Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s hiring of Don Brown as defensive coordinator could immediately vault the Wolverines into the national championship conversation.
At least that’s how current Lions defensive back James Ihedigbo sees it.
Ihedigbo played for Brown when he was head coach at UMass, and was part of the Minutemen’s 2006 team that played in the Division I-AA national championship.
“I think honestly with the adding of coach Brown, they’re definitely going to be in the running for a national championship – I think he’s that good of a coach,” Ihedigbo told The Detroit News in a telephone interview from New Orleans on Monday.
“With the duo of Harbaugh and coach Brown, an offensive genius and defensive genius together, that’s why I say they can win a national championship. They will be aggressive on both sides of the ball. Coach Brown got the best out of you. Michigan is going to love him.”
Brown, 60, comes to Michigan from Boston College, where he was defensive coordinator the last three seasons and replaces D.J. Durkin, who left Michigan after one season to become head coach at Maryland. Under Brown this season, the Eagles, who were 3-9 and winless in the ACC, had the nation’s top-rated defense. They ranked first in eight statistical categories during the regular season – total defense, rushing, scoring, red zone, first down, third down, fourth down and tackles for loss. Boston College was second nationally in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.
He was named the 2015 AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year.
“Look at his track record,” said Ihedigbo, UMass MVP in 2006. “At UMass we were the No. 1 scoring defense in all of football, we had four shutouts (2005, 2006 seasons combined), and then you take him and put him at Boston College and he does the same thing. It’s a testament to his philosophy and coaching style.
“A simpler way to describe him: He wants you to play like your hair’s on fire every single play. 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.”
Brown will officially begin work at Michigan after the end of the bowl season. Greg Mattison, who has been defensive coordinator at Michigan during two different stints, is working in that role now as the Wolverines prepare to face Florida in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Harbaugh, in a statement released Monday officially confirming Brown’s hire, said he was the top candidate for the job. Harbaugh said conversations with his father, Jack, a longtime college coach, and his brother, John, the Baltimore Ravens' head coach, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, led him to Brown.
“Everything he has touched has turned to gold,” Harbaugh said of Brown. “Just look at his track record as a head coach, defensive coordinator and even as a baseball coach (in 1992 at Yale). We are beyond excited to welcome this high character, high achieving individual to our program and university. Teaching and player development are synonymous with coaching and Don Brown epitomizes those qualities.”
UMass head coach Mark Whipple has known Brown since the late 1980s. Brown was defensive coordinator at Yale from 1987-92, and Whipple was head coach of nearby Division II New Haven. Their teams often would scrimmage against each other.
Whipple said it is fair to describe them as football brothers and has said that Brown plays defense the way he likes to coach offense, both with an aggressive philosophy and approach. Whipple hired Brown as his defensive coordinator at Brown (1996-97) and at UMass (1998-99). The Minutemen won the 1998 I-AA national championship.
“The players love to play for him,” Whipple told The Detroit News on Monday. “He’s a football man, a family man, and he cares about the kids. Just a great person all the way. We go back about 25 years, and we talk regularly. I talk to Don more than anybody in coaching.
“He’s honest, he’s got character, he’s just a great person. 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. He didn’t got out and look for this (job at Michigan). He worked at Maryland, but he’s never really been at that level like Michigan. He’ll really enjoy it.”
Whipple said he’s also glad Brown is no longer at Boston College, because he didn’t like coaching against him. The old friends who used to live near each other while at UMass and golfed together, faced off as coordinators when Whipple was at Miami (Fla.) and Brown at Maryland. They had faced each other when UMass and BC played.
“It was the one game didn’t like playing,” Whipple said. “Not that I didn’t mind the competition, but he’s a guy I really like and really respect. I don’t feel that way (not wanting to oppose on the field) about anybody else in all the years I coached. We’ve done so much together, I wasn’t really looking forward to facing him again.”
Brown is not flashy and doesn’t attract attention to himself, Whipple said.
“He has a presence, but he has his own style and unique to himself,” he said. “I’m excited to see what he does at Michigan. The players come first, and he knows what he’s doing. He has a method and not afraid to say he made mistakes. In a loss, he’ll say, ‘I had a bad game plan’ and never blame the players. He’s also a really good recruiter and a great person. This is great for him. I couldn’t be happier.”
Ihedigbo remembers going into Brown’s office at UMass and inside a glass encased box on the wall was this quote that he recalls verbatim to this day: “Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up it knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle -- when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
“It’s one of those that sticks with you,” Ihedigbo said. “We saw it in his office, and he’d bring it up in talks. That embodies who Donnie Brown is. Every day he’s coming up with new blitzes, new pressures and he wants the best out of you.”
Brown would host the players for barbeques, and while he expected everything from them, they adored his passion and his sincere care for their well-being.
“We loved him,” Ihedigbo said. “He treated us like sons.”
Before Brown arrived at Boston College, the Eagles had six sacks. After one season under Brown, they had 36 in 2013. That is clear evidence of his desire to coordinate an attack-oriented defense that will throw multiple looks and blitzes.
“You’ll see corner blitzes, safety blitzes, double linebacker pressures -- he’ll bring pressure from just about anybody on the field,” Ihedigbo said. “He knows how to get after the quarterback. You take out the quarterback you’re going to win the game.”
Ihedigbo called Brown’s wife, Deborah, to congratulate them on the new job and although he is a former UMass player, he said he is now a Michigan fan because of this hire.
“Oh, yeah,” Ihedigbo said, laughing. “Go Blue.”