More on Wilcox and Sirmon


Justin Wilcox

My wife was looking at the ACT Theater lineup a couple of years ago and asked me what, at the time, seemed like an odd question.

“Do you know who Bo Eason is?”

‘Yes,” I answered slowly, buying time until it came to me.  “Yeah, he used to play for the Houston Oilers.”

“Correct.  Now he travels around the country doing a one-man play called Runt of the Litter.  It’s about the life of an under-talented, overachieving football player who overcompensates for his physical shortcomings with intensity and savvy – kind of a Rocky theme.  Bo Eason also wrote it himself, and it’s supposed to be autobiographical.  Would you like to see it?”


So we made Runt of the Litter one of our ACT selections and when the play came to Seattle we were there.  I was a little amazed Bo Eason could put that much energy into two performances a day without passing out.  Bo Eason’s on-field intensity and gamesmanship came across on-stage, and the appreciative audience, particularly during a locker room speech, got into it – one of those spontaneous audience participation things.

Afterwards I had a chance to talk with Eason.  Eason reiterated what was presented in the play: he wasn’t blessed with a great deal of talent like his brother, quarterback Tony, a Patriots first round draft pick out of Illinois.  But while Bo didn’t have great physical ability, he 1) usually knew more than the other guys and 2) pushed himself to the limit on every snap, a combination that enabled him to walk-on at UCal-Davis, eventually start at UCal-Davis, ultimately become a Houston Oilers second round draft pick, and even make second team All-Pro in 1985.

Eason is obviously still in good shape…he’s not the type who would get out of shape.  Alfred Adler of the famed Vienna Circle conceived the behavioral traits “inferiority complex” and ‘overcompensation.”  Adler never played football but he nailed it when it came to guys like Eason.

Listening to Justin Wilcox, you’d think he was Bo Eason. Wilcox says he had average talent at best and, at Oregon, his older brother, tight end Josh who went on to play for the New Orleans Saints, was more talented. Certainly Wilcox’s father, Dave, who played for the 49ers and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a lot better.  Justin grew up the runt of the litter.

Wilcox has said that while he did not have the athleticism and speed of others – teammates and opposition – he usually knew more.  One former coach explained that Wilcox “just had a feel for the game.”

Obviously, however, it was more than feel.

The kid without great speed or athleticism was named Oregon 3A High School Player of the Year not once but twice.  He played quarterback in high school and it was evident early-on that the best thing Wilcox had going for him was

between his ears.  He might have come to Washington if the opportunity availed itself.  Although he grew up around Eugene, back in the day Washington football impressed him.  And Washington was perceived as a good school academically, attractive to a good mind.

When reading comments by past coaches, words like “smart”, “intelligent”, “knowledgeable”, and “bright” invariably introduce themselves

When Boise State beat Oregon two years ago, Oregon offensive lineman Mark Asper said afterwards that in spite of Oregon’s frenetic pace, then-Boise State Defensive Coordinator Wilcox was able to stay at least one play, one adjustment, ahead of Oregon throughout the game.  During the four years Wilcox was at Boise State, incidentally, the broncos were 49 – 4.

Wilcox sweats both the details of defense and the details of coaching.  When discussing Wilcox’s strength as a defensive coordinator, Oregon Coach Chip Kelly said, “It’s how he coaches them.  It’s more than just a scheme; it’s not [just] an X’s and O’s type deal.  It’s how he coaches them and how they play and the passion and the tempo that they play in.”

It may be in this regard – attention to detail, and gamesmanship – that Wilcox proves to be superior to his predecessor.  Nick Holt had a lot of fire and an excellent track record while at USC but Wilcox is a cerebral, young assistant coach whose best is yet to come.

Wilcox’s recruiting ability has been questioned, however.

Some people can sell anything; they’re naturally gifted in that regard.  Others, like Wilcox, can only sell what they’re already sold on.  Like Sarkisian, Wilcox came to appreciate Washington’s storied football history (“Washington is a place where you can win big”) and the university itself while Wilcox was in high school and while at Oregon playing against Washington.  Hence Wilcox’s recruiting statement, “I can’t wait to get started,” evidence he is already sold on what he’s selling.

And, if there is still some question about whether he can sell, he’s done it before.  When Wilcox was hired as linebackers coach under Jim Tedford at California, the question of Wilcox’s recruiting efficacy was also raised.  Discussing those times, former Cal Defensive Coordinator Bob Gregory concluded by saying that, “Wilcox ended up being one of our best recruiters.”

Unsurprising.  Someone attentive to detail, and having a product in which they believe, would become good at selling that product.  Now Wilcox has Washington to sell.

Chip Kelly’s comments suggest Wilcox is an above-average leader and motivator.  Former Tennessee linebacker coach Peter Sirmon, who will be joining Wilcox at Washington, said the same thing while the two were still at Rocky Top: “The players love him and the players will really play hard for him.”

