"It's a rivalry with a lot of pride and tradition on both sides," Brown said on Wednesday after practice. "The teams play relatively hard. With that being said, it's a good rivalry. It's healthy for college football. The focus should be the kids on the field and the schools. It shouldn't be on things that are said and not said. The only thing that matters is when you tee it up."
Brown was a member of four Big Ten championship teams from 1989-1992. During those years, Michigan went to three Rose Bowls and never finished lower than seventh in the Associated Press poll. Brown was a three-year letter winner and played under the legendary Bo Schembechler. Current Wolverines head coach Lloyd Carr was Brown's defensive coordinator while in Ann Arbor.
In his senior season, Brown was a tri-captain and picked as a selection for the all-Big Ten first-team after totaling 82 tackles in 1992. The Notre Dame defensive coordinator has been in contact with a few of his old buddies from his playing days.
"I've had a lot of phone calls from guys I've played with," Brown said. "I was captain of that last team. The guys were wishing me well and guys saying they'll be there for support."
Before taking the defensive coordinator position at Notre Dame, Brown was part of a memorable run by an Irish running back. In the 1992 contest in South Bend, which ended in a 17-17 tie, Notre Dame‘s Reggie Brooks took a handoff right. Brown came from the defensive backfield and tried to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. But Brooks put a spin move on Brown and left the Wolverines safety flailing on the ground. Brooks ended up scoring on the play, knocking himself out as he crossed the end zone after making contact with a Michigan defender. Brown‘s big whiff overshadows 11 tackles, a sack and a blocked field goal in the contest.
"From that game, I had a ton of good plays," Brown said. "Nobody remembers those because that's how life is. But it's a good conversation piece for our kids because they rub it in my face every chance they get. Every situation, if you can take something good out of it and poke fun at it, you do that."
On Saturday, Brown will be trying to get his defense ready for a wounded Michigan team. The Wolverines, just like the Irish, are in a 0-2 hole and searching for that win to get back the season back on track. The Notre Dame defensive coordinator has bigger worries than his alma mater's predicament.
"We're not thinking about what they need to do," Brown said, whose last trip to Michigan Stadium was back in 1998. "It's more about what we need to get done. You can worry about other people and other things all the time. But if you don't get your job done and I don't put the kids in good situations and they don't execute assignments, it won't be a good day for us. If we do what we're supposed to do, it'll give us a chance."
***The Notre Dame defense hasn't been lockdown good. But under Brown in the 3-4 personnel scheme, they've had their moments. The Irish are 13th nationally in pass defense and limited what Taylor Bennett of Georgia Tech and Anthony Morelli of Penn State did in the air.
The one big problem has been run defense. Notre Dame ranks 100th against the opponent's ground game. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Irish had problems with the outside runs and setting the edge. Versus the Nittany Lions, the defense wore down considerably late in the second half because of the Notre Dame offensive woes. Brown knows there's room for improvement.
"The kids are playing well," Brown said. "But at the end of the day, we're 0-2. We haven't done enough to really give our team the chance that we want to give them. Have there been things we've worked on? Yeah, but we still got a lot of road to travel. It's an everyday deal. We go out and get better."
In the loss to Penn State, the Irish earned their first three takeaways of the year. Notre Dame did not create these opportunities against Georgia Tech. But two forced fumbles, both caused by safety Tom Zbikowski, and an interception by sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls, who returned it 78 yards for a touchdown, stopped Penn State drives dead in their tracks.
"That's a way you can change the game other than special teams," Brown said about takeaways. "Special teams in one and getting turnovers on defense is two. If you can make that happen and create those, at least you give yourself a chance. All you want to do is give yourself a chance."
***Brown on preparing for Michigan freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett: "You would have to think there is a system and package in place. You have to prepare for that system. Once you get into the game, you have to be able to adjust. It'll be important for us to adjust to what they do."