Cotton Bowl

Justin Wilcox and Jake Spavital lead the candidates to be Cal's next head coach following the departure of Sonny Dykes

With the firing of Cal head coach Sonny Dykes, and one Athletic Department source saying the Bears would want a coach "yesterday," we've got your coaching hot board.

To quote Merlin from 2004's King Arthur: The Romans are leaving, the Saxons are coming. California has fired head coach Sonny Dykes, and now, there's an opening. We've heard from athletic director Mike Williams, and you, our valued members, have heard from my sources, while several recruits have already chimed in. Here's what we know about who's on the Bears' short list. Your top candidates, from what I'm hearing from multiple Athletic Department sources familiar with Williams's thinking, are Wilcox and Spavital.

Get all the micro updates (including Navy HC Ken Niumatalolo) on our message board thread


Justin Wilcox | Wisconsin Def. Coordinator | Age: 40


Why Wilcox is a candidate

UPDATE 4:27 PM: Hearing Wilcox could bring along Jimmy Lake to be his defensive coordinator. It's a possibility, as are Sirmon and Lupoi. Based on conversations I've had with sources, Wilcox may be further along than we suspected.

UPDATE 11:50 p.m., Jan. 10: Based on several conversations I've had over the last couple days, I think it's clear that Wilcox is going to be one of the leaders going forward, along with Spavital. Hearing that Lupoi is excited about the possibility from a couple sources, but he's been mum on details. There was a flight from Madison, Wisc., to Oakland on Tuesday, but have not been able to verify if he was on it.

Update 8:14 a.m., Jan. 11: Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports is reporting that Wilcox has interviewed for the job. There have been rumors over the last few years that Wilcox may not be too keen on being a head coach, but I'm told by a source that he definitely wants this job.

This is a blast from the past for Cal fans. The Bears' linebacker coach from 2003-05, Wilcox is very close with former Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi, who was, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, in contract talks with the Bears to become the new defensive coordinator before Dykes left. Sources said that Lupoi will stay at Alabama, but if Wilcox comes, that could change, as Lupoi was seeking guaranteed years on his contract, given the instability surrounding Dykes's status. Cal could not guarantee those years, if Dykes was still the head coach. One Division I assistant coach suggested that Pete Sirmon would be Wilcox's assistant, and that Lupoi could be a possibility for the head job. I don't think that's likely. Defensive coordinator for Lupoi? Yes, certainly a possibility, but not head coach.

UPDATE 4:59 p.m., Jan. 11: So, that Sirmon thing? Not happening. He was announced as Louisville's defensive coordinator an hour ago. Put one more chit in the Lupoi-as-Cal-DC pile.

Wilcox was the lead candidate when Dykes was flirting with Baylor late last year, and a source close to the search said it would make sense for him to be at the head of the pack now.

Dykes had wanted to bring Lupoi back in 2013, but the support wasn't there among donors. With Lupoi getting to the contract stage this time around, that support would have to be there. Bringing Wilcox back as head coach and Lupoi as the defensive coordinator may not be the sexiest hires, but they will shift the mindset of the program. Wilcox knows the school, knows the recruiting terrain, and knows the conference. 

This won't be an offense-first endeavor anymore, and after two years -- 2013 and 2016 -- of bottom-five defenses in the nation, that could be a refreshing change.

Wilcox, 40, is a native of Eugene, Ore., and played for Oregon as a defensive back from 1996-99, before becoming a graduate assistant at Boise State. Following his stint with the Broncos, Wilcox coached the Bears' linebackers from 2003-2005, on defenses that ranked among some of the best in the nation.

In 2003, Cal was No. 68 in total defense (384.86 ypg) and No. 54 the nation in scoring defense (24.4 ypg). In 2004, the Bears were No. 24 in total defense (320.92 ypg) and No. 8 in scoring defense (16.0 ppg).  In 2005, Cal was 46th in total defense (359.58 ypg) and 26th in scoring defense (21.2 ppg).

In 2014, Wilcox guided USC’s defense into the top 20 in turnover margin, red zone defense and third-down conversion defense. In his last season in Los Angeles, Wilcox had the Trojans leading the Pac-12 in third-down conversion defense and scored five defensive touchdowns, good for third-best in the country. While at Washington, Wilcox had the Huskies in the top 40 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense a year after finishing lower than 105th in each category. In 2013, Wilcox's defense as 29th nationally, with passer efficiency defense jumping 60 spots to No. 27 in 2012, and then No. 10 in 2013.

