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Justin Wilcox and the importance of a new coach's staff

California coach Justin Wilcox has worked at big-time jobs in college football but never had to hire his own staff. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

BERKELEY, Calif. -- When the California Golden Bears begin spring practice Wednesday, Justin Wilcox will step onto the field for the first time as a head coach. What's the difference between being a head coach and being an assistant? It's much more than the extra comma in your salary.

"There's a lot more conversations that you have. There's an exponentially greater number of conversations. That's the first thing that I've noticed," Wilcox said. "And all those things impact your program, whether you're talking about dorms, or spring ball dates or recruiting calendars or staff calendars or workout dates. ... Before, you went to the staff meeting and you kind of went into your hole and watched a lot of video. You talked to the players, and the coaching staff, and that was about it."

It doesn't matter that Wilcox has been a coach to watch since 2003, when Chris Petersen made him a 26-year-old defensive coordinator at Boise State, that Wilcox spent the past seven seasons as defensive coordinator at Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin -- big-time jobs at big-time schools -- that he hit the big four-oh in November. Wilcox has never sat in that office before.

The hardest job for a first-time head coach is not learning a locker room full of new names, or persuading those players who came to play for someone else to play for him. Everything flows from solving the jigsaw puzzle of assembling a staff. Someone who has never been in charge before must hire nine coaches who are communicative teachers and engaging recruiters, who can work long, caffeine-fueled hours together under competitive pressure and not rip out each other's throats.

And if you hire a guy with experience who recruits in a certain area, that affects whom you hire in the next job. You don't need two linebacker coaches. You don't need two recruiters with contacts in the same geographic area.

That might be why the new Cal staff includes two former head coaches running each side of the ball -- offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.

That might be why the line coaches, Steve Greatwood on offense and Jerry Azzinaro on defense, have been coaching for 35 years.

And that might be why Wilcox also hired a young coach on each side of the ball: defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander, a five-year NFL veteran who played for Wilcox at Boise State, and wide receivers coach Nick Edwards, only five years removed from the college football field.

"He's like one of those guys who's kind of got the 'it' factor," Wilcox said of Edwards. "When I met with Nick, I was kind of like, 'That was me when I came here.' I was Nick in 2003. He's probably better. Better, taller, smarter, all that stuff."

Wilcox has kept a list of coaches in his iPhone dating to his days at Tennessee. He said he didn't keep the list for the day he became a head coach. He's not that kind of goal-setter. He just made a list of guys he respected for how they worked, how their players played.

Some guys, like Baldwin, made it even though Wilcox had never met him. Some guys -- like special-teams coordinator Charlie Ragle, whom Wilcox hired from Arizona -- Wilcox has known for years.

"When I had just left college," Wilcox said, "and he was a high school coach at [Phoenix] Moon Valley, they came to a camp I was working at Oregon. He was a high school coach who brought his team."

Wilcox hired his first two assistants on Jan. 17, three days after he returned to Cal. He hired his ninth and final assistant, linebackers coach Tony Tuioti, nearly six weeks later.

"We went pretty slow," Wilcox said. "You want everybody hired the day after you get here because there's certainty in that. You can move and go on to the next thing. But the worst thing you can do is rush and not do what's right for the long-term health of the program."

Wilcox made his first hires on the side of the football where he is less comfortable. He lured Baldwin away from his job as head coach at Eastern Washington, where he won the FCS title in 2010, to serve as offensive coordinator. Baldwin brought Edwards, his right-hand guy at Eastern, with him.

Wilcox didn't know Baldwin, but they had a lot of mutual friends from coaching in the Pacific Northwest. Wilcox liked Baldwin's fast-paced offense. They hit it off on the phone, and again when they met. And Wilcox liked not only having a head coach but also having an FCS head coach. If you coach at Cal, where the athletic department starts every fiscal year $18 million in the hole after spending $450 million redoing Memorial Stadium, it helps to be adept at squeezing every dollar.

Wilcox had to build no bridges to Greatwood, who had coached Wilcox's older brother, Josh, at Oregon in the '90s. Greatwood, one of the most respected guys in the business, coached at Oregon for 30 seasons. He suddenly became available when the Ducks fired Mark Helfrich and his staff after last year.

"I've just known him forever," Wilcox said. "Think the world of him. Football-wise, he's an excellent offensive line coach. He's seen it and done it every which way. He is a keen guy. He is an extremely hard worker. People say, 'He's been doing it a long time. Does he want to recruit?' That guy is as good a recruiter as you'll be around at that position. He's a team guy. He's a great teacher. Just again, one of those no-brainer people."

Baldwin and Greatwood knew each other from recruiting circles. Baldwin didn't know the guy Wilcox wanted as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Marques Tuiasosopo, who coached last season at UCLA, worked with Wilcox on Steve Sarkisian's staffs at Washington and USC. But they go further back than that.

"We played against each other in college," said Wilcox, an Oregon defensive back when Tuiasosopo played quarterback at Washington. "He's just one of those guys who never had a bad day. He's one of those guys, everybody enjoys being around him. Not that everything is always happy-go-lucky. I'm not saying that. He is just one of those people whose energy is infectious. He's a competitor at heart. He's just a competitive guy. He treats guys well. The players are going to respond to him."

But Wilcox gave Baldwin the offense, so he wanted Baldwin to sign off on the hire. Wilcox felt sure they would connect, but he kept his mouth shut.

"They got a chance to meet," Wilcox said. "They called, both of them, within minutes of each other.

"'That guy's awesome.'"

"'Oh man, I loved it.'"

Wilcox knew DeRuyter the way most coaches know one another -- sort of.

"I had never worked with him," Wilcox said. "I had met him. I think we had met briefly. But we had talked on the phone, because sometimes that's how coaching is," Wilcox said. "We were texting each other, I want to say it was last summer, right before fall camp. 'Hey, we've got to get together and talk some football.'"

When Wilcox needed to hire a guy to run his defense day-to-day -- Wilcox will spend more time on that side of the ball -- he kept hearing about DeRuyter.

"I know people that have worked with him and for him, people that I trust. Every time his name [came] up, whether it was coaches or administrations and operations, 'Oh, you'd love this guy. You guys would get along great!'"

Wilcox, as do most coaches replacing someone fired for not winning enough, has an enormous task before him. It has been 58 years since the Bears played in a Rose Bowl, 11 since they shared a conference championship, and eight since they beat archrival Stanford. That task will be a lot more difficult with a dysfunctional coaching staff.

"I guess all this we're talking about is a fit," Wilcox said.

He will see how well they fit, beginning with the start of spring practice today.