Michigan football defensive coordinator Don Brown discovers magic of virtual motivation

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Coaching football is a lot about being hands-on with players while teaching during practices, but coaches across the country in every sport have had to expand their virtual horizons to keep college athletes engaged and focused on preparing for the upcoming season, whenever that might be.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, 64, and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, 36, both have had to embrace video conferencing, something neither had ever done. But that was the only way to work with their current players, who missed out on spring practice when on-campus activities were suspended March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and to recruit high school players.

Don Brown

“I’ve become a Zoom magician,” Brown said in a Zoom conference with reporters on Thursday. “I’ve been able to finagle my way.”

Gattis said the coaches have used FaceTime meetings, Zoom and Google Hangout.

“Throughout this whole deal, it's opened up a new pathway for coaches across the country,” Gattis told reporters recently. “I've never heard of Zoom until this pandemic. Never used Google Hangouts until this pandemic. So it's created new opportunities for us to teach and new opportunities for us to understand how players learn being so virtual, and I think this is something that's going to stay with us in the coaching profession long past this pandemic.

“This has created a new platform for being able to teach, and so I know we're excited and we're thankful that we've been introduced into this new platform to be able to use.”

While the pandemic forced coaches and players to get creative when it comes to meetings and workouts and even keeping up with their nutrition plans, it appears the day for a return to the building in a limited nature could happen soon.

The NCAA has voted to allow voluntary on-campus athletic activity for football, and men’s and women’s basketball to begin June 1. Ohio State announced this week football players can return to campus for voluntary workouts beginning June 8, and the Southeastern Conference announced Friday that voluntary activity, “under strict supervision,” can begin at their member schools also on June 8.

It is unclear when Michigan might return.  The state is under a stay-at-home order through June 12, but gyms will have to be given the all-clear to reopen by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before players can return to work out at Schembechler Hall.

Brown, who has been at his home in Cape Cod using the spare bedroom to watch film and work, said he is looking forward to returning to Schembechler Hall. How coaches and players will safely proceed is still in the works.

“I'm not going to be able to just walk in Schembechler Hall and go back to our defensive staff room,” Brown said. “We're going to practice social distancing. We can go to the defensive team room and spread out there and do that. It's going to require small group meetings. Positionally, that'll be an important piece. 

“I really don't know what's ahead of me, but I can tell you this — I'm looking forward to it. And I'm excited about it, that I will tell you. I can't wait to coach football."

Earlier this week, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on ESPN was asked if he’d be OK playing games if fans are not allowed in massive Michigan Stadium.

“Heck yeah I’d be comfortable coaching a game without any fans,” Harbaugh said. “If the choice were to play in front of no fans or not play, then I would choose to play in front of no fans.”

Brown agrees with Harbaugh but said there is a challenge playing before few fans.

“It's tough. It's a different environment, but it's all about the preparation,” Brown said. “I've been a high school coach for five years, looked up in the bleachers, there's 600 people there, 500 people. The one good thing is, people get excited about it that are there. But will it be anybody there?

“The key will be the preparation, and I think this, the Michigan football guys that I know, they love football. They love it. They love playing. They love everything associated with it. Not perfect. Did not say they were perfect. But as far as the discipline, as far as the preparation as far as trying to do the best things possible, you're going to get an honest day's work out of those guys every day. And I anticipate just like coach said, I'd rather play in front of nobody than not play because that could knock me into retirement. Maybe some of you want that to happen, I don't.”


Twitter: @chengelis