Steve Wilks aims to overcome odds again as Panthers' interim head coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Wilks could have taken the easy way out Tuesday when asked why he accepted the job as interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers considering the history of Black interim coaches getting the job permanently is bleak.

He could have agreed with owner David Tepper, who, from the same podium almost 24 hours earlier, issued a reminder the organization never had two consecutive winning seasons and declared “it’s never had a real culture of winning.’’

He didn’t.

Instead, with Tepper sitting in the audience, Wilks noted the Panthers had a true winning culture from 2013 to 2015 when they won three consecutive NFC South titles while he was the defensive secondary coach under Ron Rivera. He reminded listeners his hometown team went to the Super Bowl in 2015 with a league-best 15-1 regular-season record.

“So I know what it takes,’’ said Wilks as he prepared for his Panthers head-coaching debut Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET Fox) against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. “I’ve been around here when it was good. To be able to get us back to that point is the reason I wanted to take this job.’’

The odds still are stacked against Wilks, who didn’t “blink whatsoever’’ when Tepper offered him the position Monday after firing Matt Rhule with a 1-4 record this season and 11-27 overall.

Elevation from interim to full-time head coach status in the NFL has historically been difficult. Of 40 interim hires since 2000 (data provided by the Washington Post), only 10 have gone on to become the permanent head coach. None have done so since the Jacksonville Jaguars' Doug Marrone in 2016. The odds of becoming a head coach and remaining one are longer for coaches of color, as Andscape discussed earlier this week.

But Wilks, 53, has spent his life overcoming odds. And West Charlotte High School teammate Brannon Jett believes his friend can again, even though Wilks inherited a team that has lost 11 of 12 games and could be without starting quarterback Baker Mayfield (left high ankle sprain) for two to six weeks.

Jett reminded that Wilks beat the odds when he got out of Hidden Valley, a Charlotte community once known for gangs and a high crime rate, and did it again when he went to West Charlotte High and became the star quarterback, and again when he made it to Appalachian State on a scholarship as a defensive back and then went on to the Arena Football League.

“He’s a guy who always beat the odds,’’ Jett said. “He just has to have the opportunity.’’

Wilks is the second Black coach to hold the interim title at Carolina under Tepper. Perry Fewell took over for Rivera in 2019 with four games remaining. He went 0-4 and never was a serious candidate.

Fewell actually has been an interim coach twice without getting a full-time job. He also held the title with the Buffalo Bills in 2009.

So, Wilks understands the challenge.

“It’s always about overcoming odds,’’ he said. “I feel like I was groomed well from a foundation with my family.’’

This is Wilks’ second opportunity as the man in charge, although he and others question if his first was fair. He was fired after going 3-13 with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018.

That led him to join the lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores against the NFL and six teams alleging racial discrimination in the hiring and retention of Black head coaches.

The amendment to the lawsuit says Wilks was discriminated against as a “bridge coach’’ and “not given any meaningful chance to succeed.’’

Wilks never got a chance to hire his own staff or build the roster to run the team the way he wanted to. According to the suit, he wanted to trade up in the draft for quarterback Josh Allen, now a star with the Bills.

Instead, the Cardinals traded up for Josh Rosen, who was then traded to the Miami Dolphins the next year when new coach Kliff Kingsbury used the top pick to get Kyler Murray.

“I’m not going to really go down that road and talk about what’s fair,’’ said Wilks, who can’t discuss the lawsuit because it’s ongoing.

Free agent cornerback Josh Norman, who went from a fifth-round pick in 2012 to a Pro Bowl selection in 2015 under Wilks at Carolina, doesn’t have such restraints.

“That was never a place where he got a chance to thrive,’’ Norman said. “If he had a chance, he could have shown his true value.’’

Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson, who followed what happened in Arizona, agreed.

“It wasn’t his draft class,’’ he said. “But it happened, and he’s here, he’s the head coach. It’s funny how the world works.’’

Norman said Wilks has a chance to succeed at Carolina because of the same qualities that helped the cornerback grow into a star player.

“He’s a leader of men,’’ Norman said. “There is no question about when he walks in a room who has the reins.’’

Tepper also used the phrase “leader of men’’ in describing Wilks. So did Bills general manager Brandon Beane, who was at Carolina for much of Wilks’ first tenure with the team.

“He has a great feel for the pulse of players,’’ Beane said. “He will bring positive energy to the team and the fan base.’’

Quarterback PJ Walker, who will start Sunday, described the energy at Wilks’ first practice on Wednesday as “elite.”

Wilks scheduled the session in pads, normally held on Thursday under Rhule, to send a message that he wanted to develop a fast and aggressive tempo from the start.

Those were the same traits he had as a defensive coordinator and player. It’s part of his DNA.

“We talked about that [Wednesday] morning in the team meeting,’’ Wilks said. “We want to be aggressive in all three phases.’’

Wilks aggressively made changes to his staff soon after being promoted. He replaced defensive coordinator Phil Snow with defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb, even though the defense was one of Carolina’s few bright spots, because “I wanted a different approach.’’

“The mindset is going to change,’’ Jett said. “The last couple of years, nobody knew what type of identity the Panthers had. When Steve was the defensive coordinator, everybody knew they were a physical football team. They had energy.’’

Players already have rallied around Wilks, even those who were 100% behind Rhule.

“Everybody loves him,’’ Thompson said. “The owner has respect for him. People in this building have respect for him. He has the energy, man. I know he’s going to do well.’’

Said running back Christian McCaffrey: “The respect I have for him is unbelievable.’’

The bar is set high, though. Tepper said if Wilks does an “incredible job’’ he’ll have to be considered for the full-time job.

That kind of success typically doesn’t happen under an interim coach, who often enters the role because the team has flaws.

If Wilks does succeed, that’ll be one more fingerprint on the city he already has touched in so many ways, from scoring the winning touchdown against longtime rival Harding at Memorial Stadium in 1986 to reaching the Class 4A state title game to cutting grass and lining the fields at nearby Johnson C. Smith, where he began his coaching career in 1995, to helping out friends and neighbors in need.

“You can just feel it, his passion, everything that he does,’’ Norman said. “He’s a doctor of the game. He’s a doctor of life. They couldn’t have made a better choice.’’