Originally Published: January 22, 2018 11:50 p.m.
Former Panthers DC has been NFL assistant for 12 years
PHOENIX — Steve Wilks is the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and chances are he won’t tread meekly into his new job.
“Steve’s personality is as an aggressive guy,” his ex-boss, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, said.
Wilks, 48, spent last season as defensive coordinator of the Panthers after five seasons as the team’s secondary coach. He’s been an NFL assistant for 12 years.
Wilks replaces the colorful and outspoken Bruce Arians, who retired after five seasons and compiled a franchise-record 50 victories.
With the hiring of Wilks, all three major football programs in the state have African-American coaches — Wilks, Herm Edwards at Arizona State and Kevin Sumlin at Arizona. Wilks is the Cardinals’ second African-American coach (Dennis Green was the first) and the only minority candidate to get an NFL head coaching job this hiring cycle.
The Cardinals were 8-8 last season despite a myriad of significant injuries and closed out Arians’ career with a win in Seattle.
“This is not really a rebuild, this is a retool,” Wilks told azcardinals.com. “We have the culture of winning here. We just have to be able to sustain it. It’s all about trying to get to the next level and the consistency you need to get to the next level.”
Patrick Peterson, perennial Pro Bowl cornerback and a leader of the Arizona defense, tweeted simply “I LOVE IT.”
Azcardinals.com released a brief video of Wilks talking to Arizona fans.
“I’d like to introduce myself to the ‘Bird Gang,’” he said. “This is your head coach Steve Wilks. I’m so excited about building something great here. It’s all about trying to create a commitment to excellence and I can’t wait to see you guys at the Red Sea.”
Wilks was in Arizona for a second interview last week and was interviewed for the Tennessee job, which went to Mike Vrabel. Wilks also coached for 11 years at the collegiate level, including a one-year stint as head coach at Savannah State in 1999.
The Cardinals planned to introduce Wilks as coach at a news conference Tuesday at team headquarters.
Wilks played defensive back at Appalachian State, attended the Seattle Seahawks training camp and played for the Charlotte Rage of the Arena Football League.
He worked his way up through the college assistant coaching ranks with stops at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, Savannah State, Illinois State, Appalachian State, East Tennessee State, Bowling Green, Notre Dame and Washington.
Wilks’ first NFL job was as defensive backs coach of the Chicago Bears. He held a similar job with the San Diego Chargers for three seasons before joining the Panthers staff.
Under Wilks this season, the Panthers ranked seventh in total defense.
Speaking about Wilks last week, his Charlotte players were supportive.
“I think he gets guys to relate to him, get on the same page, get on the same scheme,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “He comes to work every day and guys respect that. Just his whole personality. His mentality of getting guys to play how you want to play. He’s a good coach for that.”
In an interview last fall, linebacker Luke Kuechly said, “Steve Wilks and all those guys are doing an excellent job of game-planning and putting us in position to be successful and utilizing what we do well. Those coaches listen (to the players).
“They’re not hard-headed. They do a great job with us. They motivate us. They do a good job of making sideline corrections and in-game adjustments. It’s fun to play for them.”
The Cardinals were the last team to fill a coaching vacancy, just as they were in 2013 when they hired Arians, who won his second NFL coach of the year award in his second season with the team.
Last week, Rivera talked about Wilks’ coaching potential.
“I know that Steve is a hot commodity, deservedly so,” Rivera said. ‘He has done a tremendous job wherever he’s been, starting in Chicago and San Diego and down here with us. It’s going to be a tough one. Him and Sean (McDermott) are two very good people who are very special to this organization.”
Wilks replaced McDermott as Carolina defensive coordinator when McDermott was named head coach at Buffalo a year ago.
The Cardinals have a head coach with a background in defense for the first time since Dave McGinnis was hired 17 years ago. Wilks’ first task probably is to hire an offensive coordinator, a move that’s particularly important because the retirement of Carson Palmer left Arizona with no quarterback.
And general manager Steve Keim is turning his attention full-time to finding that elusive quarterback, through a trade, free agency, the draft or any combination of the three.