SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Wearing his best suit, Steve Wilks arrived for his first NFL coaching opportunity dressed to impress. It didn’t last long.
Interviewing with then Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera in early 2006 after 11 years coaching in the college ranks, Wilks made it about halfway through the conversation before his football passion took over.
After Smith asked Wilks a fairly innocuous question about a weakness in the Bears’ trademark Cover-2 zone defense, Wilks removed his coat, loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. He burst into detail about how it wasn’t schematics but a coaching problem, assuring Smith and Rivera he could fix it in short order.
Wilks got the job.
“Everything about him permeated confidence,” Rivera said. “If you have a guy that’s going to be confident in what he believes and what he says as a coordinator, it makes your job a lot easier. … That’s all I needed to know. And that’s always kind of been Steve’s MO.”
Wilks’ self-belief has become a necessary trait throughout a coaching career that has included 20 job titles at 16 different stops across 28 years in college and the NFL. It has carried him through dark and difficult moments to the peak of the profession. That circuitous route has brought Wilks to San Francisco for the high-profile (and high-stakes) job of 49ers defensive coordinator as they head into Super Bowl LVIII against the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (6:30 p.m. ET, Feb. 11, CBS).
The five years prior to Wilks joining the 49ers were an up-and-down journey, starting with a one-and-done stint after going 3-13 as the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach in 2018. That resulted in Wilks joining a lawsuit initiated by Brian Flores in 2022 against the NFL for racial discrimination in which he alleges the Cardinals did not give him a “fair” opportunity because he is Black and used him as a “bridge” coach. Wilks’ portion of the suit is expected to go to arbitration, according to a source close to the case.
Wilks’ path also included a year each as the Cleveland Browns and University of Missouri defensive coordinator before going to the Carolina Panthers in 2022, where he was thrust into the role of interim coach after five games, leading them to a 6-6 record before being passed over for the head-coaching job.
Those tumultuous five years have reshaped Wilks’ coaching path, leading him to the only job he really wanted after the disappointing end to his tenure in Carolina. Wilks coveted the coordinator job in San Francisco, seeing an elite defense that could catapult him back into a lead gig if he helps the 49ers win their record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy.
“The unfortunate part was the situation he got, it was a tough one to be in,” Rivera said. “I would’ve hoped he could have gotten a second chance sooner, but he’s had to remake himself.”
AFTER WILKS JOINED Rivera in 2006, the coaches combined for a run of success. For 10 of the 12 seasons between 2006 and 2017, Wilks worked alongside Rivera with the Bears (2006-07), San Diego Chargers (2009-10) and Panthers (2012-17).
Wilks’ ascent as Rivera’s second in command came with its share of attention. When Rivera took time away — such as when he missed the start of training camp in 2015 after his brother died — Wilks was charged with keeping the machine moving and leading practices.
Rivera promoted Wilks from defensive backs coach to assistant head coach in 2015 and defensive coordinator in 2017. At the center of Wilks’ defense was linebacker Luke Kuechly, a five-time first team All-Pro and the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Kuechly liked Wilks for his ability to balance cracking jokes and having fun with teaching on the field.
“Guys just want transparency and honesty, and guys just want people who are consistent,” Kuechly said. “And that’s something that he’s always been. … Nothing ever changed in how he carried himself no matter which job he was in.”
Wilks interviewed for jobs with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and New York Giants in 2018 but landed neither. In January 2018, the Cardinals were taking a deliberate approach to hiring their coach, waiting until every other team had filled their vacancies. Wilks remained in the mix with a handful of other candidates, including Flores, then a linebackers coach for the New England Patriots, before being hired on Jan. 22.
Wilks jumped at Arizona’s offer without what he now views as doing the necessary diligence to see if it was a place he could succeed.
“When I went to Arizona, I was a young, eager coach,” Wilks said. “I think I can go in there; I can make it happen. I wasn’t given the resources nor the time.”
Because he was the last coach hired in that cycle and due to what he described as pressure from the front office to keep certain assistant coaches, Wilks felt like he wasn’t able to assemble the coaching staff he wanted to take on the daunting rebuild the Cardinals faced. It was difficult to establish a rapport with general manager Steve Keim, who was suspended for five weeks that preseason following an arrest for extreme DUI.
According to Wilks’ lawsuit, Keim and Wilks also didn’t see eye-to-eye on the Cardinals trading three draft picks to move up from No. 15 to No. 10 to draft UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. Rosen, who started 13 games in 2018, threw 11 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions with a QBR of 24.1. Rosen started three NFL games after that season and is currently out of the league.
The Cardinals lost their first four games and finished with the NFL’s worst record. Wilks was fired after one season. It was an abrupt ending to Wilks’ first NFL head-coaching opportunity.
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said he was not impressed with Wilks’ plan for 2019 and beyond but didn’t offer details on what he didn’t like.
“I just didn’t feel like it was a plan that I wanted to get behind that would turn us around and get us back to the type of football that we expect and our fans deserve,” Bidwill said at the time.
The Cardinals hired Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury to replace Wilks and drafted quarterback Kyler Murray to step in for Rosen, who was traded to the Miami Dolphins. Arizona went 5-10-1 in its first season under Kingsbury, who remained with the Cardinals for four seasons, compiling a 28-37-1 record with one winning season before being removed following the 2022 season.
“There’s a level of things that are going to happen in your life that you have no control over, but how are you going to respond?” Wilks said. “And my response is always trying to do it in a positive way.”
