It’s been well publicized at this point that Don Brown thinks about last year’s 42-13 loss to Penn State every day. That’s 376 days replaying the deepest stain on his three years at Michigan.
The 506 yards and 42 points the Nittany Lions put up exposed his seemingly impervious scheme. Recently, Brown showed the defensive players a clip of Penn State going for another gut-punching touchdown as time expired last season. With part of his memory reserved for that game, he didn’t need the extra motivation. His players probably didn’t either.
“We still remember, fourth quarter, five seconds left in the game, they had their players in, they ran a last play,” said sophomore defensive end Kwity Paye. “So we put that in our back pocket and we just remember that every single day as we’re working that they disrespected us.”
For a defensive coordinator that Jim Harbaugh called “one of the all-time great football coaches in the history of the game,” this weekend’s game is reclamation of that description.
Saturday, whether the outcome is good or bad, is for Don Brown.
The 63-year-old walked through the door Wednesday afternoon with a spry jaunt to meet with the media.
“Happy Halloween,” he said to the scrum. “What are you dressing up as?”
In response to junior safety Josh Metellus calling him an “old man,” Brown says he’s dressing as a younger version of himself, though his black sweater and khakis suggested he wasn’t in costume yet.
And therein lies Brown’s mystique. Behind a mustache, Boston accent and story-filled wrinkles, Brown is chipper with no signs of restlessness. He is coaching one of the biggest games of his lengthy career — Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff implications at stake — and he remains measured and funny with his answers.
“That’s what happens in 41 years — you win some battles, some you’re not gonna win. But at the end of the day, you’ve gotta get better,” Brown said. “The thing that drives me is when I don’t give our players the best possible chance. I want to make sure I remind myself of that. … At the same time, you’ve gotta move on and learn from it. Make sure you have all the tools in the toolbox at your disposal. Don’t say ‘Ah, we’re good without that.’ ”
Brown won’t tell you what's in his toolbox this year that wasn’t last year, because he is still implementing it in his stalwart defense. But his defense is smarter and more trustworthy. They can talk on more defensive concepts and be better at it.
“You have to have a cerebral approach,” Brown said. “I was looking at third-down stuff, we repeated a bunch of stuff on third down against Michigan State two weeks ago. But you go back beyond that — Northwestern, Nebraska, just going back — there’s somewhere about 65 different concepts that we’ve challenged opposing offenses with.”
And then, Brown gets asked how he knows his players love football. In other words, how does a football guy recognize another football guy?
“You can’t come here and play football here and not love football because it’s too much a part of your DNA,” Brown said. “This isn’t Happy Jack City. You better like football, and you better like the things that go into it.”
He hasn’t even discussed this year’s Penn State team yet. That doesn’t happen until 12 minutes into an 18-minute conversation, and lasts two minutes.
He likes quarterback Trace McSorley, wide receivers K.J. Hamler and Juwan Johnson, running back Miles Sanders and tight end Pat Freiermuth. It’s a listicle of the primary weapons that Michigan’s defense will see from the Nittany Lions.
Then, it’s back to his unit and its most recent performance: allowing just 94 yards to Michigan State.
“Just relief for another week,” Brown said of his reaction. “I’ll share something with you — that didn’t surprise me. This team, this defensive football team that we’re coaching presently, is the best practice team I’ve ever been around. I don’t have to out there with my hair on fire, screaming on guys, ‘You’ve gotta hustle, you’ve gotta run, get to the ball, blah blah blah.’ This team practices like they’re supposed to practice.”
Don Brown could just be doing Don Brown things and complimenting his guys. But even when poked and prodded for answers, he didn’t dwell for too long on last year and what he is preparing for this year.
He’s felt accountable for over a year about last season’s blowout, and shares that feeling with his players. Of course that’s what he wants to talk about. His defense is fourth in points allowed and first in yards allowed per game, after all.
On Saturday, a replication of last year’s nightmare can undo all of this year’s accomplishments and squander a hopeful season. Or Brown and his players can turn the table and keep title dreams intact.
“Happy Halloween,” Brown repeated with a smile as he finished his press conference.
The mental weight of 376 frustrating days was nowhere be seen.