After the first time Jim McElwain told Aaron Best one of his favorite sayings about Eastern Washington, Best never forgot it.
“Eagle born, Eagle bred, and when I die, I’ll be an Eagle dead,” McElwain once told the Denver Post, referring to the successful coach’s own personally penned version of the EWU fight song.
McElwain, a Missoula, Montana native, played quarterback at Eastern Washington from 1980 until 1983. The current Central Michigan head coach had his most memorable success as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama before head coaching gigs at Colorado State and Florida. McElwain’s first OC job came at Montana State in 1995, a year before Best arrived at EWU as a center and long snapper from Tacoma.
Best has spent one year over the last 23 not living in Cheney. The Curtis High product earned All-Big Sky Conference honors for the Eagles in 1998 and 1999. He played for Mike Kramer, the only head coach in Big Sky history to earn Coach of the Year honors at three different schools (EWU, Montana State, Idaho State) who now frequents Eastern Washington home games in his retirement.
Best’s first coaching job came on Paul Wullf’s staff before Wulff moved on to Washington State. Best spent the 2007 season on Adam Rita’s staff for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He returned to his alma mater as the offensive line coach in 2008 on Beau Baldwin’s staff and has played a key role in in EWU’s rise to the top program in the Big Sky and a national powerhouse.
Before last season, Best earned his dream job, replacing Baldwin as the Eagles’ head coach. In other words, Eastern Washington is in Aaron Best’s blood.
“His passion for the Eagle logo is something I haven’t seen before and it’s something that makes you want to play and play for him and give your all for him,” EWU fifth-year senior captain linebacker Ketner Kupp said last week.
“You don’t have to know he’s an Eastern Washington alum to figure it out,” added senior quarterback Gage Gubrud, an FCS All-American in 2016 and 2017 before missing the second half of his final season with an injury. “Just talking to him, you know that guy bleeds black and red. We love that guy and he loves this university and you can tell with everything he talks about.
“It’s not just about winning a national title. It’s about putting a great name and brand out for this university and doing everything he can for this university because he cares so much about not just the football program but the whole athletic program, the school, everything about it.”
On Saturday, Best gets the chance of the lifetime. He will lead his alma mater into the FCS National Championship game. The matchup against No. 1 North Dakota State will mark EWU’s second national title game appearance and first since 2010.
“We’re still living the dream right now,” said Best, who shared Big Sky Coach of the Year honors with Dan Hawkins after leading the Eagles to their eighth league title since 2004. “We’re still in the moment. It’s kind of like when people say how is the Big Sky Championship, your first as a head coach? It’s like, I don’t really want to experience those reminiscing moments yet until it’s all done and we can be reflective. Because trying to stay in the moment is the hardest thing to do in any sport, or life for that matter.
“So we’ll stay in the moment, we’ll appreciate the moment, but we’re not going to settle for second place.”
Eastern Kentucky’s Roy Kidd (1979, 1982), Marshall’s Bob Pruett (1996), Delaware’s K.C. Keeler (2003) and Richmond’s Mike London (2008) are the four men who have led their alma maters to FCS national championships since the tier of Division I was founded in 1978. Best has the unenviable task of tackling a team that has claimed six of the last seven FCS titles. But he and the Eagles are not backing down.
“He grew up with the Eastern Washington logo around him all the time. He knows what it takes. He knows what it means to be an Eagle,” Eastern senior running back Sam McPherson said. “When he first came in, that’s what made it such a smooth transition. He knows what needs to be done here and he’s been here for so long, it’s a great fit for him and for us.”
In the first season under Best, Eastern Washington stumbled to an 0-2 start that included a 40-13 loss to NDSU at Roos Field in Cheney. The Eagles won seven of their next nine but were left out of the FCS Playoffs for just the third time since winning it all in 2010 and just the fifth time since 2004.
This year’s version of the Eagles features 27 seniors, including Gubrud, a former Walter Payton Award finalist that suffered what turned into a season-ending injury in EWU’s 35-17 win at Montana State on September 29.
When Best first took over, he proclaimed that EWU’s quarterback-driven and pass-heavy offensive attack would try to adopt a more physical attitude with an eye on greater production in the run game, even with Gubrud returning after throwing for an FCS single-season record 5,160 yards in 2016.
