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San Francisco 49ers DC Steve Wilks turns rejection into redirection at Super Bowl — Andscape

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As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being redirected to something better.”

LAS VEGAS — Every Super Bowl is an overflowing compendium of compelling storylines: Teams that endured the grind of a season, players who overcome adversity to reach this championship moment.

One of the more compelling, if understated, stories of this year’s Super Bowl is Steve Wilks, the 54-year-old defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.

On Sunday, Wilks will face the challenge of his professional career: trying to stop Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City quarterbacks generally regarded as one of the most innovative quarterbacks in NFL history. With two Super Bowl rings already, Mahomes arguably is the best quarterback of his generation.

Wilks is in his first season as the 49ers defensive coordinator and stepped into a near impossible situation. He replaced DeMeco Ryans, who built the 49ers into an elite defense before leaving to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.

How do you improve a unit that is not broken, but only needs a subtle, championship adjustment? How do you choose from an array of good moves and select the great move?

The answer wasn’t easy for Wilks to find.

“It was challenging,” Wilks said on Wednesday during an interview session. He had to dig deep into his bag of coaching experiences from Johnson C. Smith and Savannah State to nine other stops along the way. He had to draw on coaching triumphs and bitter disappointments. Finally at mid-season, he stumbled on the answer which had been staring him in the face. The answer was inside him all the time.

Wilks determined that he had to do his own thing. He had to put his own stamp on the 49ers defense.

“I was trying to do things as it was in the past and not really trying to say, ‘You know, I gotta do my own thing within the structure of what they want me to do, being in this defense,’ ” he said.

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks talks with the defense in the locker room during halftime of the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 20 in Santa Clara, California.

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Under Ryans, San Francisco was third in points allowed per game and eighth in yards allowed per game in 2022. Wilks improved the pass defense from 23rd in yards allowed per game to eighth. San Francisco led the NFL with 22 interceptions after having 20 last season.

Wilks tinkered and tweaked and changed a few things. He relied on analytics but only to a point.

“You can look at the card but sometimes there’s a human element to it,” Wilks said. “You can’t always go off the card. It’s the same thing calling the game and that’s what I started doing. I started calling the game based off how I felt.”

The 49ers have been a launching pad for head coaching opportunities for two previous defensive coordinators. Robert Salah became the head coach for the New York Jets and of course Ryans was a first-year wonder with the Texans. Wilks was asked if he expects to earn a second opportunity to be a permanent head coach.

“That’s not up to me. You know, only thing I try to do is do the best I can with the position that I have,” Wilks said. “I learned years ago, the mindset I had at Johnson C. Smith when I first started coaching, just be big time where you are. And when you do that, people will recognize your good works and opportunities [will] come.”

What could complicate matters is that in 2022, Wilks became part of a class action discrimination lawsuit against the NFL. The suit, filed by Brian Flores, former Miami Dolphins head coach and currently the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, accuses the league of discriminatory hiring practices when it comes to hiring Black candidates. Flores simply had enough of the shenanigans of many team owners in the way they treated African American head coaching candidates with sham interviews just to satisfy the Rooney Rule.

Wilks courageously added his name to the suit in June 2022, fully aware that taking such action could short circuit his head coaching aspirations. In previous conversations, Wilks said he joined the suit to benefit aspiring African American coaches coming behind him.

Asked about his future as a head coach in the NFL, Wilks said “The only thing that I can do is continue to perfect my craft.”

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks watches as players practice at the team’s training facility Feb. 1 in Santa Clara, California.

Tony Avelar/AP Photo

Wilks is a study of perseverance and optimism.

After his collegiate playing days at Appalachian State, Wilks began his coaching career at two HBCUs: Johnson C. Smith University (1995-96) and three years at Savannah State College (1997-99), the last year as head coach.

“Believe it or not, my whole mindset, I was going to be Eddie Robinson,” he said referring to the legendary Grambling head coach. “That’s all I knew was Black colleges.”

Even then, Wilks predicted that he would someday be coaching in the NFL.

“Even when I was at Johnson C. Smith, I would look over at the skyline of Charlotte and say ‘You know, one day I’m gonna be coaching over there,’ which at that time, it was Ericsson Stadium.”

He left the world of HBCU football and began his climb: Illinois State, Appalachian State, East Tennesse State, Bowling Green, Notre Dame, Washington.

After stops with the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers, Wilks as hired by the Panthers in 2012 as the team’s secondary coach. He was promoted to assistant head coach in 2015.

In 2018, Wilks long climb up the coaching mountain was rewarded when was named head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He lasted one season. After a 3-13 season, Wilks was fired. In his subsequent lawsuit, Wilks claimed the Cardinals never intended for him to be a long-term answer.

“Believe it or not, my whole mindset, I was going to be Eddie Robinson. That’s all I knew was Black colleges.”

– Steve Wilks

According to The New York Times, Wilks argued in his amended lawsuit that Arizona hired him as a “bridge coach.” The suit alleges that Arizona did not have long-term plans for him as the team’s head coach.

The Cardinals subsequently hired Kliff Kingsbury, who the team fired in 2022.

Asked about the Arizona situation, Wilks said, “I’m not bitter. Everything’s a learning experience for me, and I learned a lot there — a lot of what not to do.

“I learned a lot of what it should look like, particularly coming here [San Francisco].”

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks coaches from the sidelines during the NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 28 in Santa Clara, California.

Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

After the Cardinals experience, Wilks made stops in Cleveland with the Browns as the defensive coordinator and the University of Missouri. He returned home to Charlotte in 2022 as the Carolina Panthers defensive passing game coordinator and secondary coach.

He was named interim head coach in 2022 after Matt Rhule was fired after five games. Wilks rallied the team and led the Panthers to a 6-6 record in its final 12 games.

Instead of having the interim label removed as many of his players requested, Panthers owner David Tepper passed over Wilks and hired Frank Reich. Wilks landed in San Francisco and Tepper fired Reich after 11 games this season.

“I think sometimes in life you may want something, you feel like you worked all your life to get to this point, and all sudden you’re rejected,” Wilks said. “Then you realize that rejection really wasn’t a disappointment, but it really wasn’t for you and all of a sudden now you find yourself in a better situation.”

He added, “I think sometimes in life, you gotta allow the circumstances to evolve. I believe God has ordered my steps. So, when I don’t get certain things, I know he doesn’t want me to be in that situation.”

As our interview session ended, I asked Wilks if he thought he had anything to prove, if he would be validated by a Super Bowl victory. He recalled a conversation he had several years ago with Tre Boston, one of his former Carolina players.

“I said, ‘you know, we’re not trying to prove people wrong. We have to prove that we’re right.’ I’m just trying to prove that I’m worthy of this position and this job,” he said.

“I’ve already won, What I’ve been able to accomplish in my life and the way that God has blessed me, if I don’t ever get that opportunity again, I’ve proven that I could do it and I did that last year at Carolina.”

Steve Wilks has made a long trek up a steep mountain. He has earned another chance to be an NFL head coach. One game does not a career make, but Super Bowl ring and a victory against Patrick Mahomes will make a pretty compelling argument.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.



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