by Jim Davis
The suite of football offices at Knox College (Galesburg, IL) have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the campus, allowing plenty of sunlight to highlight the efforts of one of the hardest-working staffs in NCAA football. In the expansive office of the head coach, there are the usual items: a big screen TV, wall-to-wall white boards with a puzzle of Xs and Os, battle-worn helmets and celebratory game balls. Perhaps not quite as common, there is also a three foot tall painting of the Incredible Hulk.
Aaron Willits, the newly appointed Head Football Coach at Knox College (Galesburg, IL), says that the Hulk image is not only a talking point with players, but serves as an important metaphor for the Knox athlete. “It represents the ideal Knox football player,” says Willits. “You have to have some of Professor Banner in you to get into a school of this quality, and to succeed in the classroom,” he says, noting that “you also have to be able to flip the switch come game day and let the Hulk come out.” It is a metaphor for balance.
Willits was a hard worker in high school. The self-proclaimed over achiever pushed himself to meet the rigorous academic standards of a small college with a big reputation – Knox is routinely named to the list of “Colleges that Change Lives.” He says it was his effort in the classroom that afforded him the opportunity.
That hard work showed up on the field as well. In high school, he led the Aledo Dragons (IL) to two State Championships. At Knox, the fullback saw the field early and earned his way to Captain status as a senior. His college coach, Andy Gibbons (now the Director of the E. & L. Fitness Center at Knox), say that he is the kind of fullback who was eager to “get after it,” which has translated into his coaching style. Gibbons says that Willits is always active, maintaining a mindset of “let’s go, whatever I need to do, let’s do it.”
“That sort of energy is contagious,” says Director of Athletics Daniella Irle, who was excited to announce Willits as head coach this winter. “When he sees a roadblock, he’s going to go over, under, or around it, but he’s not going to stop,” says Irle, adding that “it won’t even break his momentum – he just keeps moving forward.”
The confidence of those at Knox College comes not only from Willits’ approach, but his history of success. For the past decade, he has been coaching at Concordia-Moorhead University (MN), who plays in one of the toughest conferences in the nation. As Offensive Coordinator with the Cobbers, he led a nationally ranked offense while playing against some of the toughest competition in DIII football.
The success at Concordia has not gone to his head. Willits knows that he has his work cut out for him at Knox. “We will be building on 130 years of tradition here at Knox, but we will have to have the mindset that we are staring fresh, and that we all have the opportunity to improve.” That focus on development will be a pillar of the Willits era. He wants strong, fast athletes who can run, jump and change direction – and he wants them to work hard to get there. He’s a big believer in the power of not only performance enhancement, but team enhancement, in the weightroom.
“We develop players in the weightroom and on the track, that’s true,” says Willits, “but we also develop leaders, and we build relationships between teammates.” He was excited to be at a school with such high quality strength training facilities, noting that he has “been to a lot of schools and Knox has one of the best weightrooms in the country.”
Willits was also quick to acknowledge Andy Gibbons, who is one of the few full-time strength coaches in DIII athletics. “With Andy at the school and the quality of our facility, player development is something we can offer recruits that other schools are not able to right now. There might be larger weight rooms out there, but not many, and it’s the quality of work that happens inside the weightroom that’s what really matters – that’s where our competitive advantage really shines.”
As we walked through the E. & L. Andrew Fitness center, it was clear that Willits means every word he says. He is authentic. He is passionate and committed. He is that same hard-working fullback that walked the Knox campus in the early 2000s… but the evolved version of that young man now has more than a decade of elite-level coaching experience.
He’s added more Bruce Banner to his Incredible Hulk, and he has the track record to prove it.
They say that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. But what if you have both? As we enter the Aaron Willits era of Knox football, it seems that we might have the chance to find out.