An Interview With Former Coach and QB Dennis Brown

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Dennis Brown 2 had the pleasure of interviewing the engaging Dennis Brown. An All Big Ten Quarterback for the University of Michigan in 1968, Brown went on to be an assistant coach at Michigan under Bo Schembechler from 1972-79. When Don Nehlen left the Wolverine staff after the 1979 season to become Head Coach at West Virginia University, he took Brown with him, where Brown was his Defensive Coordinator from 1980-87. Among the players on his defense at WVU was Rich Rodriguez. Brown left WVU after the 1987 season to head to Arizona State, where he was Defensive Coordinator for two seasons. After coaching high school football in Detroit for a few years, Brown returned to the University of Michigan as an Assistant Athletic Director for two and a half years under Tom Goss. Brown has spent the last several years as an Assistant Principal at Annapolis High School in Dearborn. He retired this past spring.


I think I got into coaching because of all the coaches I had prior to being a college player and all of the guys that I came up with. I started getting involved in organized sports when I was eight. I played basketball, football, baseball, hockey. There were days between the 8th and 9th grade and we did three different sports a day in the summer and they were all organized by coaches. We would play basketball in the morning, football in the afternoon – drills in the gym and hitting bags and so on – and then in the night we’d play baseball. That’s all we did. They didn’t have to worry about where I was, they knew where I was. There’s no questions that those coaches and some of my teachers drew me into coaching. My goal when I graduated high school was to be an English teacher and a high school football coach. That’s what I wanted to do.

When I went through the program at Michigan and did my student teaching at Ann Arbor Pioneer, I remember talking to my advisor and telling him, “No, I’m not going to teach in high school, there’s no way.” And he was shocked. He said, “Really?” And I said “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to try to get into college coaching.” He advised me and told me it was pretty tough to do. But of course being at the University of Michigan it was less difficult, and so I started out by talking to Bump about being a graduate assistant in the spring.

Meeting Bo

Well the next thing you know, Bo came in. I was shocked. I was sad for Bump, such a great, great man. He was so good to all of us in his 10 years there. You’ll never find anybody who has anything bad to say about Bump Elliott. (A short while after Bo was hired) I went down to the Athletic Department and Maxine O’Neill, who passed away recently, who was just a dearth of athletic information, she was at the switchboard and I had walked right in at the ticket office. So I walked up and I said, “Max, what do you know about this new guy? What can you tell me about him?” She was… if you don’t know who Max was, Max didn’t pull any punches and she was quite a character. She said, “Well, I don’t like him to be honest with you. He’s rough and he’s gruff and he’s loud and he’s everything that Bump isn’t.” At that time, it couldn’t have been two seconds after she said that, there was a rumble of guys coming down the stairs from the second floor. And her mirror was right in front of the switchboard and it looked right up the steps. Out of the side of her mouth she says, “Here comes the old boy now!” I remember this like it was yesterday. So, he comes down to the bottom of the stairs and she says, “Hey Glenn Edward, I have somebody I’d like you to meet.” So the rest of the guys went to wherever they were going and he comes over and says, “What is it, Max?” And she says, “I’d like you to meet Denny Brown, the quarterback.” So he steps over and he looks at me, and the first thing he says to me is, “No way! You’re too little!” So I said, “Well, it’s nice to meet you, too.” Shook hands, and Bo had a tendency when he shook hands, he would pull you into him. So he pulled me into him and said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I want to coach for you. Coach Elliott said I could be a G.A. and I was hoping I could do the same for you.” He said, “Doesn’t sound like a bad idea. You’re gonna have to come back in a day or two, and I’m sure we could work something out.” And that’s how I got started with Bo.

Jerry Hanlon was instrumental in me getting my first job at Dartmouth College. I remember Bo telling me, “If you expect to come back here you better do a good job.” I read that as, “I better do a good job.” Ideally, I think most guys want to come back to their alma mater and coach at some time. Well, a year and a half later I got the call to come back. I was shocked. I remember telling my wife that I thought it would be at least five years before I would come back. Timing… one guy left, and Bo had a specific role that he wanted to fill.

“The Best Boss I Ever Had. Ever.”

Bo made me promises and he kept every one of them. Absolutely without question the best boss I ever had. Ever. You had a job to do, he let you do it. If he gave you a task, he gave you a time frame, and he might just say, “Have it ready when I want it.” There was never an agenda for a meeting. That used to drive Don Nehlen crazy. The agenda was in his head. When he wanted to start the meeting, the meeting started, and you had better be in your seat. That’s the way it was. We’d be in the middle of a meeting and his secretary Lynn Cook would come in and say, “So and so is on the phone.” He’d get up and leave, and everyone would look around and say, “Well, let’s see how long this one’s gonna be,” (laughter).

Bo’s offensive practices. Speed. Time. First group. Second group. Right hash. Left hash. Middle. Short. Just boom boom boom. But if you screwed up the play, back on the ball. It was something.

