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I. The $4+ Million Dollar Question

In which we reflect on the last five years, and all that is to come.

Justin Wilcox has now been at Cal longer than Sonny Dykes.

Justin Wilcox is the conference’s 4th longest tenured coach, after Utah’s Whittingham, Schrodinger’s Hot Seat occupant Clay Helton, and the dastardly David Shaw.

Recognizing these things feels a lot like stumbling upon one of those Snapple factoids that could not possibly seem true — like how World War I was basically caused by a wrong turn, or how Meryl Streep did not win an Oscar for The Devil Wears Prada — but it is true. He’s been here a long time – a long enough time that we have pondered openly about the next era after him, and tried (frequently, unsuccessfully) to contextualize his tenure already, to boot.

This week, CBS Sports wrote in their preview wondering if it was “Now or Never” for Wilcox, and seeing as I was already going to tackle this question for this column anyway, let’s just go ahead.

First, let’s return to a review of the knowns, ripped loosely from when I reviewed Wilcox’s performance at the three-year mark: the trajectory of the program has stabilized under his watch, and nationally, Cheez-It Bowl aside, the Bears are consistently viewed as a respectable, occasionally feisty opponent for everyone they play. Rivals respect Wilcox’s program infrastructure enough to poach it each offseason – the Bears have, with one exception, effectively replaced coaches every year Wilcox has been here:

There are milestones and achievements that shouldn’t be taken for granted, too, including wins over Stanford and USC both; and while the performance offensively hasn’t risen to the level anyone prefers, the talent is more evenly distributed than it was under Dykes. Star players and difference-makers are on both sides of the ball in Berkeley.

Questions, fairly remain as to whether or not he can go beyond this — through his three full campaigns, and one COVID-impacted one, he has yet to record a winning record in the Pac-12, and the team has always fallen just short in the moments that could be turning points; ASU 2019 most memorably. (Are these outcomes fair to blame Wilcox for entirely? No, of course not – Chase Garbers being injured was as much out of his control as a global pandemic was.)

2020 was supposed to answer whether or not the Bears could truly achieve the next tier of contention with him at the helm, because they were returning significantly higher amounts of talent than their conference rivals, to go with a softer home schedule.

The fact that we have to run this same thing again, to start another year, is infinitely frustrating.

Worse still, are the troubling signs that emerged in the last campaign — they started out 0-3 in a tough four game slate, including dropping a game to UCLA on 48 hours notice, with a patchwork defensive line for most of that stretch that hadn’t practiced with the team for two weeks. The Musgrave offense, roughly installed before shut downs in the spring, looked inconsistent at best, and maddeningly predictable at worst.

It is easy to want to write all of that off; the cover of COVID makes it tempting to start over anew, and rewind to the 2020 preseason.

And that would be dishonest too – even after factoring in the missing personnel, we saw some cracks from the program, and for the first time, some signs of not constantly being upwardly mobile under Justin Wilcox, who carried the program from 5, to 7, to 8 wins in the seasons prior. They cannot be so easily dismissed, when the special teams play absolutely cratered, your hallmark defensive units struggled, and the quarterback you hoped would take a massive leap decidedly struggled to even throw the ball downfield.

Imagine how much more distressing the tone of this pondering would be if they had just completely finished 0-4. A win over Oregon to close the year provided some much-needed salve, and could be spun as proof of concept, at least. The program could, and did, sell their win over the eventual Pac-12 champions to recruits as evidence that Cal is ready to compete in the post-pandemic world.

To their credit, they could be right.

There’s just no way to know for sure. In a few years, when the legacy of Justin Wilcox looks a bit more clear, we will be able to look back at that single win as a defining point, one way or the other. (Look — the pandemic is not a normal analytical occurrence that people normally have to draw solid conclusions from.)

Any dissatisfaction with Wilcox in the fanbase, currently a small, bubbling minority, stems from a hunger to return to something greater — the glory of the Tedford years, when the Bears soared, in Icarian fashion to the #2 ranking in the country, only to be undone in the same manner.

We have gotten a glimpse at the mountain top once this century, and the goal of eventually returning to those heights, even though it is on the outlier side of our historical outcomes, is what drives the current discourse, fairly or otherwise.

A year later, as we all enter this season wondering the same question again, without any definitive way to answer it, we must juggle this alongside another fact: the team believes that Justin Wilcox is Now. There is no chance they would have returned Goode, Drayden, Deng, Saffell, and the rest of the super seniors if that was not the case, nor would they name this year’s rallying cry Finish the Job. The pressure, if there is any felt internally, seems to have hardened them further.

Now also means the Bears come in with a Garbers who should know Musgrave’s scheme far better, a senior-laden offensive line, the best, albeit young-ish, receivers they have had yet on offense.


I am going to bet in their favor, as showing, and solidifying that they are a viable Pac-12 threat. As much as I would like this to be a bold prediction, in my final column, proclaiming that Wilcox will be a success, such a thing runs contrary to how I’ve written this space most of the last decade – with the heart of a Cal fan, tempered, reasoned, restrained — the conference looks out of reach as of…right now, 10:08 AM on Memorial Day. Having no Brett Johnson makes it even tougher.

So instead, I’ll say that they’ll get to a new summit of their own under Wilcox – they will plant their flag as a simply, definitively, objectively good football team, and continue building for a more serious run with the 2023 core.

Honestly, I would love nothing more than to go out writing that story.

This is not a goodbye.

Not totally, anyway.

For one, you’ll see my byline here in the summer, as I help out Trace with the influx of recruiting work that would have normally been in March or April. Two, I will continue to tweet about the team, and on occasion, even write something about them, going forward. As always, you already know where that will be.

As I shared earlier, I’m ready to explore writing more of my own personal work, which you are invited to follow here.

But, I’m also at the point in my life where I want to just totally enjoy Cal football again, without the added expectation of always being cogent, insightful, or correct — at least, often enough to be worth listening to. (Shoot, I’ve been lucky that that’s been the case for this long!)

This fall, I’ll do one more season’s worth of Novels for free on my Patreon, and I’ve opted to telling you guys all of this in advance for a bit of a farewell tour, because I’ve spent so long not always being able to celebrate the job; there was a time when I was too anxiety-ridden to even face the fact that people on the internet read my work.

But I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with that as I’ve grown older, and my plans are to make it to USC and Stanford at home, and possibly one other game, even. I’d love to say hi to you if you’re ever around.

Let’s trade some war stories, share some laughs, and love the program that brought us all together.

Thanks for reading all these years. I cannot believe you let me stick around for ten of them.

Go Bears Forever.

Nam Le