ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The subject today is awards and the men and women who don’t win them. Among the mysteries of the modern age: Jerry West, aka the Logo, never won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, Glenn Close has never won an Oscar, and Don Brown has yet to win the Broyles Award
You may not know who Don Brown is, unless your pulse quickens when you hear Go Blue, or you’re trying to move the chains against one of his Michigan defenses. Brown is the best defensive coordinator in the country — don’t ask me, ask the stats — and the Broyles Award is given to the best assistant coach in the country. How Brown hasn’t won one is a mystery worthy of Stephen King, although the only dead here are the offenses that face his Wolverines.
Just as the Chip Kellys and Lincoln Rileys are the faces of the hurry-up spread offenses of this decade, one of the faces of modern defense has a prominent gray mustache and a twinkle in his big green eyes. Brown’s philosophy of aggressive pressure on the quarterback and tight man coverage has proven to be the most effective antidote to the scoring machines of modern times.
For the record, at Maryland in 2010, Brown’s Terps defense held East Carolina to 356 yards and 20 points, four touchdowns below their average, in a 51-20 rout in the Military Bowl, Ralph Friedgen’s last game as head coach. Brown so befuddled the Pirates’ offensive coordinator, a 27-year-old Riley, that “Don had him throwing hot into coverage,” Friedgen said.
“If I got a head coaching job again,” Friedgen said, “he’d be the first guy I’d try to hire.”
Here’s the defense that No. 10 Ohio State must figure out how to penetrate on Saturday. After the 31-20 victory over Indiana on Saturday, No. 4 Michigan leads the FBS in total defense (234.8 yards per game), pass defense (123.2 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (88.74).
A lesser mystery is that the 63-year-old Brown has never been an FBS head coach. Brown spent 12 years as a head coach at Division III Plymouth State (1993-95), FCS Northeastern (2000-03), and following his good friend Mark Whipple, at UMass (2004-08). He won everywhere he coached, and in 2006, took the Minutemen to the FCS national championship game, where they lost to Appalachian State. Brown has a career record of 95-45 (.679).
A decade ago, UMass had no interest in moving to the FBS. Brown decided to go work for Friedgen as a stepping stone to getting an FBS head coaching job. It didn’t quite work out that way. Four years after Brown left, UMass moved up to the FBS. Brown has no second thoughts. He is making seven figures a year. He loves what he is doing.
“If you said to me, ‘Hey! How would you like to coach offense?’ I’d have no interest in doing that. Zero!” Brown said. “I just like the challenge of stopping people. The demeanor and the culture that you try to develop on the defensive side of the ball fits my personality better. In life, you figure out who you are.” Brown could coach offense. In 1992, when Brown was an assistant at Yale, the Elis needed an interim head coach — in baseball. Brown took over and led the Elis to the Ivy League championship. Coach offense? Brown could coach debate.
However you choose your measure — on the field, on the whiteboard or in the locker room — Brown has ascended to the highest level of collegiate coaching. On the field, Brown has had more No. 1s than Bruno Mars. Over the past four years, from his last season at Boston College through Saturday, Brown’s defenses have ranked first in nine different statistical categories.
About that 2014 season at Boston College: The Eagles led the nation in total defense while going 3-9. After that season, Jim Harbaugh needed a defensive coordinator. Harbaugh looked at the NCAA stats, noticed Brown, and started asking questions, including of another coach in the Boston area.
“I happened to be talking to Bill Belichick about a trainer,” Harbaugh said. He asked the New England Patriots coach if he knew anyone that Harbaugh could hire to run his defense. Belichick begged off. “Talk to some of the other guys,” he said. “I mean, what do I know?”
Yeah, what does Belichick know?
“Then, like typical Bill,” Harbaugh said, “he’s like, ‘I was watching Boston College play the other night on TV. You might want to get whoever’s coordinating that defense. They’re pretty good.'”
Harbaugh still isn’t sure whether Belichick knew Brown and was soft-selling him, or if he actually did see him on TV. But Harbaugh hired Brown, and four years later, if Harbaugh is doing the measuring, “I hate to compare him. Somebody always gets diminished. But there’s no better coach I’ve ever been around than him. No one better.”
Harbaugh professed his awe for Brown’s ability to correct a flaw in his defense from the sideline.
“He’s really gifted at seeing things on the field,” Harbaugh said. “Some coaches got to see it from the press box. Some got to wait until they see the film. He stands out to me as being really good, maybe the best I’ve ever been around that way.”
Take last week against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights’ Isiah Pacheco, running out of a three-back set, went 80 yards for a touchdown. Wolverines defensive end Chase Winovich and free safety Tyree Kinnel both bit on a fake reverse, and Pacheco ran inside of them and right up the field. Brown moved his ends wider and put middle linebacker Devin Bush Jr. man-to-man on the tailback.
“They ran it two times for no gain,” Bush said, “and they stopped running it.”
“I mean, I can’t think of any times where he gets hit with the same call twice,” Harbaugh said. “Maybe once since he’s been here.”
Is that ability unusual? “Yeah, that is,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a gift.”
If it’s a gift, Brown thinks it is for 41 years of coaching, all but “a game or two” on the sideline.
“I tried it. I did not like it,” Brown said of the press box. “I think I was at Dartmouth [1984-86]. I always felt like I was better off if I was there touching ’em … I think the connection is important. As the coordinator, I think you’re in the best position to help your guys translate information during the game, because it is your defense.”
Brown says the difficulty of seeing the game from the sideline is no hindrance. He maintains that if you give him the personnel group on the offense, and the down and distance — heck, throw in a blindfold — he can call the game.
That 41 years has stored a lot of data beneath that bushy head of graying hair. Coaching software? No thanks. Brown spends 20 hours on Sunday and Monday drawing up X’s and O’s on cards. He will have 200 or so ready for the defensive meeting on Tuesday.
