DeKALB — Huskies cornerback coach Aaron Wilkins is in his first year at NIU after coaching for five years at Liberty University. This season marks his 13th season coaching football, making stops at the high school, junior college and major college levels.
The Northern Star interviewed Wilkins about his role with the Huskies and how he arrived on campus. The following are excerpts of that interview. They have been lightly edited for clarity and consistency.
Q: This is your first year at NIU after being on staff at Liberty University for the last five seasons. How did you wind up in DeKalb?
A: I worked for Turner Gill and he retired. Usually, in our business, when someone retires, schools are bringing in a whole new staff, and Liberty hired Hugh Freeze. He retained me in an off-field role, but I’ve always wanted to coach. That’s non-negotiable for me. Coach Robert Wimberly, Huskie Executive Assistant Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach, recommended me to Head Coach Thomas Hammock. We got on the phone, and he liked what I was all about. Being able to work at a school with a rich history and tradition, I’m excited and can’t wait to help build this program.
Q: How has it been working with Coach Hammock?
A: The first thing you notice about Coach Hammock is that he is humble. He doesn’t act like he has all of the answers, and he gained my respect right off the bat. He’s been great to work for, he holds us all accountable and that is something that I like. He’s already made me a better coach.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your playing career.
A: I didn’t have the best grades coming out of high school, so I ended up going the junior college route at Reedley College. I went on and played at the University of San Diego, where Jim Harbaugh was my coach my first season, and in my second season I had a career-ending injury.
Q: How did you get into coaching?
A: I didn’t know what I wanted to do after that, but I’ve always had the football bug. I always pictured myself leading a team out onto the field. I started out in the high school ranks, and worked my way up. Then, my old junior college coach called and said he had a job for me, but I realized I’d have to live out of my car because it didn’t pay much money. I did it and just kept grinding through. It’s been that way for me my whole coaching career, just working really hard and earning it.
Q: You actually lived in your car? What did that experience teach you?
A: I had to. As funny as this may sound, I was as happy as I could be. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the growth of the kids. As a junior college guy, I understood what my role was, and how I could change the lives of these kids who just needed a second chance. I woke up every day fired up to do my job. Did I make any money? No. Did my now wife [then girlfriend, Carissa], who was working at the time, have to pay my bills? Yeah, she did. I wouldn’t change it for the world, it got me to where I am now. It was tough, but what a journey it has been to look back and think that I was once living in my car just to get going in this business, and here I am now working at NIU.
Q: What are your responsibilities during the week leading up to a game?
A: As soon as the previous game is done, we watch tape and figure out what corrections need to be made. From Monday to Wednesday, I try to dissect every angle of the next opponent’s passing game. How we should attack it, how guys should play it and what the quarterback is doing, since this is a quarterback-driven game now. I look at the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to figure out how we can steal a possession.
Q: So where do you see yourself five years from now?
A: Going into coaching, I had this 10-year plan to become a head coach. Then you realize that in this business things can change, and that throws a wrench in your plans. For me, as corny as it sounds, I just want to spend every day trying to maximize my ability and to work as hard as I can. Especially here for Coach Hammock. I want to see where this takes us. To work hard to keep up the history and tradition and get ourselves a New Year’s Six bowl again. Then, the sky’s the limit after that.