Children’s drawings of popsicles hang on the wall in University of Northern Colorado defensive line coach Aaron Fernandez’s office. They say, “You’re the coolest pop.” He also wears bracelets with his sons’ names.
Those small details, upon viewing them, may not seem to be remotely relevant to the new assistant’s ability to coach. They are.
Fernandez joined first-year head coach Ed Lamb’s staff this year. He played under Lamb for one season at Southern Utah in 2008. Then, he worked under Lamb with the Thunderbirds from 2009 through 2015, leaving the SUU program after the 2022 season.
Lamb and Southern Utah coach DeLane Fitzgerald both spoke of Fernandez’s family-first approach in coaching.
“I’ve seen him go from being a single football student athlete, to a married young coach, now married coach with significant experience and children. I’ve seen that same maturity and growth in his coaching,” Lamb said. “I think he now can relate to coaching these players as if they are his children, his sons. All of us would, I think, want any coach to coach our sons hard but also be fair and respectful, hold him highly accountable, but be fair and respectful with their language.”
Fitzgerald just completed his first season as the SUU head coach. As many football fans know, new coaches often bring in new staff members. Fernandez’s passion for the sport, positivity and work ethic led to his retention, but Fitzgerald quickly saw a much deeper love for the program and everyone in it.
“Aaron’s background in a close, tight-knit family atmosphere absolutely helps him as a coach,” Fitzgerald said. “He brings that close-knit family atmosphere to his position group.”
A life-changing experience
Fernandez grew up in a family that focused on baseball and wrestling. He didn’t even begin football until his freshman year of high school, when his friends were playing. Even then, it started as a sport to do on the side.
He fell in love with the sport for many reasons. One of his first high school coaches invested significantly and believed in his abilities. He played “Madden,” the video game, which fostered that love. Plus, there’s a combination of sheer athleticism and strategy.
“It was the fact that there was physicality tied into a lot of details and technique,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez went the junior college route out of high school, attending Mesa Community College and earning All-NJCAA Region I honors.
He was recruited by Southern Utah and liked the smaller feel of Cedar City after living in the Los Angeles and Phoenix areas. The population at the time hovered around 25,000.
Fernandez played for the T-Birds from 2006 through 2008. It wasn’t the easiest collegiate career, going 7-26 in three seasons.
Its best record, 4-7, came in his senior season — the first under Lamb. It was a relatively good turnaround, considering the squad went 0-11 the previous fall. Fernandez earned First Team All-Great West honors at defensive tackle.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience … for anything in the world, it was awesome,” the D-line coach said. “A lot of growth as a human happened with those times; some of those up-and-down hard times, losing a lot of games. The journey taught us a lot, so I’ll always hold on to that experience.”
Fernandez initially thought he’d chase some professional tryouts and eventually return to Arizona, become a history or P.E. teacher and high school football coach. Lamb saw something else.
He offered Fernandez a graduate assistant position, noting the leadership and buy-in during Lamb’s first year with the T-Birds. That’s how his coaching career began, and it turned into a successful stint at his alma mater.
Fernandez coached all three phases of the game, making him an incredibly well-rounded assistant. His players regularly received All-Big Sky and All-America recognition, even when the overall results weren’t up to par.
“I think Aaron Fernandez is a very good football coach, and I think you could probably put him in just about any position and he would figure out the idiosyncrasies of that position and coach it very, very well,” Fitzgerald said. “Your defensive line will be well prepared to play really, really hard for three hours each Saturday.”
Lamb doesn’t take credit for his assistant’s career and, instead, feels like Fernandez helped him.
“The way I look at it is: he’s earned the opportunity,” Lamb said. “And, really, he’s given me opportunities because of his performance on the field, then as a coach, he’s made me look good. He’s helped me to be successful. I really don’t see it as me providing or giving him anything.”
Fernandez, however, said much of his coaching philosophy comes from Lamb.
He saw the accountability and clear expectations, the specific blueprint designed to lead programs to success. First, Lamb led the team to four wins. Then five, six, conference championships and FCS Playoff appearances. Fernandez was on staff for every playoff berth.
They “won football games in the weight room,” in the classroom and in the community before they won on the field. Southern Utah players were held to high personal standards, while finding ways to provide positive reinforcement.
And it was always consistent. Lamb never wavered — and he still doesn’t, Fernandez said — in his expectations for the team nor his commitment to living out those expectations for himself.
Maybe it’s the football version of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Was Fernandez successful because of Lamb’s coaching method or was Lamb’s coaching method successful because of Fernandez’s implementation?
Regardless, the graduate assistant position and his one season under Lamb changed the course of Fernandez’s life. It also changed the lives of his players, even if they attended after Lamb’s departure to BYU.
Fernandez called Lamb his greatest mentor in the business, often attending professional development opportunities in Provo, Utah.
“I told him, ‘If I ever had the opportunity to work for you again, I was gonna jump all over it,’” Fernandez said. “The stars aligned in the timing. I think that’s a big part of life in this profession, just timing and how things work.”
A new but familiar adventure
Fernandez spent 17 years with Southern Utah. That’s a long time in any profession but especially in collegiate coaching. Though he likely would’ve stayed with the Thunderbirds if Lamb hadn’t gotten the UNC job, he’d been itching for more.
Fitzgerald said Fernandez and his wife, Heidi, had expressed a desire to eventually go elsewhere. That’s why he wasn’t surprised by the longtime Thunderbird’s departure. Fitzgerald supported and understood the desire for a new challenge.
The now-Bear gave roughly half his life to SUU. His commitment and love he poured into the program, into the players led Southern Utah to the greatest heights in its history. Sure, it’s sad to lose a guy like that, but it’s hard to be upset at it.
It’s kind of weird for Fernandez to be at UNC in the blue and gold after making a few trips to Greeley with the Thunderbirds. He said it was always a tough place to play, and the nerves were always worse as a coach. He’s adapting, though, and positive about the program’s trajectory.
“I’ve just been excited, seeing the different things on campus and support or promotions. I think naturally when you’re new, you bring some different buzz and stuff,” he said. “But I think that people understand we’re trying to do it the right way, to earn support through doing the right things in the community, not just on the football field.”
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