An Interview With Michigan’s 1973 Offensive Backs Coach Dennis Brown

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Dennis Brown 1Fergodsakes.com had the pleasure of interviewing the engaging Dennis Brown, All Big Ten Quarterback for the University of Michigan in 1968. Brown went on to be an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler from 1972-79. When Don Nehlen left Michigan’s 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 spent several years as an Assistant Principal at Annapolis High School in Dearborn, where he retired this past spring.

Click here for Part One of our interview with Dennis Brown.

1969 – Michigan’s 24-12 victory over #1 Ohio State

(NOTE: An All Big Ten quarterback for Michigan, Brown’s last game in the winged helmet was the 1968 loss to Ohio State 50-14. Entering that game, the Wolverines were 8-1 and #4 in the nation. Michigan trailed 21-14 at halftime, and the Buckeyes put the game away in the second half. After a late touchdown Woody Hayes went for the two point conversion “because I couldn’t go for three.”)

I was in the service in 1969 doing my active duty when they upset Ohio State, but later I heard from the guys that were there about that week’s preparation, and how when they went over the scouting report, Coach Schembechler made it to be, “My middle guard has gotta outplay their middle guard… my center’s gotta outplay their center…” It became a situation where I’ve got to outplay my counterpart on the other side of the ball.

I was at Fort Ord in California – I got there September 26, and I’m in basic training and of course this is November. I’m out with my company, we’re doing bayonette training. All of a sudden some guy over a loudspeaker goes, “Worm Brown (they called us “worms”), Worm Brown, report to the stand.” So I got up there, and the guy just pointed. There’s a guy in a jeep, and he tells me to come over, and he says, “Get in.” And I’m thinking, “What in the hell…what am I doing?” Well, the CO of our company was a Ferris State grad, and he told me earlier in the cycle (what they call it for basic training) that he had seen me play. They sent me into his office. So I go in and do my salute and all that kind of stuff. He goes, “At ease. You want to see the second half of Michigan-Ohio State?” And I’ll be honest with you, I had forgotten that it was even going on. I was in shock. I was in basic training, you know? So I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Take your helmet off, put your weapon over here, and you come with me.” So he takes me into the non-commissioned officers, the NCO lounge. There’s probably eight or nine guys sitting there watching this game. He reaches over and he turns the sound down. It’s just the start of the third quarter, they might have just been coming out (of the locker room) and he goes, “This man is going to watch the second half of the Michigan-Ohio State game and I don’t want a f***in’ word said to him. Are we clear?” So he turns the sound back up. I sat about four foot from the screen and I watched it. When it was over with I went back to his office, he put me in the jeep, I went back out, and I never told a soul. Never told a soul. But his approach to those NCO’s was, “Do you think I’m screwin’? Don’t screw around with me.” (laughter). I never told anybody because I think I would have really had a hard time with that. Those were his exact words.

1973 10-10 tie

(Brown was Michigan’s Offensive Backs Coach in 1973)

My biggest recollection is we had scored to make it 10-10. We had worked all week on the course of the fullback on a play, because as an Outside Linebacker/Defensive Line Coach, a lot of your reads are predicated on a lead back coming at you. In this case it was the fullback. The inside-out, outside-in, head placement and all that stuff. Esco Sarkkinen was the Outside Linebacker Coach for Woody Hayes, and as we studied film all week, Bo and Jerry Hanlon (Michigan’s Offensive Line Coach) and probably Chuck Stobart (Michigan’s Offensive Backfield Coach) decided that if the fullback on an outside option kind of play – which would enable Dennis Franklin to either keep or pitch – if the fullback’s course was not what it was supposed to be then the OLB/DE would sink down in a little more, because that’s what the fullback’s angle and position would tell him.

(With around 10 minutes remaining in the game, trailing 10-3, Michigan faced a 4th down and inches, just inside the OSU 10 yard line. There was an official’s timeout for a measurement.)

