Back to the Future

Tommy Brasher played under legendary Wilson Matthews at Arkansas. He also coached with Willy Robinson in the NFL. Brasher thinks Matthews would approve of Robinson as the Hogs' new defensive coordinator.

There was about a five-hour window when I thought Arkansas planned to hire Will Muschamp as head coach. During that time, little did anyone know that Jeff Long was flying to pick up Bobby Petrino.

Before the Petrino story broke, I was doing research on Muschamp. It hit me square in the face that his style of coaching and his fundamentals were drilled into him by Richard Bell. Muschamp was recruited by Bell to Georgia, then coached by him.

Bell's background is Little Rock Central and Arkansas. Wilson Matthews was his high school coach. As Bell was finishing up his college career as Frank Broyles' first captain, Matthews followed him to Arkansas.

Bell lost his father during high school to an electrical accident. At that point, Matthews all but adopted him. As I talked to Bell about the possibility of Muschamp leaving Auburn to come to Arkansas, Bell said, "Coach Matthews would be proud."

I lost my angle on that story when Petrino decided to make the jump from the NFL back to college and to the SEC. I've watched as Petrino installed his system over the past few months, especially over the last week with high-paced, high-intensity in large doses in spring drills.

If you see a practice, no matter where you look you see a Matthews-style coach at practice. They coach ‘em up in heavy doses of loud, high-octane words, then pat them on the butt when it's over.

The Matthews language on the practice field might have contained more salt, but these coaches can bring their own brand of intensity that the Hall of Fame coach would applaud. And, as far as toughness, the coaching handbook, at least at Arkansas, would contain Wilson's picture beside the word.

As I watched new defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, the Matthews style was front and center. He doesn't need to be in the huddle to be heard. He often is 30 yards behind his safeties as he calls the signals and delivers the good news and bad news of each play.

It took me four days to figure out that there was more to the Matthews connection than I could ever dream. After Sunday's workout, I was on my way out of the Broyles Center when I bumped into Robinson on the way to the coaches locker room. I'd recognized that his coaching path might have crossed with Tommy Brasher, a longtime NFL man who started during the glory years of Arkansas football, 1961-63. I had talked to Brasher for a Where Are They Now feature in Hawgs Illustrated just six weeks ago.

"Do I know Tommy Brasher?" Robinson said. "He taught me football. Tommy Brasher and Jim Johnson, the real Jim Johnson, taught me what I know about defense."

Brasher was the only defensive coach retained by Dennis Erickson when he left the University of Miami to become the Seattle head coach in 1998. He added Johnson (obviously not to be confused with Jimmy Johnson, former NFL head coach) from the Colts and brought several assistants with him from Miami, most notably Robinson, named secondary coach with the Seahawks. Jim Johnson is the defensive coordinator with the Eagles now, along with Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay perhaps the most respected DCs in the NFL.

Just like Bell, Brasher claims his coaching style and core beliefs were shaped by Matthews, along with Jim Mackenzie. A noted NFL defensive line coach who went to the Super Bowl with the Eagles, Brasher learned toughness and the importance of whipping the other guy as much as winning with technique or scheme from those men during his days as a player and coach at Arkansas.

What he sees in Robinson is the same central beliefs, along with the polish that comes from coaching in the NFL. He is excited for his alma mater that he's landed at Fayetteville. First, back to 1998.

"A lot of guys come from college to the NFL and they just think football is football," Brasher said. "He didn't think that way. He took to the NFL and wanted to learn. He wanted to learn the difference between college and the NFL.

"I can tell you that when I coached with him, he was a thorough and demanding coach. As I learned from Jim (Mackenzie) and Wilson (Matthews), he was what a defensive coach should be. I thought then and still do that Willy would go a long way.

"What I also liked is that he had the courage to strike out on his own when he could have stayed with Dennis Erickson all these years. He went forward and stayed in the NFL.

"What I know about Willy, I think Razorback fans should be very happy. He coaches it like Jim and Wilson did. He isn't coming out there to trick you. His philosophy is to whip you on every play. That is the Matthews way. He coaches discipline and sound fundamentals.

"If you don't do it the way Willy wants it, you won't be doing it at all. He's not going to do things in design that give up the big plays. He's going to make you earn it and he's going to have his defense hit you while you earn it. Willy knows how to man blitz and zone blitz, but I don't think he will make his living with the blitz. He's going to do it by whipping you."

Brasher, now retired from coaching but still a consultant for the Eagles from his Seattle home, attended the lettermen's reunion when Broyles was honored during the South Carolina weekend. He'll be back in two weeks for the spring game and another lettermen's reunion. It will be the first time he's been back for a spring game.

"The (NFL) draft is usually the same time," he said. "I couldn't ever come back, but I'm going to be there for a few days. I'm going to play golf at the reunion and enjoy being around football. I very much look forward to watching Willy's defense."

During our visit several weeks ago for the previous feature, Brasher discussed what it would be like for Matthews to coach in current times with the change in today's youth. A misconception developed that perhaps Matthews couldn't do it.

"That would be wrong," Brasher said. "He was a great, great coach and the great ones adapt to whatever it takes. Wilson would be fine today. He might have to be a little different, but he would figure it out. He coached toughness, but he also made sure the players knew they were loved after practice. That still works.

"Wilson would still emphasize the same thing, effort and there would be no difference in the end product."

The end product is going to be good with Robinson at Arkansas, Brasher emphasized.

"Before it's all over, the people of Arkansas will love Willy," Brasher said. "When someone plays his defense, they will feel it. As the whole thing goes along, there will be tremendous respect.

"Right now, I know what he's doing. He's installing a disciplined way of life for the players on that defense."

Tommy Brasher knows that if Wilson Matthews was around the practice field this spring, he'd be smiling. Things are being done his way by this staff, especially Willy Robinson.

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