Aaron Willits takes over Prairie Fire football program; Knox College grad replaces Damon Tomeo
GALESBURG — Aaron Willits has been named the next head coach of Knox College’s football team.
Willits replaces Damon Tomeo, who was let go in November 2020. Tomeo was hired in December 2012 and held an 18-51 mark as the Prairie Fire’s mentor.
Knox’s five wins in the 2017 campaign marked the most in Tomeo’s tenure and the highest mark since the 2002 squad went 6-4. The 2020 graduating senior class amassed the best four-year record since 2005-08.
“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, a 2008 Knox grad who played running back for the Prairie Fire. “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.”
Willits had a successful run as the offensive coordinator at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. In his nine years with the Cobbers, the team went 62-28 and 48-24 in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
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.
“We are excited to have someone of Aaron’s caliber and passion leading our football program,” Daniella Irle, Knox’s director of athletics, said. “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,” Irle added. “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.”
While at Concordia, Willits employed a triple option offense attack. He’s not sure what he’ll implement at Knox.
“We’re going to evaluate what we do. Number 1, we want to put the kids in good scenarios,” Willits said. “Is it triple? I can’t tell you that for sure. We’re going to run the ball. We want to be able to establish the run. We’re going to establish some resemblance of an option based run game that can run the ball North and South.”
“I’m all for a physical brand of football and the run game will be there but 100 % triple option I can’t tell you that right now.”
Willits, an Aledo native, began his coaching career at Knox following his graduation. He served as the school’s 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’ younger brothers, Logan and Jordan Willits, also attended Knox. Jordan is a 2013 grad who was an offensive lineman for the Prairie Fire. Logan, a 2011 grad, played baseball for Knox.
“Knox is a family thing for me. My brothers also went there. It was about family,” Aaron Willits said about his return to Galesburg. “I left when my brother was a freshman in college so the opportunity to get back is huge on a personal level."
Willits orchestrated over 150 campus visits in 2018, and the Cobbers averaged over 50 student-athlete commits per year during his tenure. He plans to bring that same dedication to recruiting and retention to Knox.
“He had a very detailed recruiting plan and I think people on campus were impressed with his plan," Irle said. “We feel like it’s manageable.”
Willits believes what he’s learned along the way will serve him well.
“I’ve learned some things and grown up, and I can do some things that make an impact,” he said. “I want to leave an impact. I want people to be proud of what the kids are doing on and off the field.”
Matthew Wheaton can be reached at (309) 315-6073 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @matthewlwheaton