When Steve Wilks was in his first coaching job as an assistant at Johnson C. Smith in 1995, he would often look from the Golden Bulls’ football offices at the Charlotte skyline a few miles away.
“I’m going to work over there someday,” Wilks recalls telling his friend and co-worker Steve Aycock.
“Where, at Nations Bank (now Bank of America)?” Aycock said.
“No,” Wilks said, “with the Panthers.”
That dream has come true for Wilks. He’s now assistant head coach of the Panthers, who are playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
It’s all the more meaningful for Wilks, 46, a Charlotte native who went to West Charlotte High and Appalachian State.
“It’s a blessing every time I go out on the practice field and look up at those skyscrapers,” Wilks said. “It’s surreal and a blessing. To be in the NFL, going to the Super Bowl, and doing it from here in my home city is something I never dreamed of.”
Wilks rose quickly through the coaching ranks. After leaving J.C. Smith in 1996, he coached at seven schools in nine years, including a one-year stint as head coach at Savannah State.
He jumped to the NFL in 2006, coaching the Chicago Bears’ defensive backs.
That’s where he met Ron Rivera, who was the Bears defensive coordinator. When Rivera became the Panthers head coach in 2011, he hired Wilks a year later to be the team’s defensive backs coach. Wilks was promoted to assistant head coach this season. When Rivera’s brother died during training camp last summer, Wilks was placed in charge for the few days Rivera was away.
“The biggest thing for me with (Wilks) is he’s been a sounding board,” said Rivera said. “He’s been a guy that will come into my office and tell me, ‘You might want to rethink this,’ or, ‘You’re wrong about that. When you have a coach who can can come in and honestly say what you need to hear, I think that’s important.”
Wilks said he’s comfortable in that role with Rivera, that it’s part of his job description.
“I work for Ron, but he’s my friend,” Wilks said. “And you should be able to tell your friend not just want he wants to hear, but what he needs to hear. I feel like I can give him a different perspective on things sometimes.”
And it’s all for the good for Wilks’ hometown team.
“This is tremendous for the city, the region,” Wilks said. “We’ve had a great year, but our motto is that ‘it’s not enough to just get here. We’ve got to finish.’ ”