ESPN: Justin Wilcox reportedly turned down Oregon due to conditions set by the Ducks
Definitely seemed like a very complex decision.
Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenberg of ESPN confirmed in a report on the Oregon Ducks coaching search that Cal head coach Justin Wilcox was one of the first targets for Oregon in their coaching search, but Wilcox was wary of the stipulations set in place by the Ducks on his hiring. This led Wilcox to eventually decline the offer and return to Cal.
Wilcox attracted support from many former Oregon Ducks who played with him in Eugene in 1996-99, including starting quarterback Akili Smith (who was coached by then Oregon Ducks offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford). Smith made his support for Wilcox vocal in several Twitter spaces during the Oregon coaching search.
"I will always side with a former player potentially leading the program. That's where my loyalty lies," Smith told ESPN. "Justin Wilcox's name came up. Me and Justin Wilcox walked out of the locker room together to go to war together. From that standpoint alone, why wouldn't you want your brother to have an opportunity to lead the team?"
There were significant concerns around the Oregon camp about program stability, with the last two coaches making generally lateral moves back to the south and their alma maters. So enough old-time donors and older Duck alums were hoping to get a guy that would stick with their program for decades, a la Mike Bellotti and Rich Brooks.
But as Wilcox interviewed, he started having significant concerns.
Sources close to Wilcox said the Oregon job initially came with some conditions related to the recruiting philosophy and possibly assistants to retain or hire. Those "spooked" the coach, one person said.
One, Oregon wanted to have a say on his overall recruiting philosophy.
Mario Cristobal had vastly improved Oregon’s national recruiting footprint. The Ducks had landed two top-ten classes in the nation in three seasons, and two top-15 classes in two others. There was no regressing back to the old way of Oregon recruiting with best fits and local prospects—the Ducks wanted national prospects to compete with the bluebloods of the nation.
More from athletic director Rob Mullens:
"Mario truly was the person who said, 'We're going to do this 365 days a year. Here's how we're going to do it. And these are the important pieces in building the infrastructure to allow us to attack in that way,'" Mullens said. "We made a significant shift when he was named head coach, and then we built on that each and every year to put in the structure that would allow us to create top-10, top-five recruiting classes."
While Wilcox has generally tried to upgrade Cal’s recruiting style, the approach has been more regionalized, focused primarily on California, with some branching to Arizona, and an updated focus on national targets happening only recently. The pressure to produce top-15 recruiting classes on an annual basis, and going after recruits with significantly higher demands would have likely stretched outside of Wilcox’s comfort zone.
It’s quite possible Wilcox would have been asked to recruit individuals that he felt were not a great fit for the Duck program but had the talent and skill to atone for that. Wilcox has erred toward fit at Cal, likely due to the nature of the university, and likely because straying away from fit is what sunk his old boss, Jeff Tedford.
"It seemed like they wanted him to work in the gray area, and that's really not him," said a source close to Wilcox. "Justin is the kind of guy who likes to recruit kids that aren't interested in the Recaro leather seats. After he made up his mind, he just stuck with it."
The other seemed to be centered around the retention of certain unnamed assistants—or choosing of future assistants.
That sort of meddling from a football program is very peculiar. Generally, Power 5 head coaches are given free rein to choose their assistants. You’d have to imagine several scenarios had to be running in Wilcox’s head:
He would not retain full control of the program and would be closely supervised by the athletic director and donors close to the program.
He might be on a shorter leash if he was slow in achieving results.
He would be asked to recruit players that he did not feel would fit into his overall management of the program.
Any new hires demanded from the outside could be potential coaches-in-waiting if Wilcox struggled early, and could lead to divided leadership in the locker room.
(It should be noted that eventual Oregon head coach Dan Lanning did not retain any assistants from the previous staff.)
In any case, those demands seemed to be the biggest sticking points in Wilcox deciding to turn down Oregon. The Ducks would try to readdress that in future communications, including a second interview prior to offering Lanning the job, but Wilcox seemed to have his mind made up.
Even when Oregon relaxed on some of those items, Wilcox didn't feel he could run the program like he wanted. He turned down Oregon's offer to become coach, sources said.
It seems that the narrative from Wilcox’s camp is that he would not be getting a fair shake as the head coach of Oregon. And it seems likely Oregon was not sold enough on what Wilcox had done at Cal to offer him full control of his program. But enough Ducks were advocating for a home-grown hire, and Wilcox was the best option available, so he became the first coach available on the board.
Regardless though, if Wilcox was amenable to this setup, he would have certainly been the next head coach of Oregon. But that was not the case, so Wilcox ended up back at Cal, eventually signing a long-term extension to keep him in Berkeley until 2027.