CHENEY, Wash. - It has always started up front for the Eastern Washington University football team, and Aaron Best has been front and center for 20 years.
The long-time offensive line coach and former All-America center for the Eagles was introduced as Eastern's 21st head football coach in school history Monday (Jan. 23), with a long line of support past and present – particularly from the legacy of outstanding offensive linemen Eastern has created.
"I appreciate the opportunity from the bottom of my heart," said Best, who is just the second Eastern graduate to become EWU's head football coach in more than 50 years. "I have a lot of different Eagle caps I wear, and I am proud – very privileged and proud – for this opportunity."
"Searches are about the right fit at the right time," said Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves of replacing nine-year head coach Beau Baldwin. "You always try to look at some degree internally, and we're just so excited that the right fit was within our four walls at this stage of the game. Coach Best knows the DNA of our program after two decades. He knows it as a recruited student-athlete here at Eastern and as an assistant coach who has done a number of things during his time here. There is no question Coach Best is the right person at the right time to build upon what Coach Baldwin did here for the past nine years."
Best is among the 19 offensive linemen who have earned All-America honors since 1996 when he first arrived on the Cheney campus. He himself and four teammates were All-Americans, then he had a hand in coaching the next 14. Those 19 players combined for 21 first team All-Big Sky Conference honors in 20 years.
Those players have also combined for nine appearances in postseason all-star games, with many going on to professional careers. Most notable was Michael Roos, who went on to a 10-year career with the Tennessee Titans in the National Football League. Three recent linemen are currently on NFL rosters – Jake Rodgers (Carolina), Clay DeBord (Dallas) and Aaron Neary (Philadelphia).
Best is the first to admit the offensive line legacy started under former head coach and Eastern graduate Dick Zornes, as well as offensive line coaches Larry Hattemer and Mike Kramer. That tradition – including eventual NFL players Ed Simmons, Kevin Sargent, Jeff Mickel, Trent Pollard and Tom Ackerman – was a big reason Best chose to be an Eagle. He played four seasons under Mike Kramer, who is now head coach at Idaho State (Eastern doesn't play the Bengals in 2017). His offensive line coach at EWU Paul Wulff, who became EWU's head coach in 2000 and subsequently hired Best. Wulff is now an assistant coach at Sacramento State, who the Eagles host on Sept. 30, 2017.
"I wish I could have played directly for Dick Zornes – we would have been a tandem to be dealt with, so to speak," Best said of EWU's all-time coaching leader with 89 victories (Baldwin had 85). "He was the athletic director here at the time, and the first thing he asked Coach Wulff was, 'you recruited this kid?' From there our friendship blossomed. I appreciate and thank Paul Wulff wholeheartedly for giving me the opportunity to be a student-athlete here. Under his tutelage, I became an offensive line coach after I received my degree."
Best knows it will take more than linemen to continue to make the Eagle offense tick and the entire team to continue the tradition of success Eastern has had through the years. In his 20 seasons associated with the Eagle program, Best has been a part of teams who have won eight Big Sky Conference titles with a collective record of 99-48 (67.3 percent), have made nine NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoff appearances and have an overall record of 147-83 (63.9 percent) in two decades (1996-2006 and 2008-2016).
But he vows to put his stamp on the offense.
"It's not going to change, but what I will say is that we need to be more balanced," he explained. "We are still going to be pass first and I took notes about how to throw the ball forward and maybe what routes to run, so we're not going to become a wishbone, triple-option veer team. So Eagle Nation, rest assured, we are still going to be explosive and fun to watch.
"Heck, there are times I wish I was in the stands watching us instead of being down on the field seeing if we can hold up a protection to be able to throw a 40-yard fade to any of those receivers we've had here," he continued. "We'll be more balanced, but that's not to say we're going to go back to the drawing board and be run first. We'll be pass first."
All-America skill players have captured the most headlines in recent years, as Eastern's offense has a long history or being one of the best in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. In the last 13 seasons (2004-16) – 12 with Best on the coaching staff -- EWU has ranked in the top 10 in passing 11 times, in total offense on nine occasions and scoring five times.
All the while, Best was learning from Baldwin, who is now offensive coordinator at Cal. Baldwin graduated in 1990 from Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., and Best graduated from the same school six years later.
"I thank Coach Baldwin immensely," said Best. "I went to Curtis and Coach Baldwin went to Curtis, and people seem to think we graduated in the same class. Untrue – he is older. Before I worked for him, I rooted for him some 30 years ago.
"He's done wonders for this university and football program. I've taken physical notes and mental notes – I couldn't take enough and burned through a lot of paper because of all the things you can grasp from that man. I knew one day this would occur and Coach Baldwin would go a different direction, and I'm forever grateful for all he taught me and the time I spent with him. He's not only a great football coach, but he's a great family man, a great mentor and even better, he's a great friend."