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FOOTBALL: A players’ coach

Ken Fowler | Friday, August 31, 2007

Corwin Brown is a players’ coach.

Yes, the product of the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-Al Groh-Eric Mangini coaching tree is a players’ coach.

No, he’s not a lackadaisical, non-disciplinarian.

He’s not a guy who is going to play favorites or coddle starters.

And Brown certainly is not a guy who is going to say anything other than what he thinks.

But talk to the Notre Dame defense, and they’ll tell you that the team’s new, 37-year-old defensive coordinator is what they think a “players’ coach” should be.

He relates well.

* * *

Something about the former standout at Michigan – who grew up in a tough neighborhood of Chicago, earned a spot in the NFL, studied the game closely enough to land an assistant coaching gig in college and then a spot on a pro team’s staff – connects with almost every defender for the Irish.

“He’s a great players’ coach. He knows how to get guys fired up,” fifth-year defensive lineman Trevor Laws says. “You really feel like you’re playing for him when you’re out there because he’s always right behind you, always pushing you. He knows how to get players to play, and you really do want to play for him.”

Laws says that Brown’s youth is a benefit in his relationship with players, something related to what some of Laws’ teammates say.

For other defenders, having a coach whose playing experience was substantial and recent means an extra level of comfort and respect. Brown played for the New England Patriots from 1993-96, for the New York Jets from 1997-98 and for the Detroit Lions from 1999-2000. Meanwhile, Irish head coach Charlie Weis didn’t play any college ball, and defensive backs coach Bill Lewis ended his playing days 45 years ago, when he graduated from East Stroudsburg (Pa.) State.

Though former Irish defensive coordinator Rick Minter played in college at Henderson State (Ark.) in the 1970s, Brown’s experience is more relevant and tangible for players aspiring for NFL stardom.

“It’s a lot easier, too, when he’s actually played and he’s telling you things that you know you really can’t question it because he’s been there,” Irish linebacker Joe Brockington says. “I think that was the biggest thing … opening your ears and listening to what he had to say.”

Sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls says Brown “understands a lot of our situations” because “he’s been in the game, he knows what it’s like.”

More than just one change

When Weis announced that Minter’s contract would not be renewed and Brown would be the team’s new defensive coordinator, the offensive-minded coach said he better understands Brown’s scheme and his goals.

But the change was more than just a man named Corwin Brown replacing Rick Minter. It was more than just the 3-4 personnel grouping replacing the 4-3.

It was aggressiveness replacing a passive defense. It was energy replacing analysis. It was two years of underperformance replaced by a new hope.

Brockington says one of Brown’s strengths is his energy, which is far greater than Minter’s. But Lewis insists Brown is more than just a rah-rah coach; he’s also an intellectual. Indeed, Lewis says Brown has taught the 44-year veteran of coaching things about defenses and ways of interacting with players.

“Corwin is extremely bright. He has a great grasp of the game of football,” Lewis says. “I enjoy every moment I can be with him because he’s a secondary guy, and I’m a secondary guy, and so we enjoy talking about the same aspects of the game.”

Every once in a while, Lewis walks past Brown in the football office, sticks his head in the door and tells him how well the new defensive coordinator handled an on-field or in-classroom situation with players.

“He’s really helped the secondary tremendously with things he brought from his playing experience and his coaching experience at the National Football League level,” Lewis says. “He has a great way of relating to players. Players can really relate easy to him, and he can relate easy to them.”

Brown’s playing past and his ability to relate to young players aren’t quite two separate qualities. The Irish defenders say his padded past means something to them. Fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden gets a kick out of Brown when he challenges the cornerbacks to try and catch a ball with the coach defending them. Brown runs drills with the team, trying to prove “he’s still got it,” Wooden says.

And Wooden isn’t surprised that players gravitate toward Brown’s personality.

“If you’re at practice, he runs around. Between him and Coach Lewis, I think they sweat about two gallons a day just running around with us,” Wooden says. “He actually does the drills, gets in at it, works press drills, all types of drills.

“It just kind of keeps us invested. Sometimes you need that coach that you feel like he’s one of the guys that you feel like you could talk to him if you have a question.”

Brown also has shown a penchant for being like “one of the guys,” Wooden says. During the summer, Brown sent text messages to players, telling them to think about different situations and alignments they could face and how they would react.

The question for Saturday is, will Brown’s attitude and the players’ positive response to the fresh blood result in a better defense?

Whatever the answer, the change in schemes will surely be a major factor.

Junior free safety David Bruton says the 3-4 will allow the safeties to concentrate a little less on run containment because of the additional linebacker in the second line of defense. But when asked if that would also mean an easier time defending the play-action pass, Bruton was cautious, though optimistic.

Among the more subtle differences in the defense will be more contact by cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage. Walls, who saw limited action in 2006, added weight and core body strength to help him in bump and run coverage.

While Saturday will be the first true indication of how the defense has responded to Brown, another indicator is already pointing in Brown’s favor.

Early results

In terms of recruiting, the Windy City-native Brown appears to have parlayed his ability to relate with young players and turned it into windfalls for the Irish. Less than a week after his hiring, the Irish landed a verbal commitment from Chicago, running back Robert Hughes, who is expected to compete for playing time this season as a true freshman. For the class that will sign letters of intent in February 2008 and enroll next summer, the Irish have taken an early lead in the recruiting rankings thanks to 12 highly-rated defenders announcing their intentions of coming to Notre Dame. Two of those – linebackers Steve Filer and Darius Fleming – are Chicago products.

Wide receivers coach Rob Ianello is Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator but has ceded much of the Chicago region to Brown because of his connections to the area and with its football coaches.

“If I wasn’t into there prior, he probably would have that [alone],” Ianello says. “But certainly, with anybody, if you come and you have contacts some place, we’re going to use your contacts. We’d be foolish not to, regardless of where they are.

“He’s got a really good personality, a really good demeanor, and he’s very energetic. … I think he relates well. He really relates well to the high school players, and I think that they like him.”

What Weis did for Notre Dame’s offensive recruiting almost immediately after being hired is what Brown has done for the defense.

Wooden sees a lot of the same qualities between Weis and Brown that makes them successful.

“They don’t B.S. you,” Wooden says. “If they see something in you, see a special talent you have, they’re going to tell you about it. … That’s what I think they bring to the table – they’re up-front. They’ll tell you exactly what they think of you, whether it’s good or bad.”

And, at least in Wooden’s view, that makes them players’ coaches.