Former Mountaineer Steve Wilks’ journey to the Super Bowl

Former App State defensive back Steve Wilks and his wife Marcia.
Former App State defensive back Steve Wilks and his wife Marcia.
Courtesy of Marie Freeman, University Communications

The early 2022 season firing of former Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule saw App State alum Steve Wilks serve as interim head coach to finish the season. Wilks revitalized the team’s culture before becoming the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers in 2023 after going 6-6 with the Panthers. 

“Steve is a leader of men. He has experience as a head coach, and I thought he was the best candidate in the building for that role,” said Panthers owner David Tepper during Wilks’ introductory press conference.

Wilks’ football journey began as a defensive back at West Charlotte High School. Mountaineers head coach Sparky Woods recruited the Charlotte native to the High Country in 1987. He played under Woods until 1989 when Jerry Moore became head coach after Woods went to South Carolina. 

After his final season in 1991, Wilks totaled 103 tackles, four interceptions and four blocked kicks as an App State defensive back. 

Former Mountaineer Steve Wilks played defensive back at App State from 1987-91. (Courtesy of App State Athletics)

Wilks’ time with the Black and Gold proved valuable as a player and coach, learning the fundamentals of taking control of a locker room.

“I feel like I learned how to treat players when I was at Appalachian,” Wilks said. “Coach Woods always addressed us by calling us men, because that’s the way he wanted us to think of ourselves as young men and that’s how he expected us to act. Coach Moore treated everyone the same.”

Wilks’ collegiate coaching career began at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, serving as defensive coordinator in 1995-96. 

After serving as defensive coordinator, Wilks served as head coach at Savannah State from 1997-99. In 2000, Wilks transitioned to Division I, where he coached defensive backs for Illinois State.

Wilks returned to App State the following season as defensive backs coach, reuniting with Moore. The Mountaineers finished with a 9-4 record as the former player-turned-coach continued to learn under Moore.

After one season in the High Country, Wilks coached at four different colleges from 2002-05 before earning his first NFL coaching opportunity with the Chicago Bears in 2006.

In Chicago, Wilks served as defensive backs coach and connected with his mentor defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. 

“He’s one of the guys who could come into my office and basically say, ‘Coach, you f—ed that up,’” Rivera said. “He’d be very honest and very blunt and tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear.”

Following the 2006 season, Rivera left to coach for the San Diego Chargers and Wilks stayed with the Bears until he was fired in 2008. Wilks then reconnected with Rivera in San Diego, and followed alongside him until Rivera was hired as the Panthers head coach in 2011.

The Charlotte native was hired as defensive backs coach with the Panthers in 2012. Wilks rose up the ranks within Carolina’s coaching staff as he was promoted to assistant head coach in 2015, a season that saw the Panthers finish 15-1 and appear in Super Bowl 50. 

“There is no secret that my goal is to be a head coach in the NFL, but it’s very important to take care of what is in front of you,” Wilks said in 2016 to the Appalachian Today. “I’ve learned throughout the years that you pay attention to what you should be doing and good things will happen.

In 2017, Wilks was promoted again to defensive coordinator and became a top head coach candidate as he led the Panthers’ defense to rank seventh in total defense and third in rush defense.

This performance pushed him to be hired as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018. Wilks inherited a rebuilding Cardinals team and finished with an NFL-worst 3-13 record, leading Wilks to be fired after one season.  

“The hard part for him there, he was the last guy hired,” Rivera said. “So all the guys that were on his coaching list, they were already locked in. He had to hire guys that he really didn’t want to have to hire. He had to keep guys he didn’t want to keep.”

Wilks went on to serve as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in 2019, leading him to return to the college ranks in 2021 as the Browns did not retain him. 

Back in collegiate coaching, Wilks was hired by Missouri and former App State head coach Eli Drinkwitz to serve as his defensive coordinator.

After a season in Missouri, Wilks returned to the Panthers coaching staff as he was hired by Rhule in 2022. The firing of Rhule led Wilks to be named interim head coach of the Panthers. 

Wilks inherited a 1-4 team and turned around the Panthers season to finish 7-10, nearly clinching a playoff spot. His efforts as interim head coach brought together a divided locker room and restored the ‘Keep Pounding’ mentality to the team.

“We’re at the point in our season where it’s about ‘Keep Pounding,’” Wilks said at his introductory press conference. “If we’re going to turn it around, that’s the mindset we need to have.”

This turnaround led to current and former players calling for Wilks’ interim tag to be removed and become the permanent Panthers’ head coach.

“You guys keep asking the question, we want Wilks,” said Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson to reporters before the offseason.

Ownership decided to go in another direction, hiring Frank Reich as Wilks was named defensive coordinator for the 49ers. 

“Coach Wilks is awesome,” said former Panthers and 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey before the 2023 season. “I think I could talk about Coach Wilks a lot and just the type of man he is, but it says a lot to see how all the Panthers players reacted to him and them vouching for him to get the head job. That’s a testament to who he is, and that explains a lot about not just the coach he is but the guy he is.”

With the 49ers, Wilks led the defense to rank third in points, fifth in turnovers and eighth in total yardage during the regular season. As the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 12-5 record, San Francisco defeated the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round and the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship, claiming a spot in Super Bowl 58. Facing the Kansas City Chiefs in Las Vegas for Wilks’ third Super Bowl coaching appearance, the 49ers fell short in a 25-22 overtime loss.

Like in 2017, Wilks’ name has been mentioned in several head coaching vacancies as he looks to become an NFL head coach again.

Off the field, Wilks and his wife Marcia, continue to make an impact for App State, forming The Steve and Marcia Wilks Post-Graduate Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship in 2021. The scholarship is given to one student-athlete from an underrepresented population pursuing a graduate degree at App State. 

“Marcia and I are honored to offer support to the dedicated and deserving student-athletes of Appalachian State,” Wilks said. “We are committed to making a positive impact on their educational endeavors.”

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