Monday Rewind: Justin Wilcox, ref shows, tempo, and Tetairoa McMillan
It’s time for another edition of the Monday Rewind. Welcome back. Let’s dive in.
Justin Wilcox’s extension
It seems like Cal is pretty content with the job head football coach Justin Wilcox has done and is doing with the Golden Bears, which is a pretty interesting pivot point given the coaching carousel we just witnessed.
Coaches across the college football landscape got massive raises or long-term commitments for, in some instances, short-term results. Coaches with winning records got fired. The Pac-12’s premier institution went all-in and its winningest team since 2010 targeted Wilcox to be its next head coach.
Oregon inquired about Wilcox’s interest in its open position, according to multiple reports and kinda-sorta confirmed by Wilcox himself. And yet Wilcox turned down his hometown and his alma mater to remain in Berkeley. “If we continue along this path, we can do some great things here,” he said during an Early Signing Day press conference in December, “and things that haven’t been done before.”
But Cal’s immediate results, taken at face value, don’t suggest a team on the rise. He has two winning seasons in five years, one bowl win, no AP top-25 finishes, and a 5-9 record against the other California schools in the Pac-12.
Wilcox took over a Cal football program in 2017 that had enjoyed only two winning seasons in the previous seven years. After an initial 5-7 campaign in 2017, he led the program to consecutive winning seasons and bowl games in 2018 and 2019 for the first time in a decade. The Bears ranked as high at No. 15 in 2019’s 8-5 campaign.
But Cal is just 6-10 since. One can place a portion of the blame for that at the feet of a pandemic that has affected Cal in a way few other FBS programs have been. But Cal doesn’t have a single top-25 recruiting class under Wilcox and its primary quarterback each year since the 2017 season has finished no higher than sixth among Pac-12 quarterbacks in total QBR. In three of Wilcox’s five years, his primary quarterback has finished among the two or three worst qualified quarterbacks in the conference in total QBR.
And Cal signed Wilcox to a contract extension this week, locking him in through the 2027 season.
Here’s Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton, from a statement:
“Justin Wilcox is a football coach who shares our values and vision, and we want to ensure that he is the leader of our program for the long term. He is a great fit for Cal Athletics and our university, with a philosophy that places an emphasis on developing young men on the field, in the classroom, and as people. I am confident our fans and alumni share my enthusiasm for the direction of our program, and the level of success we have seen to date has set a foundation for sustained excellence in the future.”
And then the university’s chancellor, Carol Christ, issued an even more glowing statement.
“Since the beginning of his tenure, I have been impressed by Justin Wilcox’s leadership, and his commitment to enabling our student-athletes to take full advantage of the academic and athletic opportunities we offer. He is, in my opinion, the quintessential Berkeley coach who understands the university’s values, as well as the value his program brings to the campus as a rallying point for Cal’s global community. College football is a highly competitive environment, and the investment represented in Justin’s new contract is commensurate with all that I know he will contribute to our university in the years ahead.”
Those don’t just read like run-of-the-mill statements. Those aren’t lukewarm endorsements. That’s uppercase enthusiasm about Wilcox. “Sustained excellence” is an interesting phrase from the athletic director to use for a 26-28 coach, but when the chancellor talks about values, you get the sense it’s not about wins and losses.
On one hand, that’s refreshing in this day and age. Cal hasn’t been to a Rose Bowl since the 50s and has only one share of one conference title since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978; if you feel you have a good man and a good leader in place for your program, being honest about what you are as a program is something few at the Power Five level can say.
But Wilcox has gotten a level of investment in his football program recently that would suggest Cal is interested in winning more than five, six, seven games a year. In mid-December, the program announced a new initiative, the Championship CALiber initiative, that would offer nearly $2 million in funding over three years from donors targeted specifically at improving Cal’s student-athlete nutrition program, recruiting resources (staffing, travel, tech for scouting), and the salary pool for assistants and support staff.
When Wilcox’s extension was announced, Cal also announced that his assistant salary pool had been increased, though the release didn’t specify a number.
Though modest investments when taken in conjunction with the rest of the money tossed around this cycle, they’re still investments in the program. They need to be followed up with a winning season in 2022 or some folks will start getting antsy.
Cal finished the 2021 season ranked 68th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ system—four points better than USC, 4.1 points better than Washington, 13.4 points better than Colorado, 13.6 points better than Stanford, and 16 points better than Arizona, effectively the seventh-best team in the conference.
A hypothetical exercise: how many of those five teams under Cal finishes the 2022 season with a better record than Cal? (At this moment in time I would wager two, for what it’s worth.)
The hope is that wins over Stanford and USC in two of the last three weeks of the 2021 season can be a springboard for 2022. But Cal was 1.5 games under its expected win total for 2021, lost five of its seven games by seven points or less, and will be breaking in a new quarterback.
There will be plenty of eyes on Cal as we move through 2022.
Bobby Hurley’s suspension
Arizona State head basketball coach Bobby Hurley was fined $20,000 and suspended for Monday night’s game against No. 15 USC for a “clear violation” of the Pac-12’s standards of conduct, the league announced Sunday. The league also suspended ASU guard Jay Heath for Monday’s game for “verbally confronting and making contact with an official” and publicly reprimanded forward Jalen Graham.
