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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Michigan’s 1973 Coaching Staff

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As you may have heard, forty years ago today the University of Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State University Buckeyes played to a 10-10 tie on the gridiron. Both teams entered the game undefeated and untied, with the Buckeyes ranked #1 in the country and the Wolverines #4 in the land. The game, played in Ann Arbor before a crowd of 105,223, was a landmark for several reasons, not the least of which is that it served as the catalyst to enable more than one team from the Big Ten to go to a bowl game in a given season. The juniors on that 1973 Michigan team would go 30-2-1 in their careers (as freshmen, they weren’t eligible to play, per the rules of the day), and never get a sniff of a bowl game.

TheTeamTheTeamTheTeam Ian Ransley Design + Illustration

Hall of Fame Head Coaches Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes built amazing assistant coaching staffs. On Michigan’s side, the remarkable 1973 assistant coaching group went on to have terrific careers in their own right. Of the nine assistant coaches on staff, six would go on to leave Michigan directly for Head Coaching positions elsewhere. Two others remained with Michigan as assistant coaches until they retired, and one would leave with Don Nehlen to become Nehlen’s Defensive Coordinator at West Virginia. Here’s a look at Michigan’s nine assistant coaches from that 1973 season:

Dennis Brown (Offensive Backs Coach in 1973, on Bo’s staff 1972-79): 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, a position from which he retired this past spring.

Tirrel Burton (Offensive Ends Coach in 1973; on Michigan’s staff 1970-1991): Burton coached for Bo at Michigan during the entire Schembechler era (except for 1969) and the first two seasons of the Moeller era. He started as the Freshman Coach in 1970-71; was Offensive Ends Coach from 1972-78; and Offensive Backfield Coach from 1979-91. Burton was a part of 14 Big Ten Championship coaching staffs and 10 Rose Bowl staffs.

Jerry Hanlon (Offensive Line Coach in 1973; on Michigan’s staff 1969-91): The legendary Hanlon was part of 15 Big Ten Championship coaching staffs and 11 Rose Bowl staffs. He is known mostly as an Offensive Line Coach, but he was the Quarterbacks Coach during the entire time that Jim Harbaugh was at Michigan (1982-86). Dennis Brown credits Hanlon with helping many people on and off the field, and had this to say, “Jerry Hanlon turned out such great offensive linemen that the pro coaches used to come and talk to him about teaching technique. Jerry used to have a saying, I’ll never forget, “level the bubble, level the bubble.” And those guys had such great technique when they got to the professional ranks they would come in and talk technique and stuff with Jerry. I know one year it was really heavy that he was going to the Green Bay Packers as the OL Coach. Jerry never left. He loved Bo, he loved being with Bo. And he loved Michigan.”

Jack Harbaugh (Defensive Backs Coach in 1973; on Michigan’s staff 1973-79): Harbaugh left Michigan after the 1979 season to take the Defensive Coordinator position with Stanford. He was with the Cardinal for two seasons before being named the Head Coach at Western Michigan, where one of his assistant coaches was Brady Hoke. In 2002 Harbaugh led Western Kentucky to the I-AA Championship and was named the American Coaches Association National Coach of the Year. Inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003, he is, of course, father of former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Frank Maloney (Defensive Line Coach in 1973; on Michigan’s staff 1968-73): A Michigan player from 1959-61, Maloney left Michigan after the 1973 season to become Head Coach at Syracuse, a position he held from 1974-80. After leaving Syracuse, he spent 29 years with the Chicago Cubs, including 27 years as Ticket Operations Director.

George Mans (Defensive Ends Coach in 1973; on Michigan’s staff 1966-1973): A teammate of Maloney’s at Michigan from 1959-61, he and Maloney were the only two assistant coaches from Bump Elliott’s regime to coach for Schembechler. Mans left Michigan after the 1973 season to become Head Coach at Eastern Michigan University, a position he held for two seasons. Mans later became Mayor of Trenton, Michigan, and also served in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Gary Moeller (Defensive Coordinator in 1973; a Michigan coach from 1969-76 and 1980-1994): Moeller left the Michigan coaching staff after the 1976 season to take the Head Coaching position at Illinois. After three seasons at Illinois, Moeller returned to Schembechler’s staff for the 1980 season. Moeller was Michigan’s first ever Offensive Coordinator (1987-89). He of course succeeded Schembechler as Michigan’s Head Coach after Bo’s 1989 retirement.

Chuck Stobart (Offensive Backfield Coach for Michigan from 1969-76): Stobart left the Wolverines to take over as Head Coach of the Toledo Rockets in 1977. He would later be Head Coach of both Utah (1982-84) and Memphis (1989-94).

Elliot Uzelac (Offensive Line Coach in 1973, a Michigan coach in 1973-74 and again from 1982-86): Left Michigan’s staff twice for Head Coaching jobs. He was Head Coach for Western Michigan from 1975-81 (and the MAC Coach of the Year in 1976), and Head Coach of Navy from 1987-89.

Note there was no Offensive Coordinator – Schembechler would not have one until 1987, when Gary Moeller took on the role.

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An Interview With Former Coach and QB Dennis Brown

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Dennis Brown 2 Fergodsakes.com 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.

Coaching

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.

Fergodsakes.com will publish more later this season from our converation with Dennis Brown.

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