ARLINGTON, Texas — Angered by the narrative that it simply couldn’t match its success from the year before, the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense not so quietly carried an extra ounce of motivation heading into this season.
The players weren’t the only ones with something to prove, however. First-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was just months removed from being fired at Southern California after the Trojans fell below expectations in 2015.
It was a year of transition and turmoil for the USC program — coach Steve Sarkisian was fired midseason after reportedly showing up to a pre-practice meeting intoxicated — that ended with fans making Wilcox a scapegoat after his defense allowed more than 40 points in two of its final three regular-season games.
Then 39 years old and already completing his 10th season as a Division I defensive coordinator, Wilcox had impressed everywhere he’d been prior to his two years in Los Angeles — from Boise State to Tennessee to Washington.
“Coaches don’t become smart or dumb overnight,” said former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who coached Wilcox when he played for the Ducks. “A good coach is a good coach, but sometimes it’s just the wrong fit and you need to make a change because you need to start over to clear the slate.”
That’s what Wilcox did in Madison, taking the Badgers’ defense to arguably even greater heights than former UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda managed in his three years with the program.
Even after a disappointing Big Ten Conference Championship Game, the Badgers head into today’s Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan ranked fourth in scoring defense and within the top 10 of a number of other major defensive categories.
“One of the qualities that I liked in talking to Justin was it was truly driven by people, and there was also confidence in the ability to adjust to people and players and teams, whoever you’re playing,” UW coach Paul Chryst said shortly after hiring Wilcox. “We know that it’s all about the players. … The essence of the game, we saw eye-to-eye on.”
Growing up on a farm in Junction City, Oregon, just 15 miles north of Eugene, Wilcox and his brother, Josh, would often wake up at the crack of dawn and trudge through the mud to move pipe before heading off to school.
The two didn’t have it nearly as rough as their father — whose family went without indoor plumbing until he was 16, according to Josh — but the dirty work was enough hassle for them to want to avoid it.
Sports were the way to do so.
“If you were doing a sport, you didn’t have to work,” Josh said. “That was kind of the rule. … Justin had much more athletic ability and had opportunities that either put him on some traveling teams or some other type of things, which helped him get out of a lot more work than I did. That was the way to do it.”
Josh may be selling his athleticism short, as the tight end played two years in the NFL after a solid career at Oregon. Justin, however, was the one who helped lead Junction City High to state titles in football, basketball and track and field. He was named the Gatorade State Football Player of the Year as a senior quarterback.
By the time Justin, three years younger than Josh, arrived in Eugene, he was often referred to as either “Josh Wilcox’s brother” or “Dave Wilcox’s son.” Along with being a farmer, Dave Wilcox was better known for his 11 seasons as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers. He made seven Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
His sons were clueless to his accomplishments until NFL Films televised a feature about him.
“We didn’t grow up around him playing. We grew up around him farming,” Josh Wilcox said. “We had his football card and knew some of the stories and stuff like that, but we didn’t know how really good he was until we saw film of him when Justin was in seventh grade, maybe, and I was a sophomore.
“He’s an old-school farm guy from eastern Oregon. He’s not worried about what other people think about him. And then once we saw film, it was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ … That really opened up our eyes. My dad also didn’t bring us home and make us run routes and him show us how to block or what we did wrong, either. He was never that father.”
Justin came to Eugene as a quarterback and was competing to be a third-string player as a redshirt freshman, but Bellotti told him to speak up if he wanted to get on the field at another position.
Justin was finally convinced early in the 1996 season. He played on special teams the first week after he switched to defensive back and saw meaningful snaps at nickel back the next week.
“He was so intelligent, so smart, so gifted that he found ways to make plays,” Bellotti said. “He was a guy that recognized his limitations and never allowed them to affect the game. He went from a nickel back to a starting safety to a starting corner in the Pac-10/Pac-12. He was always tested. They looked at that guy out there, former quarterback, ‘We’re going to take a shot at him,’ and I don’t know that he gave up a touchdown his senior year. He was that good, and he was like a coach on the field.”
Once Justin’s NFL dreams didn’t pan out, he turned down an offer from Bellotti to coach at his alma mater and became a graduate assistant at Boise State in 2001.
“I think he felt at that point, ‘I need to get out and be somewhere else. My dad played here. My brother played here. I played here,’ ” Bellotti said. “So he went to coach at Boise and was an immediate success, an instant hit.”
After a three-year stint as Cal’s linebackers coach, Wilcox returned to Boise State in 2006 to become the program’s defensive coordinator at age 29.
Having just turned 40 in November, he’s already established himself as one of the top college coordinators and a candidate for head coaching openings.
“How many guys by age 40 have coached at those type of programs and done what he’s done?” Josh Wilcox said. “Just knowing him growing up, whatever he was going to do, he was going to be very successful at it. He chose this profession, and here he is.”
The Badgers’ College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl hopes came crashing down on Dec. 3 when their defense allowed 31 points to Penn State in the final 31 minutes of the Big Ten title game.
UW’s pass rush wasn’t nearly as effective in the second half, and Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley completed one big play after another in the second half on his way to passing for 384 yards and erasing a 21-point deficit.
“Everybody I think loves to say coach Wilcox should have done this or the defense should have done that,” UW senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “It’s different when you’re out there on the field when everything’s going live.
“Teams have games like that all the time. It wasn’t like coach Wilcox was getting outcoached and we were in wrong coverages or bad spots. We just didn’t win the 50-50 balls as a secondary, and that’s something that we take to heart. We’re going to be ready to roll come Monday because we’ve got to redeem ourselves.”
Many Badgers players have described Wilcox as a players’ coach and said he earned everyone’s respect and trust almost immediately upon his arrival.
Whether or not UW bounces back today, its defense and the job Wilcox has done with it was something no one saw coming after the departure of Aranda and three starting defensive backs.
Really, Wilcox’s redemption already came over the first 12 games of this season.
“He’s meant the world to us,” UW senior safety Leo Musso said. “He really, truly does care about his players. We really appreciate that and love him for that.
“He’s one of the best at what he does. That shows each and every week.”