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Don Brown's long and really winding road to Michigan

Don Brown knows he has to carve his own path as a coach. "Nobody stuck a silver spoon in my mouth and said you're going to spiral up because you played here or you went here," Brown said. "I've been forced to make my own niche, whatever that is." Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire

Don Brown didn't recognize the 650 area code that kept ringing his cellphone one weekend last December. His reflexes told him it must be some type of bill collector.

Brown had a group of recruits in town. He was busy showing their families around Boston College's campus and telling them about his beloved home state and mentioning that, hey, the Eagles' defense had given up fewer yards than any other team in college football in the season that wrapped up a couple weeks earlier. The calls slipped his mind until he made it home late on that Saturday night.

"Deb," he asked his wife. "Did you not pay a bill? Did you forget to pay a bill?"

"Donnie," she said. "Those days are long, long gone. What's the problem?"

Brown explained the string of calls from a California phone number, and Deb suggested he check to see if the caller had left any voicemails. He had, and by the time Brown listened to the last of a few messages, he noticed that Jim Harbaugh's voice was starting to sound slightly perturbed. It wasn't until the following day when Brown returned the call -- the first time he had ever spoken with Harbaugh -- that he learned that Michigan was interested in making him its next defensive coordinator.

There was a time when a phone call to the Brown residence was far more likely to be coming from the electric company than from a football coach interested in Brown's help. The 61-year-old Broyles Award finalist and architect of two of the country's best and most aggressive, blitz-happy defenses in the last two years did not take a conventional path to where he is today.

There are many directions in which Brown's professional life could have led him, and this one seems to be one of the least likely. His is a career that shouldn't exist except for sheer force of will and a wife who has believed in his energy and intellect since the first time she laid eyes on him as a 10-year-old riding her bike down Cherry Street in Spencer, Massachusetts.

"Nobody stuck a silver spoon in my mouth and said you're going to spiral up because you played here or you went here," says Brown, the son of a milkman and a factory worker. "I've been forced to make my own niche, whatever that is."

Brown could have been a doctor. That was the plan during his senior year playing football at Norwich University in northern Vermont. He had taken an interest in kinesiology and some of the sciences while in college and was going to apply to medical school. In the meantime, he was going to take a job as a high school gym teacher on the Vermont-New Hampshire border that required he help coach the football, basketball and baseball teams and then give swimming lessons in the summer.

He scratched the kinesiology itch during that time by developing a first-of-its-kind program to get special needs students involved in physical education. The entire state of Vermont adopted Brown's curriculum and in return the government told him he no longer had to pay back the federal loans he took to pay for college. That turned out to be a pretty sweet deal a couple of years later when Dartmouth offered him a part-time coaching job helping out with its linebackers.

By then Brown had caught the coaching bug. He was 28 years old with three young kids, and logic would dictate that he was running out of time to start a coaching career that would lead him somewhere beyond Hartford, Vermont. Dartmouth offered him a salary of $2,500. Deb offered him a year to give it a shot.

He could have been a gym teacher. Deb couldn't place the sound coming through the floor of their new house near campus. A long whir and then a click. A long whir and then a click. Over and over. She was lying in bed on one of the rare nights not spent working second shift at the hospital. She took a full-time job as a nurse because it allowed her to take care of the kids during the day and still make sure they had health insurance and groceries that year.

It was nearly midnight and she was tired enough to ignore the hammering noise she had heard not long ago, but the constant whirring got the better of her curiosity. She climbed down the steps to find Brown watching film with the projector he borrowed from school.

"Then I turned to the wall, and he's got a white bedsheet hanging from two nails in my nice new wallpaper," she says.

The next 10 months were lean. The cable provider came at least once to flip the switch off. The Browns had to choose between a ham for Easter dinner or baskets for the kids. (They chose the baskets.) So when Brown got a call from his old Norwich coach to let him know about a Division II assistant job at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, Brown was ready to drive down and interview.

The only catch was that the new Mansfield coach, Tom Elsasser, had already promised the job to someone else and was agreeing to talk to Brown as a favor to the Norwich coach. Elsasser decided to interview both guys in the same room at the same time.

The trio quickly delved into an X's-and-O's session on the chalkboard in Elsasser's new office. They had filled most of the board by the time Brown and Elsasser looked at the clock and noticed it was nearly 3 a.m. The third coach was sound asleep on the couch beside them.

