Looking back over the lists of college football’s hottest assistants over the last few years, one name is now conspicuous in its absence. Despite stellar showings by his defenses during that time, new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown wasn’t mentioned alongside the likes of Bud Foster, Kirby Smart, Pat Narduzzi, D.J. Durkin, and numerous others regarded in media circles as the nation’s best. That, however, had nothing to do with his coaching acumen. According to former Boston Globe reporter Mark Blaudschun it has more to do with the stage that Brown has coached on for much of his 34-year career.
"I've known Donnie Brown for 25 years… (going back to) when he was the coach at Northeastern, then at UMass, then he went to Maryland and Connecticut,” Blaudschun said. “He is one of the best coaches I've seen. This year, I kid you not, I've talked to him about this… I've never seen him do a better job than this year because (Boston College) is not that good. Talent wise, BC… they're okay, but there was no Luke Kuechly… there was no Mark Herzlich, but they played at such a level above their talent in every game. It was amazing. If it was not for them I don't know that they would've beaten Howard. I really don't."
That’s saying something considering Boston College scored 10 touchdowns in that game and won 76-0. The problem was after scoring 13 combined touchdowns versus Maine and Howard in the first two games of the season, the Eagle offense scored just 12 touchdowns against the 10 FBS opponents the remainder of the year. Brown’s defense did more than it’s part to keep things respectable by finishing the season #1 in the NCAA in total defense (254.3 yards/game) and top ten in four other categories (scoring defense, rush defense, red zone defense, and pass yards allowed). Unfortunately finishing #125 (out of 127) in total offense doomed the Boston College to a 3-9 finish. Through it all Brown kept his unit on track by getting it to focus it on the things it could control.
"There was tension (between the offense and the defense),” said Blaudschun. “That was the growing issue as the season goes on because you can see it developing like watching a storm come off the ocean. It started at first, all for one, one for all but then you (saw the breaking point in) the Wake Forest game. Wake Forest got a field goal in the second quarter and the game was over. People said, ‘this is the end of the game’ and you could see the defense was saying to the offense, ‘ok, what do we have to do? Do we have to score touchdowns to win games?’ And they did that too. They actually did that… scored touchdowns… and it still wasn't enough. It was amazing."
Even more amazing is the fact that it wasn’t that much of an anomaly for Brown. In 2013 Boston College finished with the nation’s second-best rush defense (94.5 yards/game) and #11 in the country in total defense (324.2 yards/game). That spurred a five game improvement from 2-10 in 2012 to 7-6. In 2014 he guided the Eagles to a #21 finish in scoring defense (21.3 points/game). He experienced similar success at all of his prior stops. While that is largely attributable to his X’s & O’s acumen, just as much, if not more credit goes to his ability to get his players to run through brick walls for him.
“He's an old school coach,” said Blaudschun. “He gets in your face, but he backs you 100-percent and you're his guys. He calls them his ‘dudes’ and they just go out and do everything in the attack mode. They are never passive, and this by far will be the most talent that he has had. I think the projections of getting Michigan into the final four are legitimate with him as the defensive coordinator."
"The trend right now is to get younger and sexier (with coaching hires). Look at D.J. (Durkin). He was the prototype of the young defensive coordinator. He got that job at Maryland and I think that's the trend right now. Donnie is old school. He's not politically correct on a lot of things. He says what's on his mind and doesn't play political games. He just goes out and coaches. He's had clashes with Steve Addazio during the season. You don't mess with Donnie Brown. They're his guys (on defense) and he fights for his guys."
Brown’s players certainly feel that. Detroit Lions All Pro safety James Ihedigbo played for Brown at Massachusetts and was effusive in his praise of his former coach in an interview with the Detroit News.
“He’s honest, he’s got character, he’s just a great person,” Ihedigbo told the News. “I wouldn’t call it tough love with the players, the way he coaches. The defensive players just don’t want to let him down. He’s intense, and he’s very competitive.”
That bears a striking resemblance to the Jim Harbaugh is often described. It should come as no surprise, then, that Brown’s defenses have a reputation for being as physical and aggressive as Harbaugh’s offenses. Brown’s approach was called “organized chaos” at a previous stop because of his blitz-heavy philosophy.
"That's the way he coaches… that's his personality… he's an attacker,” Blaudschun said. “The Michigan fans are going to love him and Jim Harbaugh will love him because of his attacking. It's all out.”
“A simpler way to describe him: He wants you to play like your hair is on fire every single play,” Ihedigbo told the News. “Guys who do that like myself are guys in the league and you’ll play a long time. He doesn’t want guys who aren’t going to do that every play.”
“You’ll see corner blitzes, safety blitzes, double linebacker pressures -- he’ll bring pressure from just about anybody on the field,” Ihedigbo later added. “He knows how to get after the quarterback. You take out the quarterback you’re going to win the game.”
Based on Brown’s successful track record, success at Michigan seems almost a given. The part of the job deemed a question mark by some is how he’ll fair on a recruiting trail where he’ll now routinely go toe to toe with perennial powers. According to Blaudschun such concerns have no basis. He insists Brown’s success as a recruiter is a given as well.
"Same (as on the field),” Blaudschun said confidently. “He gets into families’ living rooms and his enthusiasm comes across to the parents. He has recruited at Maryland… he's recruiting (at the highest level). He knows what it's about. He knows the areas. It's the enthusiasm and the honesty of the guy. He shakes your hand, he looks you in the eye, and there's no B.S. with Donnie Brown. He will say if they're no good, ‘we stunk tonight, I have to do a better job.’ That translates to kids.”
“BC had the #1 defense in the country and they shut down Florida State. Well if you shut down Florida State and you play with Clemson and Notre Dame, you can recruit against Ohio State. The energy level, as much as Jim Harbaugh emphasizes (that trait), Donnie Brown will add an energy boost to the entire program just because of his presence. Just watch him when he walks out. Watch his practices. Just watch what he does. Watch his personality. It'll come through."
As a matter of fact it’ll often come through in pretty colorful fashion.
"It's an R rated practice for microphones because he lets you know what he thinks and he doesn't mince words,” said Blaudschun. “He calls it what it is but that's Donnie Brown."
To view Brown’s coaching resume in its entirety click here.