Wilcox's defense in Madison this year was No. 7 in the nation in total defense, allowing 301.4 yards per game. The Badgers were second in the nation in interceptions (22), No. 3 in rushing defense (98.8 ypg), No. 30 in passing defense (202.6 ypg), and No. 4 in scoring defense (15.6 ppg).

Jake Spavital | Cal Offensive Coordinator | Age: 31


Cal Athletics

Why Spavital is a Candidate 

UPDATE 11:26 a.m., Jan. 9: I'm doing some shoring up of sources, and I've changed a bit in the intro to Spavital. I said that the first Athletics source (who is very close with Williams) enthusiastically responded to Spavital's name, and now that I've spoken to several sources who are involved in the search with Williams, I can firmly say that Spavital is top of mind for the Cal braintrust. Whether he gets the head coaching job or not, I think Spavital is a permanent part of Cal's future plans.

UPDATE 9:49 p.m., Jan. 9: ESPN is reporting that Spavital will be interviewed on Tuesday. A source has confirmed that to BearTerritory as of 10:21 p.m.

UPDATE 1:03 p.m., Jan. 11: A source says that Spavital's interview went well. He interviewed on Tuesday night.

Every Athletics source I've talked to has said, enthusiastically, that Spavital is firmly in the mix. Most importantly, Williams has been impressed with how Spavital has conducted himself this season, both in the limelight and behind closed doors. A donor, two months ago, had already been impressed by what Spavital had done, and viewed him as a legitimate head coaching option, were Dykes to take the Baylor job. There's already a lot of momentum here.

Spavital was getting NFL looks before he joined up with Dykes in Berkeley, and he's considered one of the hottest young coordinators/offensive minds in college. He's going to be a head coach somewhere in the next five years, so why let him go elsewhere? Spavital already has the love of the locker room -- even defensive players like Darius Allensworth, who said on Twitter that he's "down to rock with him," -- and he's an ace recruiter.

Spavital is already the interim head coach, and if Cal, as sources familiar with Williams's thinking say, wants to get this done quickly, Spavital's your man. He also would not cost as much as an older, higher-profile head coach from another program (see below). In this case, yes, it's the easy hire, but it's also the smart one.

Spavital's offense was the lone bright spot for the Bears in 2016, and he's bringing in two stud quarterbacks in the next two classes, in Chase Garbers and Adrian Martinez. Spavital would concern himself entirely with the offensive side of the ball, and could bring on his brother -- Zac Spavital -- to his defensive staff, perhaps to even be the defensive coordinator.

Zac Spavital's defensive backs at Houston helped contribute to a defense that was 44th in pass efficiency defense in the nation, and 30th in passes broken up. Spavital would be the cheapest of the hires, given his age and the fact that he's already here. It would give the staff continuity, and give a rising star his first head coaching gig. It's certainly enticing.

New Name (Jan. 11): Ken Niumatalolo | Navy HC | Age: 51


USA Today Sports Images

The Latest

UPDATE 9:48 p.m., Jan. 11: Niumatalolo emerged on Wednesday as a possible candidate, and a source who's close to the process said that he's been gaining steam. A former Hawaii quarterback, Matalolo has been the head coach at Annapolis since taking over for the Poinsettia Bowl in 2007. He has run the triple option the entire time. Niumatalolo initially arrived at Navy as a running backs coach in 1995, and after a year, was elevated to offensive coordinator. His star pupil early was Chris McCoy, who set an FBS record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, with 20, which was broken by Tim Tebow in 2007. In 2009, one of Niumatalolo's quarterbacks, Ricky Dobbs, re-took the record, with 24.

Niumatalolo then became an assistant at UNLV, coaching tight ends and special teams, while calling plays, from 1999-2001, before returning to coach the offensive line for the Midshipmen from 2002-07.

Under Niumatalolo, Navy beat Notre Dame in 2009, 2010 and 2016. In nine of Niumatalolo's 10 years, Navy has had a winning record.

Niumatalolo is 77-42 as a head coach, and has twice won The American West Division. He was the American Conference's co-coach of the year in 2015, and won it outright in 2016. Over the last two years, Navy has gone 20-7. A member of the LDS church, He interviewed for the opening at BYU, and after an "agonizing" decision-making process, decided not to take the job.

New Name (Jan. 11): Bill Musgrave | Fmr. Oakland Raiders OC | Age: 51



The Latest

UPDATE 10:01 p.m., Jan. 11: A source has confirmed that Musgrave interviewed with Cal on Wednesday. Musgrave has also reportedly interviewed with the Denver Broncos to be their offensive coordinator, and is interviewing on Thursday, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. Musgrave's contract expired, and he was not renewed. Todd Downing is expected to replace him under Jack Del Rio.