Elsasser drove the man he expected to be his new defensive coordinator home the following day, trying to figure out how to explain that the job he had promised was going to Brown. The other coach stopped him before he had the chance.

"You've gotta hire Coach Brown," he said. "I've never heard another guy like that."

The Browns and the Elsassers have been close friends ever since. "That was a long night," Brown remembers. "I outlasted him."

He could've been a baseball coach. The 1992 Yale baseball roster was young and talented and completely furious when they showed up in August and learned that their coach for the following spring was going to be the same guy they had heard hollering at the Bulldogs' linebackers for the past few years.

Brown had helped out with the junior varsity baseball team when he first got to Yale five years earlier. When they needed to find a new coach in a pinch during the summer of '92, they asked Brown if he would be interested in helping out. The only thing Yale's current players knew about him was that his voice could echo off the walls of the right field fence that backed up to the football team's practice field. They stormed into the athletic director's office and demanded someone else.

"We were really angry," says Bill Asermely, who played left field that season and later became a Yale assistant coach. "We wanted an actual baseball coach."

Brown had brief, informal conversations with all of his new players that fall and explained to them what he thought they could accomplish. He let the players have their own personalities and tapped into his football-coach intensity only once or twice after particularly uninspiring performances. He won the team over within the first weeks of the season. The Bulldogs went on to win their first Ivy League title in more than a decade and make a rare appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Brown considers that season to be the most important learning experience of his professional life. He dropped into a brand-new sport and figured out how to manage a group that was skeptical, to put it politely. Michigan players, while they didn't doubt his credentials this past spring, say Brown was just as quick to win them over.

"He just comes off as an amazing dude," senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow says. "A lot of coaches can have the hard-ass shtick going. He's not like that at all. He shakes you hand and says, 'How's it going, dude?' Not a lot of coaches talk like that."

A few days after Yale's season came to a close that summer, Asermely and several of his teammates returned to the athletic department's office on campus. They tracked down Brown and begged him to consider becoming their coach on a permanent basis. He smiled.

"I love you guys, this has been a lot of fun," he told them, "but I'm a football coach."

He could've been retired by now. Brown was only a couple of years from qualifying for a pension at UMass in 2009 when Ralph Friedgen called and offered him a job at Maryland. He was five seasons into a head-coaching stint that helped give the program enough confidence to launch itself into the FBS level in 2011. Brown was ready to launch his own FBS career. The prudent move after a career of jobs that didn't leave much room to save for retirement would have been to stick around and enjoy the continued success in Massachusetts. Deb hoped he would opt to say, but she knew by then what his decision would be.

"He said, 'I've waited my whole career for this. I need to know,'" she says. "'I need to show myself that we can do it at this level.'"

Years earlier, in 1998, Brown had won a Division I-AA championship as the defensive coordinator at UMass alongside head coach Mark Whipple. It was their first year at the school and they started the season with a 4-2 record, the second loss coming in overtime against Connecticut. After that game, Whipple told Brown he thought the defense had figured out how to play in coverage and that from now on he wanted it to pressure the quarterback whenever possible.

"That was kind of the turning point for me when I went to the pressure, when I crossed over to the dark side," Brown says. "That was probably the moment."

The Minutemen ran the table from there, and the defensive philosophy that would eventually carry Brown to Michigan took root. He watched open jobs at the big-time programs go to less qualified coaches with shinier-looking résumés for a full decade as he bounced around lower levels with continued success. Then Friedgen called, and he decided he couldn't say no.

Stops at Maryland, UConn and Boston College followed in short succession. By then, Brown's early résumé didn't matter. When Jim Harbaugh needed a new defensive coordinator in his second season at Michigan, he went looking for the best guy he could find. Statistical evidence pointed him toward Brown despite the fact that his defense and his path through the coaching world weren't exactly the norm.

"I feel bad for some guys in this profession," Brown says. "A lot of them come up in the cookie cutter. They're analysts, then graduate assistants, then they move into position roles and on and on and on. I was a high school coach. I was a Division II coordinator, I was a Division III head coach, a I-AA head coach and coordinator and a I-A coordinator. All of those experiences helped round me into whatever I am."

Brown is a football coach, and what he's learned along the way is that he never really could have been anything else.