Wilcox’s intelligence, gamesmanship, leadership, motivational ability and even recruiting ability suggest an aggregate upgrade at the defensive coordinator position – a conclusion that compliments Wilcox without demeaning former Defensive Coordinator Nick Holt – and, all other things being equal, the net effect should be an improvement in Washington defensive play.

I’m reminded, however, of an old adage about silk purses and sow’s ears.  I watched a replay of the “All I saw was purple” USC game on UWTV during Christmas vacation.  Damn, number 90 was in the USC backfield a lot.  Having brains on the sideline is imperative for winning but, as Sarkisian, Nussmeier and Wilcox are well aware, so is having talent on the field.

Peter Sirmon

Peter Sirmon is also coming to Washington (long after he should have).

1996.  It was down to Marquis Hairston and Peter Sirmon.  Both wanted to go to Washington; both were about the same size with the same apparent potential.  But Hairston had the bloodlines: his father, Al, had played for the Sonics, was a very successful former head basketball coach at Garfield High and, when Marquis was being recruited, was the Seattle University head basketball coach.  The name “Hairston” was well-known in Seattle sporting circles.  Washington Coach Jim Lambright opted for Marquis over Peter Sirmon.  Effectively, Sirmon was cut before he had a chance to play.  He could have walked-on but Oregon had a scholarship for him.  While Hairston had a good career at Washington, Sirmon became a four-year starter at Oregon, and played seven years with the Tennessee Titans.  Coach Lambright’s decision was reasonable but, in hindsight, it was the wrong one.

While watching Washington-Oregon games when Sirmon played linebacker, it was obvious who was Oregon’s best defensive player.  Like Wilcox, Sirmon’s ability was more than X’s and O’s.  A well-padded chess player, Sirmon was heady and, based on field position, personnel strength, previous plays called, down, yards needed, etc., was being uncannily successful at  ascertaining what Washington would do next and where they would do it.  Sirmon consequently was often where the Huskies didn’t want him to be and, on top of that, was an excellent tackler.

Watching Sirmon was educational, i.e., this is how it’s done.

Like Wilcox, Sirmon was obviously bright and, playing smart, from a Washington fan’s perspective Sirmon was a nuisance.  And the bitter frosting-on-the-cake was he could have been playing for Washington.

Now, finally, Sirmon’s mind belongs to Washington.

An additional strength Sirmon has as a coach is that he is not that far removed from playing.  He has said, “I think anytime you have kind of walked in the same shoes as the players, there’s a level of communication and understanding.  You’re asking them to do things you know can be done, and if things are difficult, you understand the problems they’re having.  It’s easier to relate to them.”

Relating well to players is a constant theme when reading about past Sirmon coaching positions, and it has manifested itself in two important areas: “coaching up” present players and recruiting better future players.

Sirmon’s coaching acumen as well as his ability to accurately weigh and counter offensive strategy should result in improved Washington linebacker play in 2012.  His recruiting ability should help before, during and after that.

Wilcox and Sirmon

It all sounds good, maybe too good.

How will Wilcox and Sirmon really do at Washington?  Will their impact be favorable, as most expect?  Weighing everything in the balance, the logical answer is: most likely.

Perhaps the best indication of the extent to which the addition of Wilcox and Sirmon might improve the Husky defense is the Tennessee hand-wringing following the announcement Wilcox and Sirmon were leaving.  One blog stated flatly that “[Wilcox and Sirmon] are the two coaches Tennessee can least afford to lose.”

Tennessee 2011 defensive statistics are not a good indication of immediate impact on Washington defensive play because four of Tennessee’s five 2011 wins were against much weaker non-conference opponents Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Middle Tennessee State.  Their fifth win (27 – 21 in overtime) was against 6 – 6 Vanderbilt (Nashville) which lost to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl (Memphis).

On the other hand, the average opponent’s score when Tennessee lost (SEC teams) was 29 points – the worst being 49 points by Arkansas and the best being 10 points in a 10 – 7 loss to Kentucky.  Not including the Alamo Bowl, Washington’s opponents averaged 46 points in Washington losses.  Including the Alamo Bowl…

Like at Washington, in 2011 Tennessee supporters bemoaned the lack of defensive talent in comparison to what Tennessee has historically enjoyed.

Yet Tennessee did so much better defensively against the stronger teams on their schedule.  The implication?

Washington defensive prowess will be enhanced by Wilcox and Sirmon, the two Oregon guys from Tennessee who are, for good reason, enthusiastically looking forward to Washington’s immediate football future.  With their coming, their future and Washington’s future should both become appreciably brighter.

And justifiably.

As both Wilcox and Sirmon knew years ago, Washington is a good school.  Welcome.  Welcome home.