He was extremely bright but he knew how to delegate. He wasn’t afraid to delegate, he didn’t care who got the credit. He worked with his coaches the way he worked with his players: everybody on the same page going in the same direction. We’re not going to single out anybody – we’re not going to have a campaign for Anthony Carter to be a Heisman Trophy winner. The Team, The Team, The Team. That was it. I think all of us as coaches that went on, whether it was as head coaches or as coordinators, that’s what we preached to our kids. Most of them bought in. But winning buys in quicker than anything. And he won.

Gary Moeller

He thought an awful lot of all of the guys, whether they went on to be head coaches or not. I remember when we opened with Illinois and Moeller took that job. I remember him saying when we first started meeting for that game, “How do you get angry, how do you get mad, at Gary Moeller? We’re going to have to find a way to be angry here. But how do you get mad at Gary Moeller?” Gary was a great coach, great coach, he had a wonderful career, and I have a lot of admiration for him. He offered me a job at Illinois, and I was very seriously considering it, because I was kind of itching to move myself, for whatever reason. I went to Bo. And Bo said, “I’m not gonna tell you one way or the other.” So my wife and I mulled it over. I was recruiting in Illinois at the time, and even the coaches were saying it’s a sleeping giant down there, we don’t know what’s wrong. I wasn’t a risk taker at that time, so I went back to Moeller and told him I really appreciate it, and it would be an honor, but no. I went and told Bo, and Bo said, “I’ll tell you when it’s time for you to leave.” (laughter). And I said, “OK, all right,” (more laughter).

Defensive Coordinator

Bo hired guys to coach, and he let them coach. When I went with Don Nehlen to WVU, he fortunately did it the same way. He would ask me maybe on Thursday if we were playing against a particular player that he was concerned about, “What are you doing about this guy?” But we never sat down and met. He let you coach. Don’s thing was, “Get me the ball back.” He would say that on game Saturday. They’d be driving or something and he’d say, “Get me the ball back.” And I’d say, “Don’t throw the post cut coming out on your own 5 yard line.”

Bo was in complete control. He had a defensive coach that coached the defense. Now if he didn’t like something… My whole thing, and even as a Defensive Coordinator myself for 8 or 9 years, I would tell my coaches, “I’m not going to tell you how to coach your position unless it’s not looking good.” And when we game plan, this is a concerted effort. I’m not going to come in and say, “This is what we’re going to do.” We’re going to look at down and distance, we’re going to look at their favorite plays. When we have our practice organization the secondary coach should know more about what goes on in the secondary than I do. I’m going to know what goes on with all of it, and seeing as how I’m going to be in the forcing portion unit of the defense, I’m going to know a whole lot about the run responsibilities, but so is the OLB coach and the DL coach.

More at Michigan

Halftime was about adjustments. Offensive coaches get together. Defensive coaches get together. Talk about what went good, what went bad. What we might have to do, maybe don’t do this, let’s stay away from that, that sort of thing. Just business. I can’t even think of a game that there was ever any inkling that regardless of what the score was that we weren’t going to do better or pull it out or whatever the case may be. Bo was more under control in the big games than he was in the other games.

The guys that he treated the worst revere him the most. And we all revere him whether we played or coached for him. Yeah, the guys that he would be in their grill… Jimmy Brandstatter. When I first came back and they had the Brandy and Bo show, I would listen to that and I would just think about all of the times that Bo ripped him from one side to the other. I remember one specifically. Spring ball is over with. The transcripts are coming in, the grades are coming in. One morning in the office I hear, “Jerry! God Dammit Jerry! Get down here!” So here comes Jerry. And all I hear is, “I want him down here and I want him down here now!” Brandstatter. He had screwed up some grade or something. Within the hour Big Jim was down there getting raked over the coals big time. Of course I wasn’t there in ‘69 when Jim did the majority of his playing but Jim was constantly being ripped and berated. “Brandstatter goddammit….” I remember telling my wife how funny this is when I hear it.

Jerry Hanlon

He probably fired Hanlon 50 times.

He (Bo) had a lot of analogies for when we’d be looking at film about guys. He’d make names up for guys. Sunday night, particularly, going through the starting lineups. There was one team that had a lot of players down through the years that were from Ohio, from what Bo called the “75 Corridor.” Well, guess who recruited the 75 Corridor – Jerry Hanlon. And Bo would go, “all right, number 75, Jerry, Jerry, how come this guy never came to our campus Jerry? Did you miss another one, Jerry? Their whole starting line is from the 75 Corridor. I never saw one of those guys. Why is that?” Jerry would say, “Well goddammit Bo, we beat their ass every year. Why would we want to bring these guys here?”

What A Career

Guys that I just happened to work with and the things that they did afterward – now some of those people have names on buildings. I mean, they were probably in their early 40’s when I got there in ‘65, there were just so many people who were legends in Michigan lore, and there are people out there that remember them. Sometimes when I’m talking to people at my work who are in athletics I want to be very careful as to what I say because I came in at such a time where all of these guys who went on to do all of these things, and their assistants, I knew them. So, I don’t want to be one of those guys who says “I worked with him.” But I was very fortunate in my mind, athletically being where I was, and knowing who I knew, because of where I was.

It’s a great game. I love it. I still do. will publish more later this season from our converation with Dennis Brown.

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