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Willits Named New Knox Football Coach

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

By John Ring GALESBURG —Knox College Director of Athletics Daniella Irle announced Aaron Willits ‘08 as the Prairie Fire head football coach on Monday. Willits was selected following a national search that included over 150 applicants. “We are excited to have someone of Aaron’s caliber and passion leading our football program,” said Director of Athletics Daniella Irle. “He has led a nationally ranked offense, and consistently recruited tremendous student-athletes to a highly competitive Midwestern program in a strong NCAA Division III conference. In addition to his offensive intelligence, I was also very impressed with Aaron’s well-rounded knowledge of the game. He brings a high football IQ to the table that extends well beyond the offensive side of the ball. He is very knowledgeable on the defensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. Overall, Aaron has a clear and complete vision for the future of the Prairie Fire football program, and I am confident that he can take us to the next level with his energy and work ethic.” Willits, a 2008 Knox graduate, makes his return to Knox after a successful run as the Offensive Coordinator at Concordia College (Minnesota). In his nine years with the Cobbers, the team went 62-28 and 48-24 in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). Willits coached 21 All-Conference performers, four all-region performers and an All-American. He also coached two MIAC Most Valuable Players and the Buddy Bell Minnesota College Impact Player of the Year. Former Cobber Brandon Zylstra, a 2015 All-MIAC performer, is now a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. “It means so much in so many different ways for me to be returning to Knox. It means I have come full circle, and now get to invest in a football program and College that invested in me,” said Willits. “I get to work alongside coaches and leaders that made a huge difference in my life, and now I can offer that exceptional experience to the next generation of student-athletes on and off the field. Coming back to Knox, and to this position, in particular, is a tremendous responsibility. I am truly honored, and ready to get to work. I want to thank Director of Athletics Daniella Irle, President Teresa Amott, and the entire search committee for allowing me the opportunity to present my vision for the future of the Knox College football program, as well as for their belief in my vision and ability to see it through.” On top of his Offensive Coordinator role, Willits also served as Recruiting Coordinator, Strength and Conditioning Coach, and Equipment Manager for the Cobbers. Willits orchestrated over 150 campus visits in 2018, and the team averaged over 50 student-athlete commitments per year during his tenure. Willits plans to bring that same level of commitment to recruiting and retention to Knox. “One of the things that stood out to me was his understanding of the strengths of Knox, the priority we place on cultural competency, and how to create and implement a recruiting plan that encompasses those elements,” added Irle. “He will develop a recruiting plan that will extend beyond the football program to complement other Prairie Fire teams and the College as a whole. I was also impressed with the relationships he developed with the student-athletes and staff he worked with at Concordia College (Minnesota), and in their surrounding community. Aaron is a team player, and will help us not only develop the football program, but the College and the athletics department as a whole.” “The coaching staff has worked hard to create a class, and I want to keep that momentum going. The immediate plan is to find high-quality student-athletes who want to join our program and do things the right way on and off the field,” continued Willits. “Being from the area, I want to establish strong local recruiting ties immediately. That being said, I also want to broaden our footprint nationally, and I am willing to travel across the country to find players who want to do things the Knox way and be a part of our program. I have developed hundreds of relationships with student-athletes and recruits over my years as a coach, and being able to connect with recruits is key to the success of the program.” Coming off one of the largest recruiting classes in recent history, the 2021 Knox College football team is poised to move up the Midwest Conference standings. “The future of Knox College football is filled with potential. I envision a team of talented student-athletes who are going to hold each other accountable, and work hard to put a good product on the field,” concluded Willits. “This product will represent their efforts as well as those that have played in the past, and be something that the entire Knox College campus, community, and family can be proud of. And yes, I envision winning more football games. I want to create meaningful winning experiences for our student-athletes on the field without sacrificing the development of quality students and community members off the field.” Willits began his coaching career at Knox following graduation. He served as Recruiting Coordinator for two years and coached the offensive line his first year and running backs in his second year. As a Prairie Fire player, Willits earned All-Midwest Conference honors in his senior year when he rushed for 648 yards in only eight games. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Offensive Player in 2007. He rushed for 1,626 yards for his college career, scored 11 touchdowns, and carried the ball 377 times. Willits earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in social science and secondary education from Knox College in 2008. Things they are saying: Terry Horan, Head Football Coach at Concordia College (Minnesota): “I’m beyond excited for Aaron, he has been grooming himself for this calling the last nine years as he wore many hats within our football program most recently as our offensive coordinator. Aaron is organized, competitive, knowledgeable, and a solid communicator to not only the players he has coached, but to the recruits and families he has recruited over the years too. Aaron is a team player, and he will be a huge asset to the Knox College Athletic Department as you will see him supporting every team, and you will see his football teams actively involved with that support too. I always have said the greatest respect that I can show Aaron is that I never wanted to see him leave our program…he’s someone that I trust, respect, admire, and I know if I give him a job to do he will get it done better than what I asked it to be. Way to go Knox College on this hire…you hit it out of the park with the hiring of one of your very own in Aaron Willits.” Jim Davis ‘06, Former Knox Football Player, Hall of Fame Class of 2018, All-American, and Founder of The Good Athlete Project: “Knox just got one of the most hard-working, passionate, innovative young coaches in college football. For the past decade, Aaron Willits was a leader in one of the most competitive conferences in D3 football - week in and week out, he would prepare for top-ranked teams in the country. I’m excited to see him bring that expertise to the Midwest Conference. He knows how to recruit, and he knows how to win. I’ve known that since his very first day on campus, back when we played together. Even then, he had an uncanny ability to be both tough and kind: as a fullback, he could knock you down, and as a teammate, he could lift you up just as easily. This is the beginning of a meaningful era in Knox College Football. Truly, the fire is rising!” Brandon Zylstra, Wide Receiver with the Carolina Panthers: “Coach Willits will be a coach and mentor to these kids. One of his best qualities as a coach is building relationships with his players that lasts longer than the four years they will play for him. I still connect with him regularly and that’s something I have always appreciated about him. 5+ years out of college and he is still calling me to check up to make sure I’m doing well. He will hold his players accountable and help them unlock their full potential.” Andy Gibbons, Former Head Football Coach at Knox College: “From the day Aaron walked in the door as a first-year running back from Aledo he had a different way about him. I could tell right away he was a big-time student of the game and was going to be a coach. He challenged me all the time, in a good way, as a player and did a great job starting his career as a coach for us in 2008. I am so excited for Prairie Fire football and for Aaron.” Brian Mistro, Head Football Coach at Jamestown University: “Aaron’s passion for his alma mater is without question. He will bring an energy and excitement to the football program as well as the campus community as a whole.

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