Black interim coaches face a steep climb. Will Carolina elevate Steve Wilks?


CHARLOTTE — On clean-out day for the Carolina Panthers, players took turns negotiating a ­low-riding electric bike through a cramped space, and ping-pong games provided the soundtrack as they loaded up boxes of cleats and jerseys. But as they said farewell to a season that ended with more promise than it began with, the players also used the opportunity to make one final plea for the franchise to bring back the man who allowed them to exit on a high note: Steve Wilks.

“He gave this team hope,” running back D’Onta Foreman said Monday.

“I love Wilks. That’s my dog,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “I’ll fight for Wilks.”

Wilks took over as interim coach when the Panthers fired Matt Rhule in October. In his first team meeting, Wilks pulled out a pen. A lot will be written about the hopelessness of this 1-4 team, he said, but they held the power to write their own narratives. Thirteen weeks later, after leading the Panthers to a 6-6 record and nearly winning the NFC South, Wilks pulled out a deck of cards in the final meeting with his players Monday to show that, while they didn’t know what the future held, they would have to play the hand they were dealt.

Wilks had refused to make the Panthers’ run about himself, deflecting questions about his future and his performance and crediting the players for their resilience through turbulence – or “its,” as he liked to refer to adverse situations. He refused to give up after the Panthers traded their best player, Christian McCaffrey, and their second-best receiver, Robbie Anderson, and pulled the plug on quarterback Baker Mayfield. All of those “its,” even when coupled with injuries to key players on defense, couldn’t stop the Panthers from competing until the final snap.

Now Wilks is in position to become the full-time head coach of his hometown NFL team. He would be the first full-time Black head coach in the history of the Panthers, one of three Black head coaches in the league and the 25th since 1989 — all stubbornly low numbers in a league where nearly 60 percent of the players are Black.

It would be a remarkable feat for any coach but especially Wilks. He didn’t play in the league, sprouted from no famous coaching tree, is 53 in a league where the hottest hires have lately been in their 30s and 40s. He would be getting a second chance after finishing 3-13 in his first, with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. He is locked in class-action litigation with the league, having joined former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores’s discrimination lawsuit. And he would be among the rare Black interim coaches to perform so well that he was able to transition from custodial mop-up duty to the face of leadership within an organization.

Interim coaches are rarely elevated to full-time jobs. It’s even harder for Black coaches, according to a recent investigation by The Washington Post. From 1990 to 2021, just 13 of 48 interim coaches were hired into full-time positions. The three Black coaches who were — Romeo Crennel, Leslie Frazier and Mike Singletary — all had records of at least .500 as the interim. For the 10 White coaches hired full time, there was no apparent correlation between their performance and their hirings; they compiled a combined record of 26-46.

“I don’t really want to put race into this,” Burns said. “I think he deserves an opportunity because he’s proven what he can do. And how the players fight for him. Wilks just understands. He understands us on a different level.”

When he tapped Wilks to fill in, Panthers owner David Tepper said Wilks could earn the job with an “incredible” performance. Wilks wouldn’t speculate on whether his effort qualified, joking that his wife is not usually impressed when he thinks he does something incredible around the house. But he had, if nothing else, succeeded in infusing his no-nonsense personality into the organization in just three months.

And from that pen to those cards, Wilks kept finding ways to keep his players motivated. He won more games in his truncated stint than Rhule had in either of his two full seasons. Wilks became one of three interim coaches since 1990 to win at least six games and one of eight to finish with a record of .500 or better in at least five games.

“None of you guys even expected us to even be in this situation. So to be able to take a 1-4 team and to be able to get to the doorstep of possibly winning this division and going to the playoffs, I have no regrets whatsoever,” Wilks said Monday. “To create an identity, to breathe life back into this football team and the respect within this organization that we started to receive throughout the league of the identity we created … No, I don’t have any regrets.”

Tepper has yet to have a winning season since purchasing the franchise in 2018. The Panthers plan to conduct an extensive search to ensure they get this hire right. They have spoken with or requested interviews with primarily offensive coaches in Philadelphia’s Shane Steichen, Detroit’s Ben Johnson, Dallas’s Kellen Moore, Buffalo’s Ken Dorsey and the New York Giants’ Mike Kafka, along with New England linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and former head coaches Jim Caldwell and Frank Reich, the first quarterback in franchise history.

Wilks has already followed up his informal audition with a formal interview for the position. Selling his ability to establish a more effective, or exciting, offense than the run-heavy scheme he relied upon this season was critical for Wilks. But his defensive background shouldn’t be considered a detriment: Ron Rivera and John Fox, the coaches who led the franchise to its two Super Bowl appearances, came from that side of the ball.

At his news conference after Rhule’s firing, Tepper also said he didn’t think the Panthers “ever really had a culture of winning.” But Wilks is a link to the last Panthers team to reach the Super Bowl, after the 2015 season, serving as assistant head coach and defensive backs coach under Rivera. That team’s mantra: “Keep pounding.”