Musgrave's offense in Oakland finished sixth in the NFL in total yards and seventh in points. Under his guidance, quarterback Derek Carr reached two Pro Bowls. Before Oakland, Musgrave was the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he's been an offensive coordinator or QB coach every season since 1998. An Oregon alum, Musgrave has coached two years in college, for Virginia as OC and QB coach from 2001-02. After being selected as a fourth-round pick in the 1991 NFL Draft, Musgrave played in the NFL from 1991-96, before taking a QB coaching job with the Raiders in 1997. He's had stops in Philadelphia, Carolina, Jacksonville, Washington, Atlanta and Minnesota.

Musgrave's three seasons as OC for the Vikings coincided with the height of Adrian Peterson's powers. In 2011, Minnesota's rushing offense ranked fourth in the NFL, but the passing offense was 28th. The Vikings were 18th in the NFL in total offense. In 2012, Minnesota was 31st in the NFL in passing offense, and second in rushing offense. In 2013, the Vikings were 23rd in passing, and eighth in rushing, with the 13th-ranked offense in the NFL.

Ron Rivera | Carolina Panthers Head Coach| Age: 54


Kyle Terada/USA TODAY

Why Rivera is a candidate

Update 11:26 AM, Jan. 9: I've moved Rivera up and changed his arrow to trending upward. Two sources told me yesterday evening that Williams was set to talk with NFL connections to get a better sense of who would be open to coming back to Berkeley. That conversation was to happen today. I'm probing my contacts to see what transpired, but this certainly is a bump for Riverboat Ron. He was on my list way back in November, and the only reason he wasn't higher was because he was still in the midst of a season.

UPDATE 11:50 p.m., Jan. 10: Williams has spoken with NFL connections, and while the content of those conversations is being kept close to the vest, I'm assured that Rivera is on the table, among several other NFL candidates.

UPDATE 11:33 a.m., Jan. 11: A source said that Rivera is "probably not coming." 

When I spoke on Sunday with multiple Athletic Department sources, Rivera's name was mentioned prominently, so expect Cal to make a run at its former All-American linebacker in the next few days.

The last time the Cal job was open, Rivera was a candidate until the very end. The only things that could not be overcome were Sandy Barbour's search firm and the fact that he would have had to hit the eject button in Charlotte before the NFL season was over, in order to take over the program in a timely manner, and finish the recruiting cycle. With the Panthers finishing 6-10, I expect the latter won't be an issue, and Rivera recently came to Berkeley for nephew Bug's Senior Night against UCLA, giving him a little bit of extra 'member berry juice to sprinkle atop the job prospect.

This time around, it's highly unlikely that athletic director Mike Williams uses a search firm (given time constraints), and instead relies on alumni contacts in and around the NFL and college football. Rivera has already shown an interest in the job before, and he has to be a candidate now. At the very least, Williams will make the ask. The fact that Rivera -- an All-American linebacker at Cal -- is a defensive-minded head coach should provide some salve to those upset over the performance of the defense over the last four years. The biggest drawback: Not a whit of college coaching experience. He would need to hire a staff that knows how to recruit, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

NEW NAME (Jan. 11): Derek Mason | Vanderbilt HC


Why Mason is a Candidate

Mason has emerged as a candidate as of Wednesday morning. Sources have been mum on the Cal side of things, but it's been reported by and FOX Sports's Bruce Feldman in the early hours Wednesday that there may be some interest. Mason has ties to the Bay Area, serving as the Stanford DC from 2011-14 (he was a co-DC in 2011, then was elevated to sole DC in 2012), going to two straight Rose Bowls. His defenses in Palo Alto were 20th (2012-13) and 16th (2013-14) in total defense in the nation, earning him the head coaching nod at Vanderbilt. Mason has gone 13-24 in three seasons as a head coach, and went 6-7 this year, up from 4-8 in his second go. Defensively, Mason's Commodores have ranked 104th in his first season, but after he took over defensive play-calling duties, his defenses ranked 22nd and 35th in scoring defense in his second and third seasons, respectively. Before he arrived, Vanderbilt was 46th in scoring defense in 2013-14.

The Drawbacks

The Commodores have struggled offensively under Mason, not scoring an offensive touchdown for nine quarters to start his tenure. In 2016, Vanderbilt was the 109th-ranked scoring offense in the nation (22.0 ppg), and by scoring 15.2 points per game in 2015, the Commodores ranked 123rd in scoring offense. The 2014-15 season saw Vanderbilt rank 116th in scoring offense, averaging 17.2 points per game. This could all be solved by keeping Spavital on as offensive coordinator.