In Eastern’s 70-17 win over Cal Poly to open league play, the Eagles rushed for 441 yards. The production was no fluke. EWU rushed for more than 300 yards in six of its eight league games, averaging 286.4 rushing yards per Big Sky contest. In 13 total games this season, Eastern is averaging 266.8 rushing yards per outing while still averaging 45.3 points per game. Best’s identity is already all over Eastern Washington.
“That’s what makes Aaron Best so impressive, is he put his fingerprints on that thing so quickly,” NDSU fifth-year head coach Chris Klieman said leading up to his final game as the head coach for the Bison. Klieman will become Kansas State’s head coach following Saturday’s national title game.
“Eastern Washington is no different than North Dakota State; you want to have a great regular season, but you’re judged by what you do in the postseason. He knew he had to be able to run the football to sustain this long term in the playoffs. I’m not surprised at all, because he’s a tremendous offensive line coach, and he brings physical toughness, mentality to the game. The guys have bought into it. You can tell that.”
Dick Zornes led Eastern Washington the quarterfinals of the Division I-AA playoffs in 1985 and to a share of the Big Sky title in 1992. But Kramer, the man who took over for Zornes after his retirement in 1994, was the first head coach to lead the Eagles alongside the nationally elite.
In 1997, Eastern Washington won its first outright Big Sky title, marking the only time a team other than Montana won the outright Big Sky title between 1995 and 2009.
Led by Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Harry Leons and league Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Chris Scott, that Eagles team ripped off 12 total wins, advancing to the semifinals of the playoffs for the first time in school history. EWU fell that year to Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State team during the Penguins’ run to four national titles in seven seasons. Best was a backup center on that squad
Following the 1999 season, Best’s senior year, Kramer abruptly jumped ship to Montana State. Kramer sighted many reasons, pointing to the advantages in fan base and external facilities enjoyed by MSU and the University of Montana. The Griz and the Bobcats consistently rank in the top five in the country in average attendance. A total of 12,779 showed up for EWU’s two playoff wins this season.
Because the Eastern Washington football program, both in winning tradition and defined disadvantages, is so ingrained in Best, Kramer said that gives Eastern’s second-year head coach a unique understanding of what it takes to win at the highest level in Cheney, Washington, population 10,590.
“He knows where all the cobwebs are and he knows what the limitations are,” Kramer, an assistant at MSU from 1983-1986 before joining Zornes’ staff as the defensive line coach in 1989, said in December. “That’s what scared me away from Eastern back in 2000 was the fact that there were things inside the program that were just not ever going to be the equivalent to what you have at Montana or potentially at Montana State. And even through all their tremendous success, Eastern still does not have that type of cache behind the scenes inside of their program.
“But what they have is they have access to hard work and recruiting and making sure that recruits understand what is expected, what the legacy is and what they don’t have,” Kramer said. “When Aaron and his staff can sit in the house of a recruit, they can say, ‘Hey, look, you aren’t going to have to go very far to play, you are going to play in front of a nice, boisterous crowd but it’s not going to seem like what you’ve been dreaming about your entire career. But it’s going to be something awesome because we are not going to lose….We are going to be good enough to win and if you go somewhere else, we are going to beat you.”
The state of Washington’s rich talent pool — the state boasts more than seven million residents but only three Division I football programs including Washington and Washington State — and Eastern Washington’s consistent success in the 21st century has helped success breed success.
Beginning in 2000 with Paul Wulff’s elevation from Kramer’s offensive line coach to EWU’s head coach, the Eagles have developed some of the top offensive players in the history of the Big Sky. Running back Jesse Chatman won the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2001, the first of 12 such awards by nine different players for Eastern’s players.
Quarterbacks Josh Blankenship (2002), Erik Meyer (2004, 2005), Matt Nichols 2007, 2009), Bo Levi Mitchell (2011), Vernon Adams (2013, 2014) and Gubrud (2016) claimed league MVP honors. Meyer in 2005, Mitchell in 2011 and Cooper Kupp in 2015 claimed the Payton Award as the top offensive player in the FCS.
Perhaps the best example of the unwavering success of EWU’s quarterbacks is on display with this year’s version of the team. Gubrud went down with an injury in the final game of September. Sophomore Eric Barriere has led the Eagles to a 7-1 record and a berth in the national title game.
Wulff led the Eagles to shares of the 2004 and 2005 league titles. Baldwin, himself a Curtis High alum, led Eastern Washington to its first national title in his third season in 2010 and three other semifinals appearances before becoming the offensive coordinator at Cal after the 2016 season.
Best has been a part of all that success.
