More than 20 years ago, Don Brown did what many people do at Yale University — he learned something important.
“Back when I worked for Carm Cozza at Yale, one of the things he told me was, ‘Hey, those players aren’t chess pieces,’ ” Brown recalled Tuesday. “ ‘They’re human beings and they want to have a relationship with you. So if you want them to play hard for you, develop relationships. Those are the things that are important.’ And I took that to heart.”
Now, that lesson is paying major dividends for Brown at Michigan.
When he was hired back in December, many praised his track record as an elite defensive mind. His Boston College defense was among the nation’s best last season, and he has lived up to that so far in Ann Arbor.
Through seven games, the Wolverines are the top-ranked unit nationally in terms of scoring and yardage, and while there’s no question the players on the field deserve much of the credit, Brown’s role in helping foster cohesion seems to have had a major hand in that.
“The most important thing you do is get those guys to understand we’re all in it together, we’re all human beings, we all care about one another,” Brown said. “And that’s good times and in bad. It’s easy to do when you’re 7-0. Tough to do when you’re on the off side of that coin.”
But having a good team isn’t the only way to build good will with players. Senior safety Dymonte Thomas called Brown a “great role model” and cited Brown’s ability to make players laugh to loosen things up.
“One of the things he said about the linebackers, he’s like, ‘This play, you’ve gotta do this. If you don’t do this play, you’re fired, and then I’m going to get fired,’ ” Thomas said Monday. “And we just all start laughing. … If you make a mistake, he’s going to yell at you, but at the same time, he’s only yelling at you because he loves you.
“I got yelled at a few times early in the season, and he just said, ‘You know I love you, but as a senior you can’t make plays like that, and we need you to do better. So let’s go out there and practice, let’s get better today.’ He just says things like that to motivate you to make you want to do better for him.”
It’s not like the Wolverines were playing for a slouch before Brown, either. D.J. Durkin was the Michigan defensive coordinator last season, and he was good enough to earn a head coaching job at Maryland, where he has the Terrapins sitting at 5-2.
There’s no reason to believe Durkin didn’t connect with his players in similar ways, but there are certainly benefits to Brown’s extensive career in coaching.
One of those benefits is one of Brown’s more lighthearted, tried-and-true methods. During spring practice, he would give out “Dude of the Day” awards every so often on Twitter. He has not publicized one since March 20, but the award has been well-received in the Michigan community, whether by fans or players.
He carried the term with him from Boston College, and when he left the Eagles, he found out how much it meant to them, too.
“It’s funny, when I left B.C., some of the B.C. people said, ‘Oh, he’s stealing our ‘Dude of the Week,’ ” Brown said. “Well, wait a minute. That was my ‘Dude of the Week.’ I let you borrow it.”
Being called a “dude” is the highest compliment from Brown, a step up from the term “guy,” which is also meant as a term of endearment.
“If you go back and ask some of the players about 20 years ago, I used to say, ‘Will you just be a guy?’ ” Brown said. “And as times have gotten more modern, it went from guy to dude. Now, if you’re a guy, you’re here. Which is good. Being a guy is good. But if you’re a dude, you’re up here (gesturing higher).”
For Thomas, winning a ‘Dude of the Day’ award represented something of a white whale during the spring. (“I always thought maybe I’m going to get it one day,” he said. “And I never got it.”)
Fortunately for the senior safety, though, Brown isn’t afraid to give credit where it’s due. Maybe it’s part of his commitment to show players he cares, or maybe he just doesn’t like effort to go unrecognized.
So even without a formal tweet to announce it, Brown made one thing clear Tuesday.
“My son was telling me about Dymonte Thomas,” Brown said. “He’s a dude.”