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The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

Student Read, Student Written, Student Led Since 1878

The Knox Student

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Willits returns to Knox as head football coach

Willits+returns+to+Knox+as+head+football+coach

The Prairie Fire football team celebrates during the Fall 2019 season (Katy Coseglia/TKS)

The Prairie Fire football team celebrates during the Fall 2019 season (Katy Coseglia/TKS)

Earlier this month, Athletics announced Aaron Willits 08’ as Knox’s new head football coach, following Coach Damon Tomeo’s exit last Fall.

Aaron Willits’ introduction to sports was through his mother. His mother was the dance team sponsor at the local high school. Willits was the little kid at sporting events. You know the kid. The kid running around and having the time of his life independent of whatever was going on in the game. As he returns to the Prairie Fire, Willits is now bringing two little kids who will be running around campus just like him in his youth. 

When Willits found out that he was going to be returning to Knox as the head football coach, he immediately told his parents. Despite being named the coach and working from his office, the feeling that he is now the man in charge still hasn’t set in yet. 

“It was a little surreal. I mean, to be honest, it’s still, I don’t know if it’s totally set in yet,” Willits said through Zoom. “I think the opportunity to kind of tell my parents, that was a big one, that this was going to happen, especially with them being in the area that I was coming back home. And I was bringing my family here. I got two little kiddos, you know, that will be running around campus. So, that was kind of maybe the first step to really feeling like okay, this is happening.”

Aaron Willits comes to Knox from Concordia College in Minnesota where he served as an offensive coordinator. During his time at Concordia College, Willits coached Brandon Zylstra, wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. 

However, before Concordia and his new role as Knox head football coach, Willits’ history with Knox started in undergrad. Willits started at Knox as a student athlete from 2004–2008 where he was drawn to the sense of community. When he visited Knox, his admissions rep, Brian Grower, helped him through the process and was someone to talk things out with. 

After it was announced that Willits had become the new head coach, the Knox alum had fellow alums reach out with congratulations. 

“With getting this hire, coming here now, some of those people that I had ED studies with reached out and said ‘I don’t really remember you much as a football player, but I remember you’re a really nice guy and like, it’s super exciting to see that an alum is a part of the program again,’” Willits said.

During his time at Knox College, Willits was heavily involved in the athletic department.

“In the athletic department, I started doing the mail. You know, I was around all the time for the mail. I worked the basketball games as a football player, then I got involved in SAC. Eventually, I became the campus representative for SAC, and then that led me to the Midwest conference representative,” Willits said. “I was just kind of around this building all the time that it grew and grew and grew that athletics was going to be a really big part of what I did in the future.” 

Serving in those different positions served Willits well. A Division III coaching staff doesn’t have the same man power as a Division I coaching staff. Many people will have to wear many different hats. Willits thinks that experience helped him get the job. 

“I think one of the biggest, you know, potential challenges of any division three program, is that you’re going to have to wear multiple hats, right? We don’t have a Division I staff of 30 plus guys and analysts and all of these guys, but you just develop certain processes to make things efficient,” Willits said. 

Athletics Director Daniella Irle cosigned that sentiment, in that Willits’ experience doing multiple jobs did play a role in his hiring. A head coach’s job does not start and end with practice times. Irle likened the job of a head coach to that of a CEO of a company. It’s about managing the various aspects of the team in addition to X’s and O’s. 

“[Aaron Willits] had all the experiences I just mentioned. Having been a coordinator, he’s managed staff, he’s been the recruiting coordinator, so he’s developed those strategic plans for that. He’s been the equipment manager. His broad base of experience is very attractive when you’re hiring a head coach, because head coaches are gonna wear a lot of hats,” Irle said. 

When Willits stepped into his office, there were some familiar names. The coach that recruited him, Andy Gibbons, is now the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach. Coach Willits has also known Cory Bonstead, offensive coordinator, for 17 years. Willits’ relationship with Bonstead is something that will help ease the transition to being Knox’s head coach. 

“Having those relationships, there’s a huge opportunity for me to kind of accelerate the process and not have to just learn campus on top of all the other things that I’m trying to do,” Willits said. 

Coach Gibbons recruited Willits in 2003 out of high school and coached him at Knox. Gibbons remembered that it was Willits’ passion for the game that stood out. As a fullback, then later a running back, Willits still had a desire to learn. He put in the time to learn both sides of the football. It was that yearning to learn that led to Gibbons hiring Willits as an intern.

Throughout Willits’ career, he has been around some impressive coaches—coaches that have helped mold him and experiences that will make him a better coach. So while it helps that he’s an alum, it also helps that he left. 

“He left, and I think that’s great because he went and got a couple of different perspectives on how other people do things.  I’ve seen people come in who’ve had different ideas. I think it’s not only good that he’s an alum, but I also think it’s good that he left and got a couple of years in high school, and then he got to another very successful Division III school,” Gibbons said. 

Willits is ready to start the process. Though he loves Saturdays, he loves Monday through Friday just as much. That’s how the former Knox alum fell in love with the game. He fell in love with the grind, the grueling offseason workouts, weightlifting in the summer when gameday isn’t even in sight. 

“I’m going to be so excited to be in the bowl on Saturdays, you know, a place I haven’t been in awhile. I really like seeing guys get better during the week and from year to year. I like guys that are invested in the process because like, that’s kind of how I grew up in my football life,” Willits said. 

“As an alum, maybe there’s a little more pressure there because you do know all those guys already, you do know all those relationships. They have felt comfortable to touch base with you and talk about their excitement for the program. You really want to speed up the process as fast as possible to have success and put out a product that makes everybody proud of what’s going on.”

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