Michigan dismisses defensive coordinator Don Brown after five seasons

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The Michigan football shakeup has begun.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown, who took over the defense in 2016 and shaped it to be No. 1-rated nationally, and Michigan have parted ways, two sources confirmed to The Detroit News on Tuesday.

Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports was the first to report the news.

Brown’s dismissal comes as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who completed his sixth season with the Wolverines, continues discussions with athletic director Warde Manuel about a contract extension. Harbaugh has one year remaining on his current seven-year deal and entered this season as the only FBS coach with less than two years on his contract.

Don Brown

The move appears to be a strong indicator that Harbaugh will return for the 2021 season. He and Manuel, who said the two would meet after the season to discuss his future at Michigan, began discussions last Thursday. Michigan finished 2-4 and canceled its final three games because of COVID-19-related issues. It was a poor season across the board for the Wolverines, but the defense was in disarray.

Parting with Brown also suggests this won’t be the last shakeup on this staff. Six of Harbaugh’s assistants have contracts expiring next month — offensive line coach Ed Warinner, running backs/special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh, defensive line coach Shaun Nua, tight ends coach Sherrone Moore, cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich and quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels. Meanwhile, safeties coach Bob Shoop, hired earlier this year, wasn't an on-field coach this past season.

Brown, 65, was the highest paid assistant in the Big Ten this past season. He earned $1.1 million in base salary and a $600,000 retention bonus. He was hired late in 2015 and then signed a new three-year deal in 2019 worth a minimum of $4.9 million. The final year of the deal that was to expire in 2022 was to pay Brown $1.7 million.

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“It’s sad to see someone like him get let go,” former Michigan defensive lineman Chris Wormley, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told The News. “After all that success he had his first few years there…something needed to change after the way the season ended, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and Jim must’ve thought that was the best course of action.

“It’ll be interesting to see if anyone else gets fired. He had a big part of a lot of guys getting drafted, and that’ll never be taken away. Maybe they should’ve kept old man Matty after all.”

Wormley laughed with that last comment referring to former Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who is now co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

In 2016, Wormley’s last season at Michigan and only under Brown’s direction, the Wolverines finished first nationally in total defense, allowing an average 261.8 yards. Two years later, they finished No. 2. But this season, Michigan allowed 434.3 yards a game and finished 87th nationally.

Two games during Brown’s tenure have always been part of a critique of his aggressive man defense — the 62-39 loss at Ohio State in 2018 and the 56-27 loss to the Buckeyes in 2019.

“The Ohio State game was a huge negative for us,” Brown said earlier this year during a Zoom call with reporters. “I’m not going to live in that world. And I don’t want the players to live in that world. 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.”

Michigan signed 20 incoming freshmen during the early signing period last week. Among them is linebacker Junior Colson, a four-star recruit from Tennessee, who posted on Twitter a simple message — “Wow” — evidently in response to the news about Brown.

Now Michigan must identify its next defensive coordinator. A name that certainly will be in the mix is fired Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. Mason, 51, was the defensive backs coach at Stanford in 2010 and was hired by Harbaugh, who was head coach at the time. Another potential candidate is Will Muschamp, who was fired by South Carolina last month.


Twitter: @chengelis