LAS VEGAS Since leaving the Boise State football staff in February 2010, former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has experienced 18 wins and 19 defeats.
That on the heels of a 49-4 run in four years with the Broncos from 2006 to 2009.
You look in the mirror after some tough seasons and youre like, God, I look bad. This looks bad right now, he said Wednesday.
Yet he doesnt look back on his decision to take the Tennessee defensive coordinator job with any regrets. And hes pleased with his current situation, as the first-year defensive coordinator of the Washington Huskies (7-5).
Despite the adversity, his knowledge of the game and his profession has expanded.
Ive still got a lot to learn, Wilcox, 36, said. I always will. Ill always feel that way. Thats kind of what the yearning (to leave) was.
Hell face some close friends and former players Saturday when the No. 20 Broncos and Huskies meet in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (1:35 p.m. MST, ESPN).
Wilcox sees parallels between Boise State coach Chris Petersen, one of his key mentors, and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback in his fourth year as a head coach.
Working for him has been awesome, Wilcox said. Hes very similar to Coach Petersen in a lot of ways. Theyre both really smart, positive, high energy. I see a lot of similarities just in our meetings and the atmosphere. Our players like being around.
Wilcox, as he did at Boise State and Tennessee, has led a defensive resurgence in Seattle. The Huskies have improved from 108th to 37th in the nation in scoring defense allowing 12 fewer points per game.
He earned national acclaim after the Huskies shocked eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford 17-13 in September.
Tennessee ranked 36th in scoring defense in his second year with the Volunteers and Boise State ranked as high as third in 2008.
Hes a darn good coach, Petersen said. You know wherever he is, theyre going to play good defense.
Petersen hired Wilcox as a 29-year-old, first-time coordinator on his original Boise State staff in 2006. Wilcox was a graduate assistant with the Broncos in 2001-02 and the linebackers coach at Cal from 2003 to 2005.
He became a rising star as the Broncos won the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls and beat Oregon twice. Against TCU in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, Wilcox started three cornerbacks and moved end Shea McClellin to inside linebacker. The Horned Frogs scored 10 points.
Hes an awesome coach, Boise State senior defensive lineman Darren Koontz said. Great game planner. He did a really good job when he was here.
Wilcoxs defenses were so dominant, in fact, that he decided he needed another challenge. He interviewed with Texas A&M in early 2010, then Tennessee. He decided to join Derek Dooleys staff with the Volunteers.
The motivation, Wilcox said: a desire to learn.
And I learned (at Boise State), but you prepare for the same offenses every year, he said. Youre kind of into who you are. At some point, you start to flatten out in terms of your growth and thats not a bad thing, because youre always looking to get better, but sometimes you have to say Im going to go jump in the cold tub and go for it.
He was part of two difficult seasons in Tennessee. The Vols lost a bowl game in 2010 to finish 6-7 and went 5-7 last year.
Dooley was fired this season as the defense collapsed ranking 106th without Wilcox.
Being at Tennessee was an unbelievable experience, Wilcox said. It was hard in a lot of ways. It was rewarding in a lot of ways. We didnt win nearly as much as we all wanted to.
The recruiting battles were eye-opening for him. The line between winning and losing in the SEC was incredibly thin. And the lifestyle was different.
All of that made Washington, in the more familiar Pac-12, inviting.
Wilcox wouldnt trade his experience and he wouldnt rule out someday returning to the SEC, he said, but hes more comfortable in Seattle.
Its different living in the South, he said. You are who you are. I grew up in Junction City, Ore. Thats a long way from the South.
Like Tennessee, hes trying to restore defensive order at a program that used to be among college footballs titans.
The Huskies are young and inconsistent this season, but theyve shown glimpses of a bright future.
What he does a good job of is identifying the 15, 16, 17 guys who can help us and asking them to do what theyre good at, said Peter Sirmon, the Washington linebackers coach who was Wilcoxs college roommate at Oregon and an assistant at Tennessee. Hes not just pigeon-holed into one system.
For example, Wilcox wanted to use a 3-4 base this season. But his personnel lended itself to more of a Boise State structure, with a McClellin-like end/linebacker (sophomore Josh Shirley) as the fourth lineman and a Winston Venable-like nickel (true freshman Shaq Thompson).
That could change next year as those players grow into the system.
Or, it could change Saturday. The Huskies havent played a game since Nov. 23 and Wilcox is known for using long layoffs to tinker.
When we have time to really dive into an opponent, he does a great job of finding things that will help us, Sirmon said.
Wilcox does it with a combination of talent and work ethic, just like the best players. He watches about a dozen game tapes to prepare for an opponent.
Hes an extremely intelligent football coach, said Boise State offensive line coach Chris Strausser, who has been on staff since 2007. Hes very detailed in his game-plan process. Hes a very competitive person as much as we all know him as an extremely mild-mannered guy. And I know when he was here, our guys wanted to play hard for him, and I think thats important.
Those traits Strausser describes have defined Wilcox since his days as a cunning defensive back for the Ducks.
As smart as he is, hes always been more of a hard worker than anything else, Sirmon said. In intramural basketball, son of a gun, when you went against him you knew you were going to have to play hard to give yourself a chance.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat