AZUSA, Calif. -- After 15 years on the Azusa Pacific football coaching staff, including the past eight as defensive coordinator, Brian Willmer resigned to accept the head coaching position at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., one of the most consistently successful NAIA football programs in recent history.
Willmer was introduced as MidAmerica Nazarene’s head coach on Feb. 10, taking the helm of a Heart of America Athletic Conference program which is one of just a handful in the NAIA to make 10 or more NAIA playoff appearances since 2000. He inherits a football program which has posted a 128-34 record (.790) since 2000, including a 114-22 conference record over the same span.
“I have so much gratitude to Brian and his family, for the significant impact he left on our program, as well as the significant impact he had on my life as we built what I consider to be a lifelong friendship,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “MidAmerica Nazarene got a high-capacity individual, and I know success will continue to follow Brian as he meets this next challenge in his coaching career.”
Willmer joined Azusa Pacific in 1999, and his influence steadily grew as he developed into a central figure in the Cougar football program, which made seven playoff appearances during his first 13 years before beginning its transition to NCAA Division II starting in 2012. Willmer helped lead Azusa Pacific to a Great Northwest Athletic Conference title in 2013 in just its second year of Division II competition. It was the first conference title in program history for the Cougars, who had competed as an independent in the NAIA until joining Division II in 2012.
“Azusa Pacific is a wonderful university, and I leave there with some of my best friends in Victor Santa Cruz and Rudy Carlton, who are men that I was privileged to work with, to minister with, and to be discipled by,” said Willmer at his MidAmerica Nazarene introductory press conference. “To come (to Kansas) was a big deal (for my family), and it was something we did not take lightly. It had to be the right fit, and it had to be a place that we felt my wife and I could continue to carry on our love for building men through the game of football.”
Santa Cruz wrapped up his search for Willmer’s replacement by hiring Cesar Rivas-Sandoval, who spent the past year coaching linebackers and serving as special teams coordinator at the University of Sioux Falls. He was the head coach at Fort Lewis (Colo.) College for three years before joining the Sioux Falls coaching staff, and his 14-year coaching career includes experience at almost every level of football from high school to the NCAA Division I. He also served NFL Minority Coaching Fellowships with the Miami Dolphins (2012) and the Green Bay Packers (2013). As the new defensive coordinator at Azusa Pacific, Rivas-Sandoval will also coach the Cougar linebackers.
“Candidates for jobs at Azusa Pacific have to hit a real sweet spot in order to be hired here,” Santa Cruz said. “With this opportunity, we wanted to swing for the fences, and with this hire we found a guy who was unique in his concern for developing men through football and also brought a great deal of knowledge at all levels of football.”
Rivas-Sandoval, a San Diego native (Hilltop HS) who played college football from 1996-99 at UC Davis, which made NCAA Division II playoff appearances all four years of his career. Three of his first four years of coaching were in his hometown of San Diego, first at Hilltop High School and for two years at the junior college level with Southwestern College. He also has coaching experience at the NCAA Division I level, serving as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at Tennessee-Martin in 2008.
“Cesar is a leader, and it was the perfect timing for us to be able to find somebody whose priority is his faith, which integrates together with his family and the game of football,” Santa Cruz said. “Azusa Pacific will also benefit greatly from his teaching experience and the knowledge he will be able to bring into the classroom to contribute to the university’s excellent academic experience.”
Throughout his career, Rivas-Sandoval has served in virtually every capacity, from head coach to offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, as well as coaching positions which include quarterbacks, defensive backs, linebackers, defensive line, and kick returners.
Rivas-Sandoval begins his duties at Azusa Pacific today, coinciding with the start of the Cougars’ spring football practices.