I remember Bo on the phone to Jerry (if you look at the clips of this game, they actually used a phone to communicate from the sideline to the coaches booth), and Bo getting really upset. “God DAMMIT Jerry, are you sure?” And Jerry on the other end saying, “Yeah, I’m sure! Run it! Run it!” And they’re yelling at each other. But we ran it, and I’ll be a son of a buck, it was (snaps his fingers) boom! Like butter. Like butter. Amazing because the linebacker, Esco’s guy, is so well coached, his course is inside-out, he stepped down, and just that step and a half enabled Dennis to get out around him. I was helping Stobart with the running backs and quarterbacks, and I’ll never forget that coaching point. When I coached the outside linebackers for the next 5-6 years I always kept that in mind. I always told them that story, all the time. And I remember Gary Moeller telling me, “Courses, courses, courses.”

Afterwards, I happened to be not in the locker room, but in the recruiting room, and there was a call for Bo, and I was the only one in there. It was UPI or AP or whatever, and of course the story was that Franklin had broken his collarbone. I remember, I was 26 years old, and I just told them what I knew, which wasn’t very much. This is our understanding, we have no idea, and so on and so forth. And then when Bo came into the recruiting room I told him about it. And of course Donnie Warner got hurt too, and the story Bo used to tell. They were in the ambulance or car or something taking Donnie to the hospital, and Donnie said, “Dennis Franklin? What about me? I’ve got a knee injury!” Walk on from Divine Child. Donnie was very confident in his abilities. I tell you what, for a guy of his physical stature, you’ve got to be kidding. Not only was he tough, but he was out of his mind to think that he could play down there (on the defensive line). Him and Timmy Davis. Both of them. Probably 205 pounds or less playing down in there. They could play. Great quickness.

Michigan State, of course, casting the deciding vote, and afterwards Bo’s little tet-a-tet with the commissioner in a Chicago hotel room. Then they decided that they were going to let more than one team go to a bowl game after that. In ‘68 we should have gone to a bowl game, but it was one team, one bowl. We had a great All-American in (offensive lineman Dan) Dierdorf, who was a tackle for us. But anyway, it got changed, and I was one of many that was a real benefactor from having those bowl experiences after that changed.

After the heartbreak of 1973, you guys did it all over again in 1974 – undefeated heading into the Ohio State game. How were you able to do that in 1974?

Because you played for Michigan and you played for Bo Schembechler. He would not accept anything but your best. So many things can be attributed to him. “If you’re going to play in the North Atlantic you’re going to train in the North Atlantic.” That’s a famous one that he would use. You were afraid not to do your best. You respected the guy. His best talk every year was his opening talk to the coaching staff and everybody that was affiliated with the team. Set your watch to Schembechler time, coach to coach relationship, player to coach relationship, talked about the press. I remember one year Jack Harbaugh and I and Milan Vooletich, God rest his soul, we were sitting in the back of the room and we had talked earlier, we were going to tape it, because it was so good. I’ve got notes downstairs, I know I do. We screwed it up. We didn’t get it taped.

He had such a presence about him when he talked. I recruited Chicago – I remember going to Chicago for almost six years. They had a dinner there every year, I think it was the Tribune 44. It was a big banquet, held in one of the big hotels downtown. Bo was invited one year to be the keynote speaker. So we flew over, and we were sitting on the plane. He’s sitting there drinking a 7-Up, and he takes a cocktail napkin and he take out his pen, and writes out roman numeral 1, and scribbled something, and roman numeral 2, and scribbled something, and he did that for 8 or 9 points. I never thought anything about it. That was his topic. That was his speech from beginning to end. When he got up to the podium very subtly he put his hand in his pocket and put the napkin right down (on the dais) where he could see it. And I mean to tell you, it was riveting. Right to the point. No frills. Delivered only the way that Bo Schembechler could deliver it. He just, he was just special in every conceivable way. The guys that he treated the worst revere him the most. And we all revere him whether we played or coached for him.

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