“It’s an impressive sequence for Eastern to be able to groom their own offensive line coaches from their own legacy of great offensive linemen into something that is really behind the scenes, under the radar and behind the fence,” Kramer said. “The real secret to Eastern’s success has not just been the fantastic quarterback play and how those quarterbacks have avoided injuries and avoided mistakes. Those guys have played behind offensive lines that are multi-faceted and can do a lot more things than just pass protect.
“The entire time Aaron Best has been there, the offensive line has been the light bulb that makes that whole house light up.”
That notion has been affirmed by Eastern Washington’s performance up front. EWU’s blood-red field is named for Michael Roos, a second round selection in the 2005 NFL and first-team All-Pro who made 148 straight starts during his 10-year career with the Tennessee Titans.
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. 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.
Within the last three years, three former Eastern offensive lineman – Jake Rodgers, Aaron Neary, and Clay DeBord — have made NFL rosters. Neary is one of three former EWU players on the Los Angeles Rams along with Cooper Kupp and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam.
“That’s what makes Aaron understand what’s going on here,” Kramer said. “This is really an outstanding accomplishment that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It didn’t cost a new stadium. It didn’t cost a new coaching staff to establish a culture.
“It’s a culture that perpetuates itself, it feeds itself and it’s a humble culture. It’s going to stay that way for a long time and Eastern is always going to be the benefactor of guys who understand what sacrifice is about.”
Meyer and Nichols had little other interest from Division I programs. Adams picked the Eagles over Portland State. Kupp came to EWU on a half scholarship. Gubrud walked on from McMinnville, Oregon.
This year’s EWU offensive line features former walk-ons left tackle Beau Byus and left guard Jack Hunter, undersized turned All-Big Sky center Spencer Blackburn and converted defensive lineman Kaleb Levao at right guard.
“He keeps guys accountable, he makes sure to get points across and he’s going to coach your ass off whether you are a player for him or a coach for him,” EWU second-year offensive line coach Jace Butorac, an All-Big Sky center under Best in 2014, said last month. “At the end of the day, that’s what he is and who he is. That’s the best part. You are getting the same message. His colors have not changed.”
Eastern Washington has attracted elite talent — Taiwan Jones was a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 and is in his eight NFL season, Mitchell just led the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup CFL championship — but also developed it. That’s a formula Best takes great satisfaction in.
“Winning breeds winning, and the way we’ve done that is to develop players. We’ve been able to identify players that people have scratched their heads about, not over just the last couple years, but the last decade, decade and a half, and develop them into people that are nationally known.
“We do a lot with less, and we’re proud of that fact. We continue that mindset as we drive forward, the byproducts on the field, but just the development of the guys that are not no-brainers on film, if you will, that we think will become no-brainers given a little bit of development. That’s what we pride ourselves on.”
During his time as the defensive line coach on Zornes’ staff, Kramer remembers the EWU coaches dividing the western Washington recruiting territory with SeaTac airport as the central point. Kramer was the coach committed to recruit Tacoma after spending 1987 and 1988 as the head coach at Stadium High School.
Kramer first noticed Best as a long snapper. At the time and as he does now — Wulff has been the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Sacramento State the last two seasons — Wulff favored lineman taller than 6-foot-4. But Kramer noticed natural athletic talents and ability to excel at football, basketball and baseball.
“Plus, he was tough,” Kramer said. “Oh my God, he was tough. Whoa. When you can play wicked, nasty and tough and you are smart about it, you are probably a natural coach in the waiting.”
Kramer offered Best a spot on the EWU roster as a long snapper because of “his grit and determination.” By the end of Best’s first week of practice with the Eagles, Wulff told Kramer Best would become a great player. He turned into an All-American.
The challenge that faces Best on Saturday will be one of the grandest of his young career. The 40-year-old will try to lead his alma mater past one of the great dynasties in the history of college athletics. What he’s accomplished already will resonate with his peers and mentors regardless of Saturday’s result.
“To overcome the loss of a quarterback the nature of Gubrud is Coach of the Year legend stuff that you just really can’t ever discount,” Kramer said. “That kid (Gubrud) is a historic quarterback at a school that features great, great quarterback play. Had any other program lost a player of that magnitude, they would’ve been sunk.
“But Aaron was able to reach into his strength, which is offensive line play, make sure they could understand how they can play with Eric Barriere at quarterback, ride a defense that will be opportunistic, don’t make any mistakes in the kicking game and look at them: here they are still playing.”