Chris Willis named new head football coach

New North Alabama head coach Chris Willis looking on as the Lions played in the Division II National Championship in Kansas City, Kansas, Dec. 17. Willis has spent the past 15 years at UNA as an assistant under three different head coaches, and is tasked with replacing legendary head coach Bobby Wallace.

by Sports Editor Andrew Fulmer

It took less than 48 hours for North Alabama athletics to find a replacement for the school’s all-time winningest football coach Bobby Wallace.

University officials announced Dec. 22 that interim head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Willis would become the program’s 10th head coach and ninth since football returned to UNA in 1949.

Willis is the longest-tenured coach on the current staff, having been at UNA for 15 seasons. During that time, he served under three different head coaches: Mark Hudspeth, Terry Bowden and Wallace.

“This is home,” Willis said. “I’ve had some opportunities to go places. I’ve interviewed for a couple of jobs. It comes back to the same thing, it’s the people and the place. (My family and I) love Florence, and that’s one of the reasons I’m standing here today.”

Willis said continuing a player-coach relationship style of coaching that Wallace instituted is one thing he wants to continue in his tenure.

“I want players to pull up in their cars and go in (the athletics) building with excitement, that we’re going out here today to better ourselves and to continue the things we’ve been doing,” he said. “There’s nothing broke. I’m not her to fix anything. I’m here to continue what we have been doing.”

UNA Director of Athletics Mark Linder said there was no doubt Willis is the right person for the program.

“Dr. Kitts and I have been talking about a plan since last year that there was going to come a time where Coach Wallace was going to retire,” he said. “We both landed on the decision that Chris was the right person at the right time.”

Willis has spent the past five seasons as defensive coordinator under Wallace. During that time, Willis’ defenses have produced five All-Americans, including 2013 Division II National Defensive Player of the Year Tavarious Wilson.

“He deserves this job,” Wallace said. “He’s had several different responsibilities here, from football operations to coaching safeties. When he took on the assistant head coach title, he did a fantastic job.”

During the 2016 season, UNA’s defense limited opponents to 14.54 points per game and gave up nine passing touchdowns all season en route to an appearance in the national championship game.

Before becoming the defensive coordinator in 2012, Willis spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach for the Lions. He was a defensive backs coach during the 2011 season that fielded 2016 Pro Bowl selection Janoris Jenkins in the secondary.

Willis also has experience in other areas of the team besides defense. In his first season in Florence, he was a tight ends coach, and in 2003, he served as the Lion’s running backs coach.

He was also UNA’s recruiting coordinator from 2002-05.

Before coaching for the Lions, Willis spent three seasons at his alma mater, Delta State, where he was an assistant on the 2000 team that finished 14-1 and won the national championship.

Willis said while he is excited to be the man to transition the team into Division I, there are still some goals he would like to accomplish in UNA’s final year in Division II.

“I want to make this clear,” he said. “I understand there is a transition coming, and I’m all for it. I’m excited, and I can’t wait to get started with that. But we’re Division II for one more season, and we’re in the Gulf South Conference. I want to end on a high note. I want to win a fifth Gulf South Conference (championship).”