What makes Wilks’s case even more compelling is that he’s a native of Charlotte who starred at West Charlotte High, playing games in front of crowds of 20,000 before the city had professional football and basketball teams. Find another NFL head coach who once tried to make extra money selling cold drinks and snacks on game days outside of the stadium where he works. His ties to the city are so strong that he can call the chief of police his good friend.

“I’m trying to figure out if my passion for watching the games has increased because of Steve’s presence or because we were playing meaningful football in December,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings, Wilks’s former college teammate at Appalachian State in the late 1980s. “It’s just a delight to see that there’s somebody that I know and have been friends with for years that I can pull for. . . . We talk about all of these big names that are out there, who we want to hire, but those big names didn’t start out as big names, either. You have to give those opportunities. We’ve seen what he has done. Let’s see what he can build on.”

Wilks’s favorite acronym, ACT — which stands for accountability, commitment and trust — is painted on a wall in the stadium.

“I talk about it all the time: ‘Act like a champion for me. Be accountable. Every day you walk into this building, show me a great level of commitment. I know you guys can’t see it right now, but trust the process. Trust what I’m trying to get done,’ ” Wilks said of his message to his players. “They played their butts off for me.”

Wilks didn’t ease into the work of shifting the Panthers’ culture. He fired two longtime Rhule assistants on his first day. And in his debut as interim, against the Los Angeles Rams, he sent Anderson to the locker room after the wide receiver got into a heated dispute with position coach Joe Dailey. Wilks said afterward, “No one is bigger than the team.” A day later, Anderson was shipped to Arizona.

“He treats everybody the same way. He holds everyone accountable. Himself included. And I think that resonates with guys,” Rivera, the Washington Commanders’ coach, said in a telephone interview. “You can’t treat anyone any more special. If you do, everybody looks at it as, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be special to be one of his guys.’ No, you’re one of Steve’s guys until you show him you’re not.”

The Panthers’ season could’ve been perceived much differently if not for an overtime loss at Atlanta in which wide receiver DJ Moore caught a 62-yard, game-tying touchdown in the final seconds of regulation — and then was penalized for removing his helmet in celebration. Eddy Piñeiro, a journeyman kicker on his sixth team in five seasons, missed a 48-yard extra point and later a potential game-winning field goal in overtime.

Wilks stuck by his kicker, declining to seek a replacement. Piñeiro made 19 straight field goals to end the season, including the game-winner as time expired in the season finale against New Orleans. In the locker room afterward, Wilks shouted, “Where is Eddy?” and presented an emotional Piñeiro with the game ball. In turn, the players presented Wilks with a game ball of his own.

“It’s a credit to him, having that sauce every day,” said cornerback Josh Norman, a member of the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 team who returned to Carolina this season for the final two games. “It’s hard to motivate guys when they ain’t got nothing to play for. I know when I wasn’t going to the playoffs, I was thinking about what flight I was going to catch. I’m trying to get up out of here. But here it was like, ‘Naw, it’s about, finish.’ He pulled it off.”

Kenny Patterson, Wilks’s teammate at West Charlotte, recalled an earlier example of his leadership ability, during their senior year. About 30 minutes before a game against rival Harding, West Charlotte assistants told the team that Coach Bruce Hardin had been hospitalized because of a heart attack, although it was later revealed to be exhaustion. Players looked around, despondent and in disbelief. Wilks stood up and gathered his teammates, reminding them how the work they had done since the summer, the sprints in triple-digit heat, had prepared them to perform even if Hardin couldn’t be there.

“This is what we live for. This is what we breathe for. We’re going to do what we can to get this win and make Coach happy,” Patterson said Wilks told his teammates.

They lost on a late Patterson fumble in the end zone. Patterson took the loss hard, refusing to leave the field until Wilks told him he still had faith in him and they would need him at his best if these teams met again. “I’m sitting there at the goal line on one knee. It was like your parent telling you something, and what your parent tells you, you believe them,” Patterson said.

The rematch arrived in the state semifinals, where Wilks scored the game-winning touchdown on a quarterback keeper while Patterson led the team in rushing.

Hardin recognized those qualities in Wilks before the season began, moving him from wide receiver to quarterback because the players gravitated to him. West Charlotte ran an option offense, but his teammates joked that Wilks usually chose himself. “Teams couldn’t stop it, man. He was just that slippery. You’d sit back and watch number 9 run down the field,” Brannon Jett, another teammate at West Charlotte, said with a laugh. “He’s a competitor. He’s that silent type that’s going to take your head off, but he’s not going to show you with his words; he’s going to show you on the field.”

After playing four years as a defensive back at Appalachian State, where Jennings said he was one of “the guys who you can count on, the guys who are going to do a little extra,” Wilks spent one season with the Arena Football League’s Charlotte Rage and decided to get into coaching. As defensive coordinator at Johnson C. Smith, a small, historically Black university not far from his high school, his responsibilities included cutting the grass, lining the field and laundering the uniforms and practice equipment for the players.

