Welcome to Justin Wilcox 2.0

The Cal coaching staff you'll see in 2021 will be very different than the group that led the Bears in 2019. Will staff changes over the last two years elevate the program to new heights?

Dividing periods of time into concrete eras with clear lines of demarcation is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, I’m just that kind of fool. And thanks to internal change and external circumstances, I think we’re at a point where we can talk about a 2nd Period within the larger Wilcox Era.

2017-2019 can now be thought of as Wilcox-Era 1.0, with the fatally-compromised-by-pandemic 2020 as the interregnum before the true beginning of Wilcox-Era 2.0 this upcoming fall.

What’s the distinction? There are two - the Cal coaching staff, and Cal’s talent recruiting profile.

Wilcox-Era 1.0 was defined by on-field contributions from players largely recruited under Sonny Dykes, coached by a remarkably stable group of coaches brought to Berkeley by Wilcox upon his hire in 2017. This era was also defined by the ability of the coaching staff to maximize the talent of their players on defense, and by the inability of the coaching staff to maximize the talent of their players on offense. The original Takers on defense, and the general Cheeze-It-ness of the Beau Baldwin offense.

Here’s a full list of coaching staff personnel changes from 2017-2019:

  • 2018 offseason: DL coach Jerry Azzinaro leaves for UCLA. Cal moves Tony Tuioti to DL coach, and brings in Peter Sirmon and Burl Toler (the NCAA added a 10th coaching spot for the 2018 season).

  • 2019 off-season: DL coach Tony Tuioti leaves for Nebraska, Cal hires Andrew Browning to replace him

In the constantly changing world of college football coaching, that’s remarkably little change. Two defensive position coaches leaving for other P5 schools, and that’s it.

But after a whirlwind 2020 and 2021 off-season that saw six more coaching departures from the original group in 2017. As of right now Cal will enter the new season with exactly TWO coaches who were on staff in 2017: Justin Wilcox and special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle. I say as of right now, because Charlie Ragle has been linked to other jobs this off-season, though at this point I’d guess he’s likely to remain on staff.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that this is Justin Wilcox and a completely new set of coaches. This has been a transition over two off-season and there’s continuity on both sides of the ball. But thanks to a confusing, four-game 2020, we have very little idea how all of these coaching changes will impact the on-field product. Will the departure of Tim DeRuyter mean that the Cal defense looks a ton different next year? do we really think that we saw anything close to a fully installed Bill Musgrave offense last year?

If there’s been a theme to the staffing changes seen over the last few years, it’s been about using vacancies to try to upgrade recruiting, and that’s the other big difference between Wilcox-Era 1.0 and 2.0. Cal’s 2017-2019 recruiting efforts were generally commensurate with the middle class of the Pac-12, and each year was perhaps marginally better than the year before.

Last year, the Bears broke through with a recruiting class that ranked 3rd in the conference and inside the top 25 nationally. It was perhaps a proof of concept for a variety of coaching changes. Adding Peter Sirmon and Burl Toler, bringing on a new offensive brain trust, and now adding the coach who recruited Kayvon Thibodeaux to Oregon . . . all moves that either appeared at the time specifically designed to improve Cal’s recruiting ceiling, or moves that appear to have had that result in the end.

Now, it’s premature to say that Cal’s recruiting floor has been permanently raised. The class of 2021 is just one class, and we’re a long way away from knowing where the class of 2022 will end up. But you can see the strategy - with stable on-field performance and a culture established, Justin Wilcox’s main focus is securing the kind of talent that can elevate his program towards competing against his Pac-12 north rivals.

There’s risk with so much turnover. We still don’t know how Cal will fill the current staff vacancies. Maybe Tim DeRuyter’s experience was even more valuable than we thought. Maybe the Musgrave offense won’t be able to improve Cal’s ability to score points. But Justin Wilcox has shown a reasonable eye for assistant coaching talent, which is in part why other programs have been poaching the coaches he brought in.

In other words, just because there’s enough that has changed that you can demarcate between mini-eras doesn’t necessarily mean on-field improvement. How this new staff performs will determine whether or not the Wilcox-Era 2.0 is an elevation of the program, or meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss.