Jim Harbaugh, Michigan players spellbound by defensive 'wizard' Don Brown

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Don Brown

Ann Arbor – Michigan tight end Sean McKeon understands the draw of Don Brown.

Brown is the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator. McKeon is an offensive player. And still, when he sees Brown about to talk, he stops what he’s doing and listens.

“Every game day in the locker room before we take the field, he brings the defense up in the locker room and gives a speech,” McKeon said recently. “I always make sure to take my headphones off and listen to that, and he pumps me up even though I’m not playing defense. He’s a great coach.”

When told about McKeon, Brown’s eyes first grew big as he smiled, then said it must be because both of them are central Massachusetts guys. They chat about Massachusetts things, the Red Sox.

More: Jim Harbaugh OK with admitting Michigan preps for Ohio State all season long

But it’s more than that.

Brown, 63, is a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant. He has driven Michigan’s defense to the top of the national statistics again in his third season as defensive coordinator. The Wolverines are No. 1 in total defense, holding teams to an average 234.8 yards a game; Clemson, ranked No. 2 is yielding an average 254.4 yards. Michigan leads the Big Ten in six defensive categories and has allowed an average of 13.5 points per game.

Michigan has never campaigned publicly for awards, but pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton showed up Wednesday to speak to reporters with a strip of masking tape across his chest and the message: “VOTE DON BROWN ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR (BROYLES).”

“The reason our team is in this position is because of the consistency that our defense has had over the years and in particular the past two years,” Hamilton said Wednesday. “Just looking at Don Brown’s defense and the opportunities they continue to give us on offense, the field position and, more importantly, the possessions.”

Linebackers coach Al Washington said Brown deserves the award.

“He gets results,” Washington said. “Guys play hard for him and his experience has kind of afforded him an advantage in the sense that he can anticipate things before they happen because he’s been through it all. He’s deserving because of the results you see and the way the kids play.”

Don Brown

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh a few weeks ago sang an old jingle but changed the words to “Don Brown, the king of defensive coordinators.” Harbaugh has called Brown the head coach of the defense and can rarely contain his enthusiasm when he discusses him. This week, Brown is preparing the defense for its biggest challenge, Ohio State’s No. 2-ranked offense, led by prolific passer Dwayne Haskins.

The fourth-ranked Wolverines face No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday at Ohio Stadium and the winner will go to the Big Ten championship game.

Harbaugh could have also used another old advertising slogan to describe his defensive coordinator – when Don Brown speaks, people listen.

And sometimes they hear him even though they’re not his targeted audience.

Harbaugh likes to sit in the position meetings and enjoys watching his coaches teach. He was recently asked about sitting in on Brown’s meetings and Harbaugh jokingly covered his ears.

“You don’t have to sit in on Don Brown’s meeting to know what’s going on in Don Brown’s meeting,” Harbaugh said, drawing laughter. “You have to be within 50 or 75 feet. He’s great. He brings the enthusiasm, the energy every single day.

“Paint peels off the walls. Have to get them repainted every couple weeks.”

Brown is loud and fiery, commanding and focused. It’s also clear he loves his players and they love him.

“He’s a wizard,” linebacker James Ross said. “That dude, he’s a great dude, a great coach and I love him to death. If you do something wrong or something in the game, he’s for all of us. He’s with all of us. We make those checks and those improvements and get it done.

“That dude is one of the most enthusiastic coaches I’ve ever been around. The fire in him, his drive, his passion, it kind of (affects) all of us. We all act like him somewhat.”

For that reason, the defensive players have no issue with how much Brown expects from them – he gives them his best and they in return, give him theirs. As far as Harbaugh is concerned, they are getting the absolute best in terms of instruction, coaching and guidance.

“A lot of things make Don a great coach,” Harbaugh said. “Never been around a better coach or worked with a better coach or played for a better coach than Don Brown.”

Where Brown excels is in-game adjustments.

“Probably the thing that stands out the most is the way he can adjust to something that’s going on on the field in real time, where some coaches need to see it from a press box or need to hear it from somebody up in the press box or need to look at a Polaroid or wait till they see the videotape to fully understand how the defense is being attacked and what adjustment needs to be used,” Harbaugh said. “Don’s able to do it faster than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Many defensive coordinators will wait until halftime to make adjustments. Brown makes them quickly when needed.

There is a difference in the speed with which he is able to make those corrections this season, though. That’s in large part because the players are older and more experienced and can adjust on the fly.

“Like this year as opposed to last year, I can’t really speak to the piece of, from a conceptual standpoint. It’s really more of a mental approach,” Brown said. “Like, when things didn’t go quite our way at times a year ago, we’d get big-eyed and be, ‘Alright, let’s calm down. Gotta do this, gotta do that. X, Y, Z, all those things.’ But it would take us a little time to do that. And, as I told you, in the Penn State game (last year), we never fixed it. Me included.

“But with this group, shoot, right to the bench. Sit there, look at you, ‘Alright, this is what we’re gonna do. Good. Let’s go.’ And that’s really been the approach to this point. That part of it, just their approach, being able to adjust, I think the confidence in one another and being around the scheme for (several years). We got a bunch of guys that know what to do. Pretty exciting to coach, to be honest.”

More: Shea Patterson paves winning way for 'playoff ready' Michigan

Brown balks when his age comes up in discussion. His players joke about him being an “old man” but in the same breath discuss his high energy level.

“It’s an emotional game, an aggressive game,” Brown said. “It’s a tough game for tough people. And I don’t know, maybe it’s that piece of it that kinda gets me motivated to still go to my masculine side, I guess.”

And it’s that piece that allows Brown to deliver powerful pre-game, halftime and post-game talks with his players, and even those offensive players who get a charge from listening.

“I love the moments right before we go out there,” defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said. “He gives us that pre-game talk. It’s that juice that you need, and he’s fired up, and you’re like, ‘Coach, don’t get a heart attack. Keep it contained.’ You just want to go out there and you want to give it your all for him, and he gives you that extra push right before those last final minutes before you go out there and take the field.”

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Kickoff: Saturday, noon, Ohio Stadium, Columbus

TV/radio: Fox/950 AM

Records: Michigan 10-1 (8-0 Big Ten), Ohio State 10-1 (7-1)

Line: Michigan by 4