“The actions of the head coach student-athletes were in clear violation of the Conference’s standards of conduct and will not be tolerated,” said Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff in a statement. “The Pac-12 and its membership (have) established regulations requiring all institutional personnel, especially head coaches, to conduct themselves in a sporting manner, and those involved in this situation failed to meet those standards.”
Here’s the scene that led to the league’s action:
ASU deeply frustrated at the conclusion after a 41-9 free throw attempt disparity and the game decided on a foul call with one second left. pic.twitter.com/7PrGL72w8w
— SunDevilSource.com (@SunDevilSource) January 23, 2022
Hurley grew more and more frustrated as Saturday’s game against Stanford went on over what he and many ASU fans felt was an uneven whistle. Hurley was assessed a technical 30 seconds into the second half for arguing a call and then exploded when Stanford’s Brandon Angel was given three free throws with 1.1 seconds left in the game.
Stanford won 79-76. The Cardinal shot 41 free throws. The Sun Devils shot nine. Twenty-four of Stanford’s free throw attempts came in the second half.
The big one is the foul on Angel that essentially decided the game. Though we’ve seen many officials swallow their whistle in situations like that, you have to give a shooter space to land and ASU didn’t protect itself in that regard. You can understand both sides of it.
Still, a plus-32 free throw disparity is tough to explain, and to whistle 27 combined fouls in 20 second-half minutes is entirely excessive.
It would be nice if referees faced the same kinds of repercussions for mistakes made as coaches and players do for reacting to mistakes made by the referees, but that never seems to happen. If it does behind closed doors, that secrecy is a disservice to the officials because from the outside it looks like they’re skating by.
Players have to sit in front of reporters and answer questions after tough losses. Officials get to walk away clean and free after taking a game over. That’s not right.
For the league to come out and suspend Heath for what he did is a step too far. The official nearly knocking himself over, then turning around and pointing at Heath like he just committed a crime is incredibly over the top. Had a player reacted to that kind of contact during the run of play, he would be hit with a flop warning.
You love seeing a coach fight for their team. By the letter of the law, punishments were coming. But nothing about this situation was handled appropriately.
Dan Lanning’s offensive attention
Oregon’s new head football coach offered up some interesting insight this week during a radio interview with The Oregonian’s John Canzano.
Canzano asked about tempo, something that grew to become synonymous with the Ducks’ football program under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich and has now permeated the college level. Oregon ran about 67 plays a game in 2021, up from the 61 it ran per game during the 2020 season but still a far cry from the mid-to-high 70s it operated in for the greater part of the last decade.
Stylistically, Lanning should be able to get the Oregon defense playing with the same kind of ferocity he got his Georgia defense to play with en route to a national championship. It seems more likely than not he won’t be able to stack the deck with elite talent on the defensive side of the ball, though.
If Oregon wins championships under Lanning, it will still have to field a top-10 offense. Each of the last four College Football Playoff winners have had top-five offenses by yards per play. The last team to win the national championship without a top-10 offense was Alabama, and that Tide defense allowed less than 4 yards per play, something that hasn’t been done by any team since.
Lanning can and likely will have success at Oregon thanks to his defense. How much success he has might be determined by what kind of offense he puts on the field.
So, what should fans expect?
“Ultimately we want to be able to adjust our pace,” Lanning told Canzano. “We want the ability to go fast. As a defensive coordinator, in the past for me that’s always been something that’s tough to handle is tempo. We want to have the ability to control the tempo of the game, and that means we have to be able to go fast, extremely fast at times, but it doesn’t mean we have to live in that world. There will be times we attack teams with tempo regardless of our personnel, and that’s going to be part of our identity.
“Outside of takeaways, or right there with takeaways, explosive plays are the No. 1 determining factor of winning and losing ball games.”
Filtering out garbage time, Oregon’s offense ranked 110th out of 130 FBS programs in explosiveness. (“Garbage time” occurs when the margin is plus-38 in the second quarter, plus-28 in the third, or plus-22 in the fourth.) That’s got to improve no matter how quick the Ducks are running.
Give the rest of the interview a listen. It’s excellent.
Shoutouts of the Week
- 2022 Arizona wideout signee Tetairoa McMillan: the California native balled out at the Polynesian Bowl this weekend, leading all receivers with five catches for 62 yards in the all-star game. He was also named the 2021 Polynesian High School Football Player of the Year. Excitement could not be any higher for his debut in a Wildcat uniform.
- UCLA guard Johnny Juzang: the young man has been on an absolute tear of late. Over his last four games, three of them wins, Juzang has topped 20 points every game (avg. 24.5) with a shooting split of 56.8/46.7/86.2.
- USC running backs coach Kiel McDonald: In a short period since coming over from Utah, where he was also highly successful, McDonald has recruited former Oregon running back Travis Dye and former Stanford running back Austin Jones to his room. Two starting tailbacks, both from conference opponents, to join a room that’ll also add a 5-star freshman to it. That’s a run.