Steven Aycock, an assistant at the same time as Wilks, said the two would supplement their salaries through a paper route and by camping out at a gas station near the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium on game days, selling cold drinks and snacks out of the back of Wilks’s small pickup truck.

“He’s not a stranger to hard work,” said Aycock, who would go on to be head coach at Johnson C. Smith from 2009 to 2015, “but he had a vision of where he wanted to be.”

That vision was hiding in plain sight. Bank of America Stadium can be seen from a stoop outside the college’s athletic offices, and Aycock recalls Wilks looking out over at the view of uptown and saying, “One day, I’m going to be down there.”

Wilks’s time at Johnson C. Smith was brief but impactful. Coach Daryl McNeill preached a message — “Be big time where you are” — that Wilks leaned on during his rise up the college and professional ranks.

That perspective, Wilks said, kept him from looking ahead during his interim stint with the Panthers. He made a steady rise, spending one season as head coach at Savannah State, but made his leap into the big time when Tyrone Willingham tabbed him to be defensive backs coach at Notre Dame.

“I thought he had all of the personality traits that I liked,” Willingham said in a telephone interview. “That I label impatiently patient, which I think is one of the nicest qualities that you can have. That means you want it right now, but if you can’t get it right now, you’ll do all the little things, be patient to get it the next minute, the next day, the next week. Having that kind of mind-set of never giving up and giving in.”

Wilks then followed Willingham to the University of Washington and was off to the NFL after one season as Lovie Smith added him to his Chicago Bears staff, which included Rivera, and reached the Super Bowl. From there, Rivera brought him along to San Diego, which made a playoff appearance and finished with a top-ranked defense. When he was hired as head coach of the Panthers, Rivera thought he had made a solid pitch to hire Wilks as defensive backs coach.

“We’re in Chicago; we go to the Super Bowl. You’re in San Diego with me; we’re the number one defense. You’ve got to come out here. Every time you’re with me, good things happen,” Rivera recalled telling Wilks. “He looked at me — and this is pure Steve — he says, ‘Ron, maybe it’s every time you’re with me.’ ”

Rivera paused to laugh. “That’s him. He has an air of confidence about him. He believes in his way of doing things. He’s got so much conviction.”

The success in Charlotte landed Wilks his first NFL head coaching gig in Arizona in 2018, but that turned out to be a disaster. Wilks remains one of just 26 Black men to have been NFL head coaches, but that opportunity came with a rookie quarterback, a flimsy offensive line, an aging defense, a staff that was largely a carry-over from the previous regime and no patience from his front office. The Cardinals then got swept up in the trend of finding the next young, White offensive guru. They replaced Wilks with Kliff Kingsbury, who was recently fired.

Wilks found the lesson in the loss, refusing to allow the disappointment to shift his focus from what he desired: a legitimate shot. He spent a season as defensive coordinator in Cleveland, then took a year off from coaching. At his swearing-in as police chief in 2020, Jennings recalls, Wilks said he had bigger plans ahead but added, “You can’t just jump right in at the top.” That took Wilks back to the college ranks at Missouri. Then, this season, he was granted another homecoming with the Panthers as the defensive passing game coordinator and secondary coach. This opportunity has him close to fulfilling his dream.

“People don’t realize how big of an impact that is on somebody’s life, to actually manifest your path, your destiny and having it come true,” Norman said. “It’s only 32 coaches. It was surreal for him to be in that moment. When you take the time to look at that, that’s a momentous thing.”

Wilks has declined to discuss his involvement in Flores’s racial discrimination case. The lawsuit alleges Wilks was a “bridge coach” in Arizona who was “not given any meaningful chance to succeed.” A person close to Wilks said he chose to join Flores to be part of something larger than himself and to impact future generations of Black coaches. Wilks is hopeful that merit, and not just the NFL’s struggles with diversity, will sway Tepper toward granting him the chance to keep leading his hometown team.

If the Panthers decide to go elsewhere, history would prove to be on their side. For most interims who went on to become full-time staffers, the momentum gained from players rallying behind a fresh voice has rarely led to a lengthy tenure. Only Dallas’s Jason Garrett and Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher went on to have an extended run of at least 10 seasons.

Wilks has another bit of history on his side.

“Whether they give him this job or not — and we’re all praying that he’s offered the job — but I think he’s already won,” Jett said. “You got to look at it from the beginning. Him growing up in Hidden Valley, a rough area. He’s overcome a lot of obstacles. He’s already a winner. Now, he just needs the opportunity to show everybody else that. Let’s give this guy a chance and support him. He’ll make more believers.”

“Having him get a chance to feel that from his hometown, you always want to see that story end on a good note,” Panthers defensive back Donte Jackson said, “with him getting the job.”

Emily Giambalvo contributed to this report.

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