“As I’m writing, I’m thinking,” he said. “That’s how I get myself ready.”
Brown throws a lot at his players. On any Saturday they will be ready to play anywhere from 45 to 60 different schemes. Brown is mystified at the idea that the more complicated an offense, the more a defense should simplify. His experience has taught him just the opposite.
“I think you gotta be more complex, and make them [the offense] slow down, and make them evaluate where you’re coming from,” Brown said. “Nobody wants to run a bad play into a bad look. If you can find a way to get your guys lined up fast, in multiple looks, I think you got a chance. If you keep it simple, they’ll beat you over the head with the simplicity.”
It comes down to being aggressive. Brown wants his defense to dictate the action. He converted to a blitzing mentality 20 years ago, in his first season at UMass as defensive coordinator for Whipple. Their friendship went back a decade before that, when Brown coach for Carmen Cozza — “Cahm,” in Brown’s New England accent — and Whipple was the head coach at the University of New Haven. They would get together in the offseason and throw X’s and O’s at each other, and they’ve been close friends ever since. They talk every week.
Anyway, UMass began the season 4-2 when Whipple suggested to Brown that the secondary that Brown coached every day was playing well enough to support a pressure defense. The Minutemen never lost again, and took home the 1998 Division I-AA (now FCS) championship. And Brown left his zone defenses behind. A decade later, when Friedgen interviewed him at Maryland, they met to talk X’s and O’s.
“I wanted to interview him on the board, see what he does,” Friedgen said. “So he says to me, ‘Coach, if you want me to put up Cover 4, this interview is over.” Friedgen, an offensive mad scientist, said three hours of discussing football with Brown felt like 10 minutes.
Spread offenses developed in order to stretch zone defenses and find their soft spots. They have taken over offensive schemes over the past decade, the same time period in which Brown’s defenses have risen to the top of the NCAA stats.
“His scheme is best versus teams that spread it out,” Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison said. Mattison has been coaching for nearly 50 years. He coordinated the defense on the 2006 national championship team at Florida.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from him,” Mattison said of Brown, “is a belief in playing man coverage as much as he does.”
There’s another story that Whipple can tell about Brown that gets to the heart of what makes him an effective coach. Whipple and Brown went to UMass from Brown University, and Whipple had to cajole Brown into leaving.
“He said, ‘God, I don’t know if I can leave Alex Pitts,'” Whipple said. “Alex Pitts was a white corner from California. He just worked his tail off. Don just couldn’t leave those guys. They play hard and they believe in him.”
His current players say the same thing.
“The players that he coaches genuinely love him,” Winovich said. “He is in my opinion by far the most respected coach on our staff. I don’t mean that as a slight or a knock to anybody else. He finds a balance between being this tough, tough character, this tough coach, with being compassionate and understanding and a friend.”
“He’s got like a gravitational pull to him,” Wolverines linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said.
Brown holds nothing in and holds nothing back, and that fire is as much his imprimatur as pressuring the quarterback. Harbaugh said you don’t have to be in the defensive meeting room to hear the meeting. The head coach tried to explain it and lapsed into mimicry, complete with Bah-stin accent. Sitting at his desk, he put an imaginary player in a headlock.
“Gahd-dang-it, whatcha doin’?” Harbaugh yelled. “C’mere! You’ll still my dude! Quit making that mistake!'”
“Why can’t we all be like that?” Harbaugh said. “Some people just have a presence of personality. He gets through to all people. Get your point across without being demeaning. It’s not personal. He still loves them. He’s captured that magic formula that all great teachers have.”
Brown’s passion commands more than his defense. He brings his guys together in the locker room for a last, fiery talk. Over the course of the season, the offensive players have begun to gather behind the defense.
“I’m always sure to take my headphones off and listen to that,” tight end Sean McKeon said. “He pumps me up and I’m not even playing.”
Two Wednesdays ago, the Wolverines defense did not have a good practice. Brown didn’t like it.
“First thing he walked into the meeting room, he let us have it,” Bush said. “He ripped us. Practice sucked, and he ripped us.”
Nothing unusual in that. But it was what Brown said after he got through dressing his players down that Bush remembered.
“He said, ‘I will never, ever, let you guys fall short of your goals, because what we’re doing this season, what we got planned for the future, a practice like that cannot be acceptable,'” Bush said.
Bush is a great example of one of the biggest evolutionary changes in Brown’s career. He is coaching Cadillacs now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has five Wolverines defensive starters ranked in the top 10 of their position, and two — Bush and defensive end Rashan Gary — rank in the top eight picks of Kiper’s latest mock NFL draft.
“I watched them this year,” Friedgen said. “He’s not blitzing that much. He’s got four guys who can get to the passer.”
Brown deflects the discussion of coaching the best talent of his career. He didn’t want to talk about their bodies. He loves them for their minds.
“We got bright guys now,” Brown said, using “now” for emphasis, not to denote time. “It’s a funny group. If you walked in there and didn’t challenge them on a week-to-week basis, and you just did the same stuff? I think they’d lose interest. … It’s nice when guys are thinking along with you conceptually. Then you know you got ’em.”
Mattison, 47 years in the business, said Brown, his scheme, his staff, and these Wolverines players are a rare combination.
“There are very, very good coordinators who may not have the other pieces to be successful,” said Mattison, the coordinator on the 2006 national champs at Florida. “They may know exactly what they want taught, but they can’t teach it all. They have to have other guys doing a great job of teaching. They may have great guys teaching it, and they’ve got the coordinator who understands everything, but you may not have the players who can execute it. I think it all has to go together.
“It starts with Don,” Mattison said.
Unless you’re an offense. In a long, steady climb of a career, Brown has proven that he is where offense stops.