Niyo: Staff continuity keeps Michigan clicking through uncertainty

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The silver linings are harder to find in college football these days, considering how cloudy the immediate future is for the sport in the middle of a pandemic.

But sitting in front of a computer screen in the spare bedroom of his offseason home on Cape Cod, Don Brown, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, was happy to talk about the ones he has found, nonetheless.

There’s the new reality of the recruiting game, where despite a moratorium on in-person visits the last two months, Brown and other UM coaches have found different avenues to connect with prospects. And in many cases, he says, “I think we know the guys a lot better than we knew them in a normal scenario.”

Defensive coordinator Don Brown, left, is one of the many faces who is returning on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's staff.

There’s the crash course in technology, too, whether it’s three-way phone calls or integrating film study into Zoom meetings, that the 64-year-old Brown admits “I had no idea” about a few months ago.

“But I am a virtual expert now,” he added, laughing. “And it has been helpful.”

Even more helpful, though, was the notion he kept coming back to in an hourlong video conference with the media Thursday afternoon. It had to do with all the familiar faces he sees daily on those Zoom meetings and FaceTime calls, from staff meetings with coaches to the eight hours a week they get with the players.

“If there’s one year that continuity really helps,” Brown said, nodding, “I think it’s this year.”

I think he’s right, without a doubt, though admittedly no one can be sure about much of anything when it comes to the upcoming season.

New faces in places

Still, consider that there are two dozen Football Bowl Subdivision programs currently operating with new head coaches in 2020, including three that are on Michigan’s schedule this fall — Washington, Michigan State and Rutgers.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find more than half the schools in the Big Ten are breaking in at least one new coordinator, including six of the nine conference opponents the Wolverines are scheduled to face this season. Penn State has a new offensive coordinator. Ohio State has a new defensive coordinator. Michigan’s in-state rival in East Lansing has a new head coach and a pair of new coordinators. Only Michigan and Maryland in the Big Ten East are bringing back the same head coach and both coordinators.

And for the Wolverines, it’s arguably the first time in Jim Harbaugh’s six-year tenure you can say that, though the nebulous job descriptions of offensive play-callers and passing-game coordinators over the years — including Tim Drevno, Jedd Fisch and Pep Hamilton — make that a hard one to pin down. 

This spring, though, the carryover is undeniable. Josh Gattis returns for his second year as the offensive coordinator and play-caller, and though he’ll be tasked with finding a new No. 1 quarterback while replacing four starters on the offensive line this season, he isn’t trying to break in any new assistant coaches.

“It's different when you're coaching something for the first time as compared to coaching it for the second time,” Gattis said last week. “So I think for a lot of our coaches, their comfort level is extremely high now, you know, going into Year 2 in the system.”

On the defensive side, Michigan is heading into Year 5 under Brown, which means the leadership group he’ll be meeting with online today — players like Carlo Kemp, Kwity Paye, Brad Hawkins and Ambry Thomas — truly understands his scheme inside and out.

“Our guys have a good handle on what we’re doing in our concepts,” said Brown, who’ll need to replace a handful of starters on defense as well this fall. “Not that we don’t change on a year-to-year basis. But the continuity, I think, will pay dividends, especially early in the year."

Even now, he can see the payoff, having gone through an entire eight-part installation of the defense this spring, with tweaks to coverages, a new viper in Michael Barrett, and plenty of time spent among the coaches going over what went wrong — again — in that crushing loss to Ohio State to end the regular season last November.

“I’m not going to live in that world, and I don’t want the players to live in that world,” Brown said of what has become an annual chore. “We acknowledge it, we move on from it, and hopefully I do a better job because I don’t blame players for anything. You blame the old guy right here, OK? I’ve gotta do a better job getting our guys ready, and I’ll promise you I’m going to.”

Comfort over concern

For now, that has involved a decidedly different routine. One that took some getting used to for a coaching lifer like Brown.

“You had to change your methodology of how you went about coaching,” he said. “But you still gotta give quizzes, you still gotta test your players, you still gotta watch the tape. And all those things we’ve been doing, and they’ve been challenging for all of us. But we worked our way through it and feel really good about where we’re at.

“I would be more concerned if I was the defensive coordinator at John Smith University and it was my first year on the job and I had to go through this. Because I think that’s gonna be a challenging scenario for guys across the country that are new on offense and new on defense, even special teams for that matter.”

Brown did lose two of his assistants on defense this past winter. Chris Partridge, a top recruiter who’d coached the safeties and Michigan’s special-teams units, left for the defensive coordinator job at Mississippi, while linebackers coach Anthony Campanile took an NFL job with the Miami Dolphins after spending just one season in Ann Arbor.

To replace Partridge, Michigan hired Bob Shoop, a longtime coordinator who actually played and coached under Brown at Yale. (“I just thought that was gonna be a great fit for us, and it has been,” Brown said.) Brian Jean-Mary, who spent the last decade on Charlie Strong’s staffs at various stops, is the new linebackers coach, splitting those duties with Brown, who says “we’re tied at the hip in the run game.” There’s also a new defensive analyst in Keith Dudzinski, who spent a dozen years coaching under Brown at three different stops prior to his arrival at Michigan.

“So I’m very comfortable with our staff moving forward,” Brown said.

Less comfortable is where he finds himself at the moment. Cape Cod isn’t a bad place to be this time of year, but he’s yearning to get back to Schembechler Hall and the comfortable surroundings of his office, as soon as he's able.

“I just feel like I’m in my element there,” he said.

Same goes for the practice field that stayed quiet the past couple months, with Brown — whose boisterous behavior is a calling card, both in meetings and on the sidelines — and the rest of his staff trying to find their way through a virtual world.

“I really don’t know what’s ahead of me,” Brown said. “But I can tell you this. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited about it. That I can tell you. I can’t wait to coach football.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo