific Northwest proved enticing. And it didn’t hurt that he was able to bring along Sirmon, a Walla Walla native who was named UW’s linebackers coach, the same position he held at Tennessee.
Wilcox, 35, is believed to be the first coach the Huskies sought to replace Holt, who was fired after a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. The search ended when Wilcox, who is single, quickly accepted.
He has been on the road recruiting since his hiring and has not been made available for interviews.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Wilcox said in a UW news release when he was hired. “Washington is a place where you can win big, and I’m excited to work with coach (Steve) Sarkisian in developing a championship-caliber football program. Our first order of business is hitting the recruiting trail, and I can’t wait to get started.”
Bellotti calls the hiring of Wilcox and Sirmon great ones for Washington.
“They are two of my favorites,” Bellotti said. “Had I gone back into football, I would have taken those two with me.”
Before Wilcox accepted, he called his father last Sunday to seek his advice.
“He thought the opportunity, with all the things that are happening there with the new stadium and all, is kind of a ground-floor opportunity,” Dave Wilcox said.
The kid from Junction City who stayed home to play for the Ducks has faced his alma mater before at all three of his previous stops, so the prospect of being on the other sideline from Oregon is a bridge the family has long since crossed.
Still, Washington is one of Oregon’s most heated rivals, and Justin asked his father what he thought about his son going to work for the Huskies.
Dave Wilcox’s answer was straight to the point.
“Rich Brooks went to Oregon State, and he coached Oregon for how many years?” he asked his son. “And they have the field named after him. Everybody goes to school somewhere.”
What matters now is not where the farm boy from Junction City went to school, but what he learned along the way.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta
Wilcox, far left, as a cornerback at Oregon and, near, as a QB at Junction City High