UPDATE 10:52 a.m., Jan. 11: Well, that was quick.

Chip Kelly | Fmr. San Francisco 49ers HC | Age: 53


Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Why Kelly is a Candidate

UPDATE: 9:24 a.m., Jan. 11: I've now been told not to count out Chip Kelly. Cal sources were down on Kelly early on, but that seems to now have changed. "Don't count it out," said one source with knowledge of the search, citing his $18m owed over the next three years from the San Francisco 49ers. Because of offset language in his contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kelly still is owed $6.5 million combined from the two teams in 2017 and $6 million in both 2018 and 2019. Would he accept a below-market-rate contract from Cal, over the first three years of his contract? Cal would then likely have to pay a lot more money if he stays beyond three years, which the source said "is a good problem to have." It is unclear whether he would want the job.

He's close, he's unemployed, and he's been an ace at the college level in the past. He's likely not going to get another NFL job after his exits from Philadelphia and San Francisco, and while he was down about returning to college in the past, that may now be his only option.

The Drawbacks

Update 11:31 a.m., Jan. 9: To add to this section, Cal is looking for something sustainable, and Kelly is not that. Tickets and donations numbers are way down, and the Bears need something to goose those numbers. Kelly would certainly do that immediately, but Williams, in his statement and at his press conference, expressed his desire for someone to run the program for a while, and to be all-in with commitment to the program. Kelly, as good as he would be for a quick hit of cash and enthusiasm, would likely be eyeing the next NFL gig that comes along. That's not a game Cal wants to play every offseason. Beyond that, Kelly didn't like recruiting, even while at Oregon. In 2018, Cal admissions standards will ratchet up for athletes: 80% of recruits have to have a 3.0 high school GPA or better.

In a word: Money. In two words: Money and temperament. Cal already has to pay $5.88 million over the next three years to Dykes, and getting the donor community -- which is stretched as it is -- to pay for not only that, but Kelly and a new staff, and trying to save sports, that's just too much to ask. One Athletic Department source familiar with Williams's thinking said that Kelly would be prohibitively expensive (even with the money he's getting from the 49ers and Eagles), and that he's very difficult to work with. Athletic Director Mike Williams and Dykes already didn't have the greatest working relationship, and it's hard to imagine that Williams and Kelly would fare much better. Spavital is a much more viable candidate than Kelly.

Hue Jackson | HC, Cleveland Browns | Age: 51


Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Why Jackson is a candidate

Jackson's latest foray into the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been a decided flop, with the Browns, at one point poised to take Jared Goff with the No. 2 overall pick, floundering at 1-15. Jackson was interviewed for the Cal job last time it opened, and it's possible he would be at least mildly interested again. This one falls under the heading of "you've got to ask him," as the Bears look to start at the top and ask everyone. Jackson was even in the mix when Dykes was about to bolt last year, for Missouri.

Why Jackson is not a candidate

Jackson was turned off by the search firm last time around, and if Williams is open to a different way of looking for a head coach, that could work in Jackson's advantage. If there's a college job Jackson would bolt for, this would be it, but sources in Cleveland say that Jackson is staying put, given that he's in the first year of a five-year contract, and "he is not going anywhere and has no intention to leave."

Les Miles | Fmr. HC, LSU | Age: 63



UPDATE 7:56 p.m., Jan. 9: As I suspected, Miles is not a candidate. I've verified this with a source close to AD Mike Williams. Like I said, I had a feeling he wasn't going to be in it, but he's now a definite 'no.'

Why Miles is a candidate

If Cal wants to swing for the fences, donors have told BearTerritory that they would pony up for a major candidate, and Miles would certainly qualify. Miles has been extremely successful in his coaching career, guiding LSU to a 114-34 record in 11 full seasons, and the first four weeks of last season, before being fired by the Tigers. He's got a national title under his belt, and two appearances in college football's title game. He's interviewed with Houston, and he's said publicly that he's not limiting himself to a Power Five job. Could he be open to coaching in Berkeley? It seems like he's open to coaching anywhere.

Why Miles is not a candidate

The donors cited above were asked about Miles and other big-name hires while Dykes was still in the running for other jobs (and had he gotten those jobs, it would have mitigated the money Cal would have had to have paid him). Now that Dykes has been relieved of his duties, that means Cal has to pay his buy-out ($5.88m). That changes the equation a bit. The culture clash between Miles and Cal officials may also be an issue. Sources close to Williams have said that it's far more likely the Bears go in an up-and-coming direction, or go with a coach who already has ties to Cal (i.e. Rivera, Spatival, et al.).


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