SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Savannah State has hired Howard University’s Aaron Kelton to be the team’s next head football coach, per a source close to the football team.
The Tigers were informed of the hiring at a team meeting on Tuesday morning. Interim head coach Russell DeMasi has resigned from the staff.
“We know that he’ll come in and hit the ground running,” athletic director Opio Mashariki said of Kelton. “He’s already met with the student-athletes this morning, he’s met with administration. This is the first step in the journey for us as an athletic program and football program to get back to what we’ve been doing.”
“I’m super excited about all that’s going on at Savannah State,” Kelton added. “I had the chance to meet with the team today and they’re excited to get after it, as am I.”
Kelton is the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator for the Bison. He has had a 30-year coaching career that has involved stops at both the high school and college levels. Prior to coming to Howard in 2019, he was the co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Morgan State University in Maryland. His resume also includes head coaching positions at Shorter, a Division II school in Rome, Georgia from 2016-2017, and Williams College, a Division III program in Massachusetts, from 2010-2015.
His career record as a head coach over eight full-time seasons and a brief interim stint at Howard is 24-49, consisting of a 23-25 mark at Williams and a 0-22 mark at Shorter.
“I think that you go through trials and tribulations in this business,” Kelton said. “Certainly I’ve won championships and I’ve been part of winning organizations and different things in my career. I think that the hard work pays off.”
“I stayed focused and I stayed with it. Shorter allowed me to get back into the barebones part of coaching. I got back on the field and was doing that part of it. Sometimes when you’re in an administrative role, you don’t get that kind of on the field experience as much.”
Although almost all of Kelton’s experience as a position coach has come on the defensive side of the ball, he was a quarterback at Springfield College in Massachusetts during his playing days.
Kelton fills the full-time head coaching position that was once held by Shawn Quinn, who left Savannah State in early December to take a job on Brent Pry’s staff at Virginia Tech.
The four-month gap between Quinn leaving and Kelton accepting the job is partly explained by a delayed start to the hiring process; because of winter holidays, the hiring committee did not start meeting until mid-January. They received more than 60 applications.
“We didn’t have a timeframe,” Mashariki said. “We wanted to get it done as quickly as possible but we wanted to be as thorough as possible as well. We were not going to put a timeframe on it. As we saw that we had quite a few applicants, the committee needed to be able to vet those applicants.”
The 2021 season was one of Savannah State’s most successful years in recent memory, with the team going 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the conference. The Tigers narrowly missed a spot in the Division II playoff.
DeMasi, the former co-offensive coordinator, has been the interim head coach since Quinn’s departure. He handled recruiting for the 36-man Class of 2022 and organized the spring practice season, which just got underway on Monday
“I don’t take it lightly and I don’t take it for granted,” DeMasi said of the interim coach opportunity after the first day of spring practice. “I want to make sure these players are day in and day out getting better.”
DeMasi was a popular choice for the full-time job, with many players and area coaches voicing their support for him over the last few months. He first arrived at Savannah State in 2015 as the quarterbacks’ coach after two years coaching at Shorter University.
“I took into consideration his popularity and I took into consideration what was in the best interest of the athletic department,” Mashariki said. “After a lot of thought and consideration, we felt like Coach Kelton was the best fit.”
DeMasi was one of four final candidates for the job, along with Kelton, former Georgia Southern wide receivers coach Lamar Owens and Bethune-Cookman offensive coordinator Allen Suber.
Kelton will reach out to each of the recruits in Savannah State’s class over the next few days to outline his vision for the program. He hopes that they will focus on the institution, as opposed to the coach.
“You’re committing to a university to get your education and I would like to talk to them about that part of it,” Kelton said. “Football is not going to change. We’re still going to get after it and play good football and try to keep the family atmosphere that’s been here….I’m going to talk to them about the guys that are committed in the program and how we want them to be a part of that.”
At the moment, the only full-time member of Savannah State football’s coaching staff aside from Kelton is offensive assistant Nick Trist. The Tigers have brought in several part-time coaches to help with spring practice, but they are not guaranteed full-time roles. Kelton said he will look to hire more staff members when spring practice concludes.
Kelton arrives in Savannah full-time on Sunday and his first practice with the team will be on Tuesday, April 12. The Tigers will focus more on lifting and conditioning this week as opposed to the full-fledged practices that were schedule.
The April 22 spring game will likely be scaled down into a “controlled scrimmage,” per Kelton. It is not clear exactly what that format change entails.
This is a developing story and will be updated with more information when it becomes available.