Best is best coach in FCS according to fans
CHENEY, Wash. — The fans have spoken, and they have voted Best as the best in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
With a late push of votes from Eagle Nation after he led the Eastern Washington University football team to the NCAA Division I Championship game, EWU head coach Aaron Best was declared by Hero Sports as the FCS Coach of the Year in voting which concluded Friday (Dec. 21). Best received nearly 40 percent of the total votes cast, with a total of 2,078 to out-distance North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman with 1,127.
The Eagles – who are 12-2 in Best’s second year at the helm — take on Klieman and the Bison on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, for the championship EWU won in 2010 and NDSU has won six of the seven years since. His team advanced to Frisco with a 50-19 win over Maine on Dec. 15, and Best was quick to praise the EWU’s fans for such a monumental achievement in Best’s 22nd year as either an Eastern player or coach.
“The crowd was amazing – thank you all for coming out,” he said in his post-game press conference. “There was a lot of support and people buying extra tickets to help others get into the stadium. It helped, and it’s always helps this time of year when school is not in session and there aren’t as many students. But it sounded like a mid-season game. I can’t say enough.”
Eastern will return to practice on Dec. 27 in preparation for the title game. The Eagles set school records offensively for total points (623) and most games of 50 points or more (6, tied with the 2014 team), and defensively have tied a school record with nine games of allowing 20 points or fewer (also in 1997, 1981, 1964 and 1949). Amazingly, the Eagles have done that without the services of a bevy of players lost because of injuries. In fact, EWU’s starting lineup from its second game of the season versus Washington State was minus nine players — three on offense and six on defense — versus Maine in the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs.
More on Aaron Best and the 2018 Season . . .
Becoming the fifth different Eastern football head coach to win the honor, Best was selected on Nov. 21 as the Big Sky Conference co-Coach of the Year as selected by his peers in the league, sharing the honor with UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins. Best guided Eastern to a 9-2 regular season record overall (now 12-2) and 7-1 mark in the Big Sky to share the league title with UC Davis and Weber State. In two years at the helm, he has compiled an 19-6 record overall and 13-3 mark in the league.
“This has everything to do with the people we are surrounded with daily, and the resources available to us,” said Best. “I can’t be happier for our 10 assistants and the people behind the scenes who are able to make the days happy and productive. You are only as good as your staff members and your supporting cast.”
Beau Baldwin, Paul Wulff, Mike Kramer and Dick Zornes are the four coaches who came before him, and all were honored at least once. Best played for Kramer, who won in 1997, and then served as an assistant coach under Paul Wulff (2001, 2004, 2005) and Beau Baldwin (2012, 2013).
“I’m happy and thrilled for Aaron,” said Baldwin, who left EWU two years ago to become offensive coordinator at Cal. “He’s very deserving, and it’s amazing what he’s done after the change that occurred from 2016 to 2017 with the coaching staff. He still was able to do a great job in 2017 and back that up this year. It says a lot about his leadership and the guys 100 percent buying in.”
“To be mentioned in the same breath as Coach B, Coach Wulff, Coach Kramer and Coach Zornes, there are very few words to be able to describe that,” Best said. “I’ve never envisioned this. Obviously, you want your team to have success, and this is a coaching staff award that comes as a result.”
Wulff also won the honor in his second year at the helm, while Kramer won in his fourth. Best’s conference winning percentage of .813 is currently slightly better than Baldwin (.806), who won his first coach of the year honor in his fifth season at the helm. Overall, Best (.750) is just ahead of Baldwin (.726) and Dave Holmes (.719), who coached five seasons from 1963-67. Zornes, who coached 15 seasons from 1979-93, won his honor in EWU’s sixth year in the league after joining the Big Sky in 1987. Zornes and Best are both graduates of Eastern as well.
“The award means a ton, but team awards and individual player awards trump the coach of the year award,” Best added. “It’s humbling to be recognized by your peers in anything, but especially as intense as college football head coaching is. I’ve only found that out in two years.”
Best led guided Eastern to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Football Championships — his first playoff appearance as a head coach, but 10th overall. He was a player in 1997, then coached in 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and now 2018. The Eagles won three home playoff games to advance to the NCAA Division I Championship Game on Jan. 5, 2019, in Frisco, Texas.
“We are very proud of Coach Best for his leadership of our football program,” praised EWU Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey . “He is a person of impact with his students, on our campus as a whole, and within the entire Cheney/Spokane community. He is an outstanding coach with a tireless work ethic — but most importantly is a really good person who stands by his values. He has guided his staff and team through a lot of adversity this year due to injuries, but has inspired them to move forward and leave no doubt that they were champions. This is a very well-deserved honor for coach personally, but also for the excellent staff he has surrounded himself with.”
What the Eagles accomplished this season was not lost on Kramer himself, a former veteran coach in the Big Sky and now retired. Eastern lost All-America quarterback Gage Gubrud at mid-season, but have won their last seven games by a dominating 345-139 advantage on the scoreboard (average score of 49-20).
“Aaron and his staff weathered the loss of one of the iconic players in Big Sky history,” said Kramer, who was also head coach at Montana State and Idaho State. “That is leadership. They never wavered and the best is still ahead of them in 2018.”
“It’s a sign of a very senior-laden team, and guys who don’t flinch because they’ve experienced a ton of rocks on the windshield along their journey,” explained Best. “It’s great to connect and integrate former Eagles with our current Eagles, and coach Kramer talked to our team last summer. We are all connected in some way and know how special this place is, and he told the team three words that I’ll never forget: ‘Take the Candy.’ He’s had some very special teams along the way, and he felt like a couple of those teams didn’t take the candy in terms of understanding how privileged they are, how well-equipped they are and how talented they are. Our team did that this year – they did take the candy and now it’s time to take more candy.”
Best has now been a part of 25 playoff games (17-8), with 22 as a coach (15-7) and three as a player (2-1). He has been involved in 21 of those games at home (15-6), just three on the road (1-2) and was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in 2010 when the Eagles won the NCAA Division I title with a 20-19 victory over Delaware on a neutral field in Frisco, Texas.
Best himself is a product from the state of Washington, and that has long been a trademark of the Eagle program as “Washington’s Team.” The Eagles have 105 players in their program, and 82 of them – 78 percent – are from the state of Washington. Eastern’s coaching staff is Washington-based as well, with eight of the team’s 11 full-time coaches (73 percent) hailing from the Evergreen State. Best is a 1996 graduate of Curtis High School in Tacoma, Wash., and shares the same alma mater with Brian Strandley (1990) and Jay Dumas (1992).
Best made his head coaching debut versus Texas Tech in a 56-10 loss on Sept. 2, 2017 in Lubbock, Texas. It came versus the same team Baldwin made his EWU head coaching debut against back on Aug. 30, 2008, in a 49-24 Red Raider victory. Interestingly, Baldwin also graduated from Curtis, six years earlier than Best in 1990. Best was making his debut as Baldwin’s offensive line coach in that 2008 game.
“The thing I like the most about coach Best is that he is authentically going to do it his way,” added Baldwin. He’s not going to do it like anyone else before him. It’s what he believes in and it’s rubbing through. The team sees that and respects that. The team and staff have bought into his vision and that’s why they are in the position at the end of the regular season at 9-2 and a No. 3 seed nationally. It’s all been earned, and I couldn’t be happier with the job he’s done since the moment he stepped in. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the season unfold.”