49ers Fire Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks After One Conference-Winning Season

Falling just short of a Super Bowl victory apparently wasn't enough to save his job

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks of the San Francisco 49ers walks onto the field during team entrances before Super Bowl LVIII against the Kansas City Chiefs on February 11, 2024. He was fired after the loss.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks of the San Francisco 49ers walks onto the field before Super Bowl LVIII, the last game he'll coach for the team.
Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Kyle Shanahan has now lost two Super Bowls as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, a job he was given one day after losing another Super Bowl as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. Steve Wilks, who served as Shanahan’s defensive coordinator this past season — his first, in which he helped the 49ers to that aforementioned Super Bowl — was just fired.

“Where we’re going and where we’re at with our team from a scheme standpoint and things like that, looking through it all throughout the year to these last few days, I felt pretty strongly that this was a decision that was best for the organization,” Shanahan said, per ESPN. “A really tough decision, because [it] really says nothing about Steve as a man or as a football coach. I mean, he’s exactly what we wanted as a man. He is a great football coach.”

Those kind words may mildly soften the blow for Niners fans and players, and perhaps even Wilks to some degree, but in an age of continued criticism of the NFL and other high-profile sports leagues for their lack of diversity in leadership positions, this dismissal is difficult to accept. If the Kansas City Chiefs faltered on a single additional possession, in a tightly contested Super Bowl that extended into overtime, and the 49ers came out on top, Wilks would likely still have a job. His firing would have been indefensible. But even after leading a defense that was third in the entire league in points allowed, because the Niners lost — arguably in part because of some dubious decision-making on the part of Shanahan — Wilks got the boot.

NFL to Reward Teams for Developing Minority Talent at Top Organizational Levels
Teams will receive draft pick compensation if minority coaches or execs are poached by other clubs

It has to be said that in terms of overall yards allowed, the San Francisco defense finished eighth in the league. Last year, under coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who’s now the head coach of the Houston Texans, the squad finished second in that category — and by just four yards, to a Buffalo Bills unit that played one fewer game.

“I thought it went well,” said Niners linebacker Fred Warner, talking about the defensive performance in 2023 and the playoffs. “I think people are obviously going to be critical just because of, when you go from having the No. 1 defense one year and then a guy comes in and you’re not the No. 1 defense again, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, what happened?’”

“[W]e still were a top defense in this league,” he added, “and I think we played our best ball when it was needed.”

Wilks is used to one-and-done job scenarios. His first gig in college, as head coach of the Savannah State Tigers, began and ended in 1999, after his team finished one game under .500. A stint as defensive backs coach for the Chicago Bears lasted a whole two seasons in the mid-2000s, and then he spent seven seasons in secondary coaching roles as his reputation grew increasingly strong. In 2016 and 2017, he was the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator, which led to his first head coaching job at the NFL level the next season. But he went 3-13 with the Arizona Cardinals, a team that had no viable starting quarterback, and was fired. Then he spent one season with the Cleveland Browns — another disreputable franchise — as defensive coordinator and was subsequently fired. He got another shot at a head coaching position with the Panthers, succeeding the fired Matt Ruhle on an interim basis. Wilks’s record across 12 games with yet another bad team was 6-6 and yet he was passed over for the permanent job in favor of Frank Reich (who is white, and was then fired after going 1-10 in his first 11 contests last season).

Perhaps one might say that Wilks’ résumé isn’t littered with tons of success when positioned as a top leader, but we’ve seen a number of white coaches given far longer leashes through the years. (Shanahan sure seems to have one.)

To the 49ers’ credit, though, they’d hired Ryans, who’s Black, and prior to him their defensive coordinator was Robert Saleh, a Lebanese American and Muslim, who is now the head coach of the New York Jets. And according to a CBS News report, the NFL recently accomplished its most diverse cycle for head-coaching hires ever.

But that CBS News article also points out that “there’s still work to be done” in the area of representation across the NFL. Firing a Black coordinator who, in his only season, helped his team win a conference championship is pretty indicative of that.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Crypto.com Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!