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UMass Targeting Don Brown As Next Head Coach

UMass and former head coach Don Brown are in talks to bring the current Arizona defensive coordinator back to Amherst

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

According to multiple reports, UMass and Don Brown are currently in talks to make Don Brown the next head coach of the University of Massachusetts football team. Brown is currently the defensive coordinator at Arizona, where the Wildcats rank 55th in the country in total defense, and 89th in scoring defense. Those stats don’t sound great on the surface, but without him, they’d be much worse. Before he was at Arizona, Brown spent the last decade plus as an FBS defensive coordinator at Maryland, UConn, Boston College, and Michigan.

Before Walt Bell was fired, Brown had reportedly visited Amherst during an Arizona bye week. It has also appeared that he’s wanted to return to New England for a little while now. The Massachusetts native spent his entire career, besides one season at Mansfield in 1983, in New England before taking the Maryland defensive coordinator job in 2009. That includes stints at UMass as the defensive coordinator and as the head coach.

Brown’s current salary at Arizona is around $800,000, which is more than what UMass was paying Walt Bell. So, it would appear that the university is going to be putting more money into the coaching staff, at the very least.

Don Brown and UMass, A Brief History

Don Brown joined Mark Whipple’s staff at Brown in 1996 as the defensive coordinator. After a couple of seasons there, Whipple got the UMass job in 1998, taking Brown with him to Amherst. That first season, UMass proceeded to turn around from 2-9 in 1997 to 12-3 National Champions at the Division 1-AA level.

Brown would only stay on Whipple’s UMass staff through 1999, though, as he got the Northeastern head coaching job in 2000. In the two seasons with Brown as the defensive coordinator, Whipple went 21-7. In the four years after Brown left (in Whipple’s first UMass tenure), he went 28-19. They only went to the playoffs once in those four seasons. Meanwhile, Brown had turned Northeastern around, turning them into a top-25 FCS team (Northeastern cut their program in 2009).

Whipple left to take a quarterback coaching position, and Don Brown was the obvious choice to replace Whipple. He was so excited to come back, he willingly breached his contract with Northeastern to coach at UMass instead.

Brown would lead UMass to a 43-19 record at UMass in five seasons, including two conference championships, two top-10 finishes, and a trip to the National Championship Game again. This time, in 2006, they lost to App State.

Brown would then leave UMass following the 2008 season, to take the Maryland defensive coordinator job, on Ralph Friedgen’s staff. He’s bounced around as one of the best respected FBS defensive coordinators ever since. He left UMass, even though he’d expressed interest in leading the Minutemen into the FBS ranks, because of institutional commitment issues. Those issues, it should be pointed out, continue today in a lot of respects. If he is going to return to UMass, that implies promises have been made about the investment into the program.

Why Don Brown Makes Sense for UMass

Don Brown checks off a lot of boxes that UMass was looking for in a head coach. He has head coaching experience, for one. He also has deep New England ties, which are vital to recruiting efforts and evaluation of local talent. On top of that, he also has experience at UMass, so he knows the specific community he’s entering. Walt Bell didn’t have any of those things, and it showed.

On top of all this, Brown is incredibly well respected in the industry. He has made connections with coaches across FBS and FCS, which will help him to put together a good staff of assistants. It would also help to expand the assistant coaching salary pool, but after Bell brought in what many alumni felt to just be his friends and family to coach at UMass, this is a welcome change.

This would also, given his age, be Brown’s last stop as a college coach. Don Brown is already 66 years old, which can be seen as a negative. However, most people agree that this is how Brown would like his legacy to be shaped by bringing UMass to relevance on the FBS level. Brown still has the energy to do the job, and he actually wants it. His experience as a coach, and ties to the community, mean that he truly wants this job.

On top of that, Brown is a defensive-minded coach, which UMass hasn’t had at the FBS level. Three offensive minds have failed, so a lot of the fanbase wanted to see a shift in philosophy. Very few know defense as well as Brown, which makes him a great hire from that point of view.

Brown’s players love him. He’s known for setting a great culture everywhere he goes. That’s worth a lot at a program that just lost to FCS schools in consecutive weeks.

Don Brown is also incredibly popular with UMass fans and alumni. Just his presence should create excitement and hopefully donations to the program. That’s worth a lot given the last few seasons.

Why Don Brown May Not Work

There is something cyclical about the idea of hiring Don Brown.

It goes like this: UMass hired Charley Molnar to lead them to FBS. Molnar was an offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, but not a particularly good one. He just wanted to take a head coaching job, and he came in and didn’t understand the program culturally. He was fired after going 2-22 in two seasons. To appease upset donors, Mark Whipple was hired back to UMass. He didn’t have it in him, and seemed like the game had passed him by, going 16-44 in five seasons. So, they hired Walt Bell. Bell was the offensive coordinator on a bad Florida State team and didn’t know much about the program or region. He went 2-23 in essentially two seasons. Don Brown would be the return of a popular former coach, again.

UMass fans experienced a rare day of happiness after beating UConn earlier this year.
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coaches returning to a former job they once succeeded in don’t often succeed. Look at Randy Edsall down the road at UConn, if Whipple at UMass isn’t a clear enough example. Gary Andersen at Utah State and Bobby Petrino at Louisville are a couple of other examples. That isn’t to say it can’t work. It’s just to say that people and institutions change. Circumstances change. Success is not inherent to someone who has succeeded in the past.

Then, there is Brown’s age. He might be young at heart, but at a certain point being in your mid-60s is being in your mid-60s. That is going to slow a person down. It’s also impossible to ignore that Brown is only two years away from a Massachusetts pension. Then, there is his family living in the area. None of those are bad reasons to take a job, but they imply this would be a retirement job for Don Brown. That’s not what UMass needs. Even if Brown is there to win and succeed, he won’t be there for an extended period of time at his age, which means there will need to be a transition in place.

Does it Even Matter Who Coaches UMass?

It’s no secret that UMass is one of the most difficult jobs at the FBS level. Since 2011, when they first made it to FBS, the program has never won more than four games in a year. They’re at a geographic disadvantage, as well as a financial one.

Don Brown might be the perfect choice. He might be a lazy-redux hire to appease the donors. It’s impossible to tell right now. However, it is obvious that no one is going to succeed at UMass unless they start to get more institutional support. That means a larger budget for assistant coaches, recruiting, and marketing. It means making McGuirk Alumni Stadium look less like a high school stadium. It means a plan to join a conference for football and continue to expand facilities. Until those things happen, it really doesn’t matter who coaches UMass.