"After 29 years at Whitman, I think it's time to step aside," Wilcox said. "I still enjoy working with the students and athletes, but my energy level isn't what it used to be."
An associate professor of physical education, Wilcox coached the women's basketball team for the past 15 seasons. After revitalizing the program in the early 1980s, he led Whitman to a conference championship during the 1987-88 season. In the eight seasons that followed, his teams advanced into post-season play five times and narrowly missed a sixth trip to the playoffs.
Despite the lean early years, his women's teams compiled a 178-179 won-loss record. Wilcox twice earned conference coach-of-the-year honors.
Wilcox came to Whitman as an assistant football coach in 1967, seven years after winning an NFL championship ring with the Philadelphia Eagles.
He coached football at Whitman until 1975, stepping down a few years before the college discontinued its gridiron program. Wilcox also coached the men's basketball team for 10 seasons during the 1970s, and he served as athletic director for five years in the early 1980s.
"John has been a very strong leader within the athletic department, and his leadership is something we're going to miss," Whitman athletic director Max Seachris said. "Over the past five years, he's also had as much success as anyone in the department in terms of recruiting student-athletes and coaching."
Marcella Weissback Rietz, a team captain on the women's basketball team who graduated from Whitman in 1995 with a degree in psychology, said Wilcox served as a father figure as well as a coach.
"He treated us like we were his daughters," Rietz said. "He put us first and always had our best interests in mind. It was comforting to know that he cared for us as individuals first and players second. He was always there for us personally, academically and athletically."
Rietz, who is completing a master's degree at Walla Walla College, said she was "honored" when Wilcox asked her to serve as assistant coach during the 1995-96 season.
"I admire and respect Coach Wilcox immensely," she said. "We tried to give 100 percent of ourselves everytime we stepped onto the court, whether it was practice or a game, because we knew Coach Wilcox was giving 100 percent."
Another of his former players, Susan Hubbard Sakimoto, remembers Wilcox in much the same way.
"John was a great basketball coach," Sakimoto said. "I learned a lot of basketball from him, and we won a conference championship while I was there. But it was always just as important to him that we excelled as students and people as well as athletes. He was our coach for living as well as for basketball."
Sakimoto, a standout athlete at Sandpoint, Idaho, High School, said Wilcox was "one of the reasons I picked Whitman over other colleges and better offers, and I never regretted it."
Sakimoto, who led Whitman in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots during its championship season, graduated in 1989 and recently completed her doctoral degree in earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Now a research associate at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, she returned to Whitman in November, 1995, to give a talk on the Magellan and Surveyor space probes.
Wilcox launched his coaching career at the high school level in 1961, after deciding against returning to the Philadephia Eagles for a second season. Professional sports were far less lucrative in those days, and Wilcox felt his NFL future was uncertain due to his lack of bulk. As a 6-foot-5 yet undersized 215-pound defensive end, he understood that his roster spot hinged somewhat precariously on his special teams play.
Before coming to Whitman in 1967, Wilcox spent a handful of years coaching football and teaching math at high schools in the Boise and Portland areas.
Wilcox, a graduate of Vale High School in eastern Oregon, played collegiate football at Boise State and the University of Oregon. He later completed a master's degree in education at Portland State University.
Wilcox says he attempted to pattern his coaching style after the principles he admired in his coaches in high school and college.
"I enjoyed playing for my coaches, and they were very supportive as I went through that process of growing up," he said. "They were not only good coaches, they were good people, and I respected them a lot. I knew they cared about me not just as a football player, but as a person."
"As I look back, all my coaches when I was a younger had a philosophy that has stayed with me during my own coaching career," Wilcox added. "You care about your players as individuals first and as players second."
And even though Wilcox-the-player reached a pinnacle of team success that most athletes only dream about, Wilcox-the-coach placed more value on the personal development of his players than on the winning percentage of his teams.
"Of course we want our teams to play up to their potential, and we certainly enjoy seeing them play well, but I also enjoyed a great deal of satisfaction when players turn it around academically, or when they developed emotionally, socially or physically," he said. "It was very rewarding to see players make positive changes in their lives from the time they first step onto the courts to the time they graduate."
Wilcox said he has no doubt that athletics helped hundreds of Whitman students complete a well-rounded education, and pass through one final stage of development. "You think of it as that stage between being girls and women and boys and men."
Wilcox and his wife, Remy, will continue to make their home in the rural Milton- Freewater area, where they farm 20 acres of apples.
Wilcox said his retirement plans include spending more time with his three children and his grandchildren. His two sons, Michael and Marcus, both graduated from Whitman. Michael is a medical doctor in Bend, Oregon, while Marcus is owner of an engineering firm in Portland. His daughter Karen graduated from Willamette University and now teaches at George Fox College.
Wilcox also hopes to attend University of Oregon football games as often as possible this fall. His two nephews, the sons of former San Francisco 49er linebacker Dave Wilcox, will both play for the Ducks this season.