Eight jobs, eight years, 6,479 miles: Steve Wilks' path to the NFL

Think moving is hard? Cardinals coach Steve Wilks tackled the task annually, traveling across the country for the better part of a decade. AP Photo/Tony Avelar

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Steve Wilks thought his first head-coaching job would also be his last.

He was 30. It was 1999. He had been promoted to be Savannah State's head coach after two years as the school's defensive coordinator.

He was content. He already had met his future wife, Marcia. And back then, the NFL seemed like a long shot.

He felt like Savannah State was home.

"My initial thought, believe it or not, was that I was going to be at Savannah State forever," Wilks said. "I had a vision of Eddie Robinson."

The idea of trying to recreate the type of legacy Robinson developed after 57 years at Grambling State was intriguing to Wilks but, ultimately, his aspirations tugged at him a bit too hard.

"I enjoyed my time there but didn't see a lot of growth," Wilks said.

A phone call from coach Denver Johnson in early 2000 recruiting him to be Illinois State's defensive backs coach set off a chain of moves that led Wilks zigzagging across the country to eight jobs in eight years across 6,479 miles.

The moves seemed to define his career. Until this year, when he became a first-time NFL head coach with the Arizona Cardinals. Wilks gets his first chance at the national spotlight against the Denver Broncos on Thursday night (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).

From Savannah State in 1999, Wilks began climbing the coaching hierarchy: Illinois State in 2000, Appalachian State in 2001, East Tennessee State in 2002, Bowling Green in 2003, Notre Dame in 2004, Washington in 2005 and then to the Chicago Bears in 2006. Finally, then, in Chicago, Wilks' first foray into the NFL, he could take a breath. He and his family were done moving. He could unpack all the boxes -- even the ones he left in the garage.

"Every move was a step up," Wilks said. "It was a great move and a good opportunity to learn and grow, and it allowed me to be where I am today."

Each of Wilks' jobs during that stretch came to him because of someone else.

"I've got kind of a theory that there's this 'it' factor out there, and whatever 'it' is, I just really sensed that Steven had it," said Johnson of bringing him to Illinois State. "He had that aura about him. He was very articulate, highly intelligent -- you can just tell he was a cut above guys intelligence-wise. A very personable guy. I just thought he covered all the bases quite well and did a great job for me in the short time that I had him."

From Illinois State, Wilks went back to his alma mater, Appalachian State, after a conversation with former Appalachian State defensive coordinator John Wiley, who coached Wilks in college, according to former Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore.

That one was an opportunity for Wilks to go home.

He still remembers that move like it just happened. He and Marcia packed up a moving truck and headed southeast for about a 760-mile drive from Normal, Illinois, to Boone, North Carolina. Steve drove the truck while Marcia followed in their Mitsubishi Galant with their infant daughter and dog. By the time they got to the mountains of Tennessee, it was pouring rain. Wilks couldn't see more than 10 feet in front of him.

"It's like, 'Wow,'" Wilks recalled. "Crazy experience. It was part of it.

"I tell people, they see where you are now but don't really understand the process."

Wilks' next move was far shorter.

He had met East Tennessee State coach Paul Hamilton through the Southern Conference. The two reconnected when Hamilton had an opening on his staff for a co-defensive coordinator for the 2002 season, and since ETSU and Appalachian State were only about an hour apart, Wilks didn't have to go a long way for his interview. Immediately, Hamilton, who had heard good things about Wilks through the Southern Conference's grapevine, wanted to make sure he hired Wilks. He did, and Wilks had an opportunity to be a coordinator and put a title on his résumé.

But Hamilton knew he wouldn't be able to keep Wilks for long.

"There was no question where he was headed ... the opportunities that he would have," said Hamilton, now Georgia Tech's associate director of player personnel.

That offseason Wilks found out how the coaches' network worked -- even when he wasn't looking for a job. It went something like this: A friend or colleague of Wilks' would see him around the annual coaches convention and tell him he gave Wilks' number to a head coach who was looking to fill his staff. Then that coach would call Wilks, tell him where he got his name and number, and ask if he'd be interested in the open job. Then the two would meet in the hotel lobby to talk.

The first time that happened to Wilks was at the convention in New Orleans in early 2003. Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon reached out about being his defensive backs coach in 2003. They met in the hotel lobby. Wilks agreed to go to campus. And he got the job.

It's the exact same way Wilks was hired by Tyrone Willingham the next season at Notre Dame. One of Wilks' friends, Trent Walters, who was Willingham's secondary coach at Notre Dame, passed Wilks' name along to Willingham when he left for the NFL.

Wilks' success rate at the conventions became a running joke with his wife.

"She would just tell me every time I would leave [for a convention], 'Just call me and let me know where we're moving to,'" Wilks said.

After a year at Notre Dame in 2004, Wilks was looking for another job when Willingham and the staff were fired. Fortunately for Wilks, he was one of three coaches Willingham took with him to the University of Washington.

By then, Marcia had become a master at moving.

The routine was usually the same: Steve would get hired and have to head to his new job immediately to start recruiting. Marcia would stay back to finish working, when she still worked, and then for the kids to finish school. Then she'd pack the house and move the family herself.

"That old saying, 'Your better half,' that's just really an understatement for me," he said. "Because it really is."

Wilks was around for one move -- the Notre Dame move. And it didn't go so well.

"Being the coach that I am, trying to direct things and get stuff put up and this and that, and she's just like, 'You're killing my routine now,'" Steve remembered. "I was putting up things the wrong way. I was just like, 'OK, I'll let you do what you need to do.'"

The moves started happening so often that Wilks recalls some boxes wouldn't get opened year after year and just get moved from garage to garage.

Moving every year also meant annual searches for a new home. Until Wilks was hired at Notre Dame, the family rented in their new cities. They bought a house when he was hired by Notre Dame and built one when he went to Washington, which they had to put on the market after a few months because Wilks had one more move to make before settling in one place for a while.

Starting at Notre Dame and then at Washington, Willingham started grooming Wilks to be a major Division I head coach. But Wilks still wanted to challenge himself, and being an FBS coach wasn't enough.

So instead of waiting for someone else to call him, he took the initiative.

He found out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a defensive backs job open heading into the 2005 season. And he knew that former Washington and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Kent Baer knew former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. So, Wilks asked Baer to call Kiffin on his behalf. It led to an interview, though Wilks didn't get the job.

However, Kiffin gave Wilks' name to Lovie Smith, then the Chicago Bears coach.

And Wilks got that job.

And his family moved again.

This time Wilks stayed put for a while, spending three years with the Bears before moving to San Diego to spend three more seasons with the Chargers, where he was reunited with Ron Rivera, the former Bears defensive coordinator. Then it was on to his hometown of Charlotte, where Wilks again reunited with Rivera, but he spent six seasons with the Panthers before the Cardinals made him a head coach.

After moving so much, that second year in Chicago took some getting used to for Wilks. Marcia wasn't packing up the house the spring after the season. He wasn't learning a new way to work. He was somewhere for two -- and eventually three -- years.

"To be honest, that three years felt like an eternity based on the things I had been doing in previous years," Wilks said. "I got a great foundation there and it really helped shape who I am today."