A DISAPPOINTED WILKS hit the reset button, making stops as defensive coordinator for the Browns in 2019 and Missouri in 2021, sandwiched around a year off in 2020. He spent more time with his family in Ohio and studied trends around college and the NFL.
Wilks returned to the NFL and Carolina in 2022 to coach the secondary and be the defensive pass game coordinator under Matt Rhule. The Panthers started 1-4, prompting Rhule’s firing.
Although Wilks wanted another shot at leading a team, he was reticent when the Panthers asked him to be the interim coach for the final 12 games. Ten days after he was hired, Carolina traded its best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, to the 49ers, making an already tough task more difficult.
But Wilks also saw it as an opportunity to do the job his way. He made multiple changes to the coaching staff, parting ways with cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni. He emphasized transparency with the players, letting them know what they were doing right and wrong.
“For me it was just more like trying to stay in the moment,” Wilks said. I just wanted to try to implement it and instill a culture that I know was going to give us a chance to win.
Wilks’ approach worked, as the Panthers were .500 under Wilks, finishing a game behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Wilks got two interviews to become the Panthers permanent head coach, but the job ultimately went to former Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich, who was fired 11 games into this season after the Panthers started 1-10.
“I didn’t get it,” Wilks said, “So I wasn’t close enough.”
THERE WAS ONE job Wilks wanted in 2023: 49ers defensive coordinator. So after previous coordinator DeMeco Ryans was hired to become the Houston Texans’ head coach, Wilks went for the open position.
His interest made sense, as the Niners defense had been among the league’s best for most of the previous four years and ranked at or near the top in multiple major categories in 2022. It didn’t hurt that the previous two coaches to hold the position — Robert Saleh and Ryans — had moved on to head coaching jobs with the New York Jets and Texans, respectively. Wilks got his wish, as he was hired by San Francisco on Feb. 7.
Wilks spent the offseason meticulously studying San Francisco’s defense, noting what each player does and doesn’t do well, and looking for ways to implement some of his history coaching defensive backs to make tweaks on the back end, such as a different approach to playing quarters coverage that puts his defensive backs in position to get more interceptions.
Still, Shanahan wanted Wilks to stick with the team’s base 4-3 defense, which leans heavily on zone coverage behind a four-man pass rush.
“It’s a huge challenge, especially when you’ve done football for a while,” Shanahan said. “He had to come in and feel it out too and just see how he looked at it. The challenges are you’re going to always do what’s natural to you. If you don’t, it’s really hard to do what’s right in the heat of battle.”
After a 5-0 start, the Niners lost three in a row in October as the defense gave up 24 points and 395.3 yards per game, ranking 24th and 30th in the league, respectively, during that stretch.
Wilks knew the first sign of defensive trouble would mean all eyes on him. That was the case after a Week 7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in which he called an all-out blitz on third-and-6 from Minnesota’s 40 with 17 seconds left in the first half that turned into a 60-yard touchdown. While Wilks publicly accepted the blame, his players defended him.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward still bristles at the criticism Wilks received, not only for the 0-blitz call but for the job he’d done to that point.
“We all believed in him,” Ward said. “I’m like, s—, wasn’t his fault that I got beat on that post route against Minnesota. The ball was in my hand. I just had to make that play. If I would’ve caught that ball, we probably would’ve won that game. … Everybody tried to put the blame on him. We were like, bro, we all in this s— together.”
AS THE NINERS entered their bye, Wilks and Shanahan discussed solutions to get the defense going again. One change — moving Wilks from the booth to the field — seemed cosmetic on the surface but revealed something deeper in Wilks’ coaching approach.
The defense got back on track, and the Niners rattled off six straight wins. Wilks believes his preference to stay calm and relaxed in the booth was left over from his time leading Carolina, where focusing on the next call reigns supreme.
“A lot of that was still carrying over in my mind,” Wilks said. “I also felt like I could see the game better up there, but I didn’t have that interaction with the players and then being connected. That was the difference for me.”
Wilks and the Niners found their footing in the back half of the season. They finished tied for first in the NFL in interceptions (22), third in scoring defense (17.5 points per game), tied for fifth in takeaways (28), seventh in yards per play allowed (5.0) and eighth in yards allowed (303.9).
“I’m happy that it’s kind of calmed down and we’ve figured out our recipe,” defensive end Nick Bosa said.
That recipe has been tested in the playoffs, with Wilks again under the microscope. The Niners have given up 26 points and 159 rushing yards per game in the team’s two postseason contests.
After escaping with a NFC Championship Game win against Detroit in which his defense struggled in the first half and tightened up in the second with a few adjustments such as playing more man coverage, Wilks vowed to get things fixed.
Wilks’ efforts this season were enough to earn him a pair of head coaching interviews — with the Los Angeles Chargers and Atlanta Falcons — this cycle. He didn’t land either job but has been able to use those opportunities to sharpen his interviewing skills. A Super Bowl win as defensive coordinator would be a significant addition to his résumé.
Wilks says being in San Francisco has opened his eyes to the amount of detail and resources that go into a successful franchise. He asks questions about everything — from a team’s nutrition plan to their long-term salary cap health.
“Coming here, I’ve been shown the blueprint of how it should look,” Wilks said. “It’s done the right way. That’s what I’m looking for if I get an opportunity. And if not, I’m content being a part of this great organization and staying right here.”