FLORENCE, Ala. (WHNT) — University of North Alabama Director of Athletics Dr. Josh Looney has announced a change in the leadership of the Lions’ football program. With the Lions 1-7 this season, head coach Chris Willis closes his six seasons at the helm of the Lion program with a 20-34 overall record.

Ryan Held, UNA’s associate head coach and offensive coordinator, will serve as interim head coach for the final three games of the 2022 season.

Looney said UNA will immediately begin a national search to fill the head coaching position. 

“Coach Willis led North Alabama Football with high character and integrity during the most unique time in our program’s proud history,” said Looney. “We are incredibly grateful for the positive impact Chris has made on campus, in the community, and with thousands of student-athletes during his 21 seasons on the football staff. Chris and his family are tremendous people and we appreciate their dedication to UNA greatly.”

After helping lead North Alabama to 12 NCAA playoff appearances and seven conference championships in his 15 seasons as an assistant coach, Willis was named as the 10th head football coach in UNA history on December 22, 2016. He had served as an assistant coach at UNA under Mark Hudspeth, Terry Bowden and Bobby Wallace. He served the Lions as defensive coordinator during his last five seasons as an assistant and directed defensive efforts that helped UNA become the first school in Gulf South Conference history to win four straight league championships.

As head coach at UNA, Willis guided the Lions through all four years of the school’s transition to Division I Football Championship Subdivision status and into their first season of full Division I membership. 

“On behalf of my family, I want to express my sincere appreciation for the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as head football coach at the University of North Alabama,” Willis said. “Over the two decades (21 seasons) as assistant coach, defensive coordinator and head coach, I have built some unbelievable relationships and memories for a lifetime. To our players, both past and present, I’m forever indebted to you for what you have given me. To all the coaches I’ve worked with at UNA since 2002, thank you for your hard work, dedication and friendship. I am so appreciative of the hard work our current staff and student athletes have put into this season. Even though I won’t be there when you finish the season, I will forever be your biggest fan and rooting for you. Fans, alumni and friends who have supported me behind the scenes, thank you for your loyalty. Our family bleeds purple and wishes the Lion family nothing but the best.”

Held, a coaching veteran with 12 years of head coaching experience on the collegiate level, joined the UNA coaching staff on December of 2021, after serving as running backs coach at the University of Nebraska. He has been a collegiate coach since 1997, following his playing career at Nebraska where he helped the Cornhuskers win two national titles.