After spending the 2003 season at Auburn as a graduate assistant working for linebacker coach Joe Whitt, he was hired by former Auburn assistant coach Tim Stowers to be a full-time assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island, where he spent the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
"The thing about Rhode Island, it is a I-AA school and there is not much support for football," Willis notes. "We did a lot of things for ourselves. Of course, I was a GA here and going to take a full-time position there, but it was almost a lateral move really.
"I was doing the same thing I was doing here as a GA--waking up kids, checking classes. I was even striping the field and putting up tents. I did everything the right way, I think. I learned a lot. Coach Stowers is a great guy. Of course, he is an Auburn guy. He taught me a lot about football and about recruiting, also."
Willis, who is 34, was hired away from Rhode Island to coach at Division I-A Tempe on Dec. 20th. On Monday, less than two months later, he had to tell Temple coach Al Golden that he was taking another job at Auburn.
The former Tiger star notes that it was "awkward" telling his new boss that he was going to interview at Auburn and then take the job at AU. "He totally understood," Willis says. "He gave me all of the support in the world. I totally appreciate him and the rest of the staff for doing that. It is not something I take lightly. I really appreciate the patience with that."
Willis had just bought a house in Philadelphia and finished unpacking his final box from his move when he got a phone call on Saturday from Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville asking if he would be interested in a job interview at his alma mater. Willis didn't hesitate to say yes. He found a flight and headed to Auburn for a Monday job interview and accepted the position when offered by Tuberville.
Despite the inconvenience of having to sell the house again and relocate his family, Willis says he is glad he spent time on the Temple staff.
"Al Golden is a good coach," Willis says. "He knows what he is doing. He is a great recruiter. In that short amount of time, I learned so much as far as recruiting. That was not something that was in vain."
Willis will recruit south of Montgomery down to the Gulf Coast for Auburn and will also spend some time recruiting northern Virginia, prep schools and junior colleges.
"Auburn to me is not a hard sell," he says of recruiting. He adds that the people at Auburn make the university a special place, even more so than the impressive football facilities.
Willis says he thinks that his experience as an All-SEC player and an NFL linebacker will give him extra credibility on the recruiting trail. He says that he will get help on the recruiting front from the man he is replacing, Whitt, who is moving into a new role raising money for Tigers Unlimited.
"I talked to Coach Whitt earlier today," Willis says. "He has always been a great mentor to me. Every step I take, I always give him a call and ask his advice on certain things--what to do here, what should I do here and what to think about things.
"We are going to continue that same relationship," Willis adds. "Of course, I look forward to working with him in the future and also taking his advice and input."
While working as a graduate assistant for Whitt, Willis says he learned a lot about dealing with college football players. "He demands the best out of them," Willis says. "He demands respect. They also trust him."
Willis says he will try to be the same way as a coach at Auburn. However, he notes that it isn't going to be his goal to replace Whitt, a fixture on the AU coaching staff for a quarter of a century. "I just want to get here and do my job," he says. "It is all about working hard. If you work hard and do all the right things, I think everything will take care of itself.
"It's not about me," Willis adds. "It's about this program. It's about the kids. I am just getting ready to get started."