ANN ARBOR — Almost one month ago, some six weeks into the start of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh remarked about how he enjoyed sitting in on offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s meetings.
Warinner, hired in January as an offensive analyst before being promoted offensive line coach, has impressed Harbaugh. And the Michigan head coach has made no bones about saying so.
The same could be said about Don Brown, Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator who leads the nation’s No. 1 defense. Ever since arriving at Michigan, Brown’s defenses have finished at or near the top nationally.
While the results speak for itself, so does the animated, and at times loud, Brown.
“My ears,” Harbaugh said Monday during his weekly news conference. “You don’t have to sit in on Don Brown’s meetings to know what’s going on in Don Brown’s meeting. You just have to be within 50 or 75 feet.”
Harbaugh describes Brown, 63, as enthusiastic and high-energy every day. He jokes that paint peels off the walls in meeting and locker rooms when Brown talks, requiring the need to repaint “every couple of weeks.”
Brown’s style comes through in his frequent interactions with the media. He can be brash, honest, and many times, self-deprecating. Just recently, in the lead up to Michigan’s game against Penn State, he took the blame for Michigan’s faults defensively in a blowout loss to the Nittany Lions in 2017. He said, truthfully or not, that he woke up everyday between that loss and this year’s win, a 42-7 blowout victory, thinking about what went wrong.
But he hits another level behind closed doors, in the Michigan locker room, when it’s just the coaches and their players. Cameras for the Amazon Prime series, “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines” caught glimpses of that.
“Before we take the field, he brings the defense up in the locker room and gives a speech,” tight end Sean McKeon said. “I always make sure to make my headphones off and listen to that. He pumps me up even though I’m not playing defense.”
On the field, Harbaugh has been more impressed by Brown’s in-game adjustments. For example, in Saturday’s 42-7 win over Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights hit Michigan with one big play, an 80-yard touchdown by running back Isiah Pacheco.
Rutgers faked a reverse to help misdirect the Michigan defense, pulling defensive end Chase Winovich and the Wolverines’ two safeties out of position. That opened up the hole for Pacheco, whose touchdown tied the game at 7.
“They ran the same play once more and the quarterback — it was the (running) back, actually — ate it for no gain,” Harbaugh said. “Don is the best I’ve ever seen, of any coach, on either side of the ball (at making adjustments).
“He could be standing on the field, know what happened — how a play hurt our defense and had a gain — and then be able to fix it without being in the press box or look at the game film after the game.”
Brown’s players, like linebacker Josh Ross, refer to him as a wizard. Michigan’s defense is a high-risk, high-reward system, one that emphasizes speed in a man-bases scheme. But it also works. The Wolverines rank first nationally at 219.8 yards per game, fueled by a passing defense that is allowing a nation’s-fewest 116 yards per opponent.
Michigan has given up just 21 points total in its last three games. Just two opponents that season have scored more than 20 points in a game.
And perhaps most importantly, his players love playing for him.
“Sometimes he gets loud, but that’s just him,” Ross said. “He’s going to get after you. He wants the best for you.
“That dude is one of the most enthusiastic coaches I’ve ever been around. Just the fire in him — his drive, his passion, it kind of wears off on all of us. We all act like him in some ways.”