Coach trying to connect Knox College football to the Galesburg community

Matthew Wheaton
Galesburg Register-Mail
Knox College's Adam Ries, who is sharing the defensive coordinator responsibilities with Cody Hipp in 2022, talks to the Prairie Fire's football team after the first practice of the season Thursday at the Knosher Bowl.

GALESBURG — The members of Knox College's football team moved to town Wednesday.

And on Thursday morning, the Prairie Fire attended their first practice in the 2022 season.

Aaron Willits, who is in his second season as Knox's coach, was amped up before his squad took to the artificial turf at the Knosher Bowl. He'd been getting ready for the day for a while now.

"You prepare for that for such a long time, and I try to be a very structured and organized guy so I've been looking at our fall camp schedule for the entire month of July and looking forward to getting on the field," Willits said. "I opened our team meeting last night and I said 'you play to win and you want that feeling of competition' and probably for a lot of athletes there's a sense of nervousness that comes with that because you've got to go out and execute. I told those guys straight up that there are some nerves that come with it for me more so going into Year 2 than there was in Year 1.

"In Year 1, we were trying to figure out where we were at. Now, we did some things last year. We weren't 10-0. We were 3-6, but we closed some gaps in the middle of things," Willits added. "Coaches and people that pay attention to us saw some things that they'd say 'hey, they're turning in the right direction' and that creates an expectation of what we can, should and are able to do.

"We've done enough to show people that we can trend in the right direction, and we've got to do that every day."

Knox's 'philosophy hasn't changed'

Willits, a 2008 Knox grad who played running back for the Prairie Fire, was hired in February 2021, and he took over for Damon Tomeo, who was let go in November 2020. Tomeo was hired in December 2012 and held an 18-51 mark as Knox's mentor. 

The team's five wins in the 2017 campaign was 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.

Knox College freshman Nick Blencoe (No. 45) partakes in a drill Thursday morning at the Knosher Bowl during the first official practice for the Prairie Fire's football team.

The Prairie Fire did indeed finish the 2021 season with a 3-6 overall mark. In its final six games, Knox went 3-3, and Willits isn't sure how many victories the Prairie Fire will garner in 2022, but he's slowly putting the pieces in place to turn things around.

"Philosophy wise, the foundation is going to be the same," Willits said. "We've got to make sure we're doing everything we can to not play bad football. We've got to make sure we capitalize on the opportunities to play good football against teams. We just have to continue to stay on our path.

"Football isn't rocket science. Our philosophy hasn't changed. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing. We're going to keep learning and growing," Willits added. "I think there are definitely opportunities to win more games. We still have to beat the teams that we should. My goal is to always win a conference championship, but being a realist we know there are some guys at the top, and we've got to make sure that we're playing our best football against those guys, too."

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Prairie Fire's goals the next few weeks?

The Prairie Fire will face the Red Devils of Eureka College in scrimmage action at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27 in Galesburg, and what's Knox's goals before that time comes?

"These next two weeks are about install. It's about learning. It's about getting ourselves going in the right direction. It's about making sure that we have the right bodies in the right places," Willits said. "We're going to have to make some position moves because we don't have one of the deepest rosters in the conference.

"We've got to make sure we're evaluating those pieces and making sure we've got guys in the right spots."

There were 60 players listed on the Prairie Fire's roster in 2021, and there's 68 listed on it this season.

Willits wants to 'grow' relationship with community

Now that he's more accumulated with his coaching staff, Willits has handed off some responsibilities that he took care of last fall, and he's been busy trying to let those in the community know more about Knox football and what he's about.

"We're touching base with people in the community," Willits said. "We're going to get out and do schedule distribution to companies in town so they can help us promote Knox football, and we want to actively engage with the community.

"I'd love to grow the relationship with the Galesburg community," Willits added. "I would love for anybody who is interested in anything football wise to come out and check us out when we play on a Saturday in the Knosher Bowl."

Knox's schedule

Sat., Aug. 27 vs Eureka, 1 p.m. (Scrimmage)

Sat., Sept. 3 vs Westminster College, 2 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 10 at Ripon, 6 p.m.

Sat., Sept. 17 at Lake Forest, 2 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 1 vs University of Chicago, 1 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 8 at Beloit, 1 p.m. 

Sat., Oct. 15 vs Grinnell, 1 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 22 vs Illinois College, 1 p.m.

Sat., Oct. 29 at Lawrence, 1 p.m.

Sat., Nov. 5 at Cornell, 1 p.m. 

Sat., Nov. 12 vs Monmouth, Noon

Matthew Wheaton can be reached at (309) 315-6073 or at Follow him on Twitter @matthewlwheaton