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Ron Brown begins his 21st season as a Nebraska football assistant and will coach running backs for the first time. The N-Sider sat down with Brown to discuss everything from the greatest leader he ever coached (his answer will surprise you) to his background in Christian ministry and why Rex Burkhead is a role model. Brown also tells why he thinks he was destined to coach at Nebraska when Tom Osborne hired him at age 29 from the Ivy League, not exactly a hotbed of college football. He describes Nebraska's offensive identity and offers his perspective on recruiting athletes who have an eye on the NFL. He also relates what was most important in his recruitment of Mike Brown and how he landed Johnny Mitchell at the 11th hour.
Q: You've spent your entire two-decade career at Nebraska coaching receivers and tight ends. How excited are you to coach running backs?
A: I'm very excited to coach running backs. My time with wide receivers and tight ends has prepared me. The offenses that I've been around at Nebraska have been predominantly very physical offenses - high demand and extra-effort. So that's part of my nature, all of those kinds of things are pertinent to coaching running backs. For 17 years, I had wide receivers and tight ends in a very run-oriented attack. Those guys had to learn how to be selfless guys, and some of those wide receivers were not the biggest guys in the world and had to throw their bodies around to get the most out of their talent. They had to learn how to be blue-collar people. So I'm really excited to take running backs and help them to develop their blue-collar nature and maximize their God-given talent. You can't do that without a mindset for physicality, and I think I'm well prepared to coach that.
Q: Is it accurate to say that running back just might be the most defining position for Nebraska football and if so, why?
A: If that's the case, it's only because of another iconic position at Nebraska - the offensive line. The mentality of offensive football here - from the Tom Osborne era and all the way through to Bo Pelini - is running the football and running it well. So the running back kind of gets the notoriety for the yards that are accumulated over the years. We have led the nation in rushing numerous times so the running backs are considered a prime feature. But the reality is every position on the football field has enhanced that to be a defining mentality. Therefore, to me, running the football defines Nebraska football, but it takes all 11 positions to do it well.
Q: You did a great job developing Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton into successful young tight ends. Now you get to coach Rex Burkhead, among others. Elaborate on why Rex is considered such a natural born leader.
A: Rex is an excellent young man and what he brings to the table is a very mature, high level of work ethic, love, faith in God and an unselfish nature. The thing that makes Rex really special is he has a deep desire to improve. He knows he has to improve in a number of areas. He's not satisfied and ultimately that's what I want him to focus on so he can permeate the rest of the running backs. I want the running back room to have the inquisitive mind and a desire to learn just like Rex does. I saw that a lot with Ben Cotton. I think Ben has a lot of that in him, and I think it rubbed off on Kyler very well. When you have a room that is humble enough to say we don't have the final answers, we're not all we can be, you know there's more God-given potential that has to be recognized. When you're hungry and aren't settling for anything less than your best, then you have a special room. I think Rex will help permeate that not only with our running backs but with our whole offense. Rex is a servant leader. He believes there's room for him to grow, and he's leading from the bottom up.
Q: Who's the greatest leader you ever coached and why?
A: Sometimes, the great leader is an unsung hero. I go way back to 1980s when I first got here. There was a guy named Richard Bell who became a great leader, and he did it in a way that with his work ethic, he was counted out by a lot of people. They didn't expect Richard to graduate and get a diploma. He became a great football player, and he not only graduated but came out of poverty, was drafted in the NFL and played there. He was able to do all of that because he bought into improving a lot of little things in various areas of his life. I remember him wanting to improve his vocabulary, so he would open the dictionary up every night and pick out a word. He'd go right down the list - A, B and then the next night it was C and D. He was always looking for a new word he hadn't learned yet. He was from California, and we were very proud of his willingness to learn. Richard is not a household name. Maybe some of the fans at Nebraska have forgotten who Richard Bell was. But he was a heck of a football player, a heck of a young man and heck of a leader. Even though a lot of people don't know about him, he became one of the greatest leaders I ever coached.
Q: From what you saw last spring and heard from James Dobson this summer, what will be Rex's most significant areas of improvement as a junior all-conference and All-America candidate?
A: One thing we want to be able to do with Rex is not let him overwork. He's so determined and such a hard worker, there is sometimes a point of diminishing return. You can over-train. I think I've spent more time talking to Rex about over-training than anything else. You can push yourself so hard that you don't get enough rest. Because you are so determined, your body can begin to break down. We just want Rex to be smart in terms of seeing things accurately about his training. A lot of guys don't train enough. One area that Rex can improve on is speed in the open field. He has great quickness, great balance and is as tough as I don't know what. He's smart, and he gets places. He can make a move in a very small space and make you miss. He made a lot of people miss in that spring game in a very small window. He loves film study and everything about it. Bottom line, he's trying to improve his overall speed, and he wants to make better decisions. We ask Rex to do a lot. He's a running back, but he could be a quarterback and a wide receiver. Because of his ability to catch the football and run routes, he thinks there are a lot of things he can do better. I think it's just a matter of honing in on a few things and not over-training.
Q: With your background in Christian ministry and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, what qualities make Rex the ideal role model for all the talented young backs who are on campus and raring to show what they can do?
A: Rex is a great Christian kid, and there are a lot of Christian kids who are brought up to think that a good Christian football player needs to be a good sport that doesn't use bad language, gets to bed on time and doesn't drink or smoke. Those are certainly great Christian attributes, but the reality of it is Jesus has called us to glorify Him out on the field. I really believe the Christian athlete ought to be the toughest, most intense, most relentless player on the field - the one who doesn't give up, is the most courageous player and the hardest working guy out there. He should be the one that stresses technique more than anyone else. That is the nature of Jesus Christ. That is who Christ is ... very thorough in everything and anyone who lives Him out takes on those qualities. I think that's what Rex will translate to those younger backs. What it means to be a war daddy for the Lord Jesus Christ on the field. I'm counting on Rex to demonstrate that by his consistency throughout practices, his resiliency and his ability to bounce back. Any great running back has to have to ability to pop back into shape when your world gets crushed. You are going to get crushed sometimes, and great running backs have to have the ability to rise to the occasion and come back when it seems like everything has knocked him out. I see all of those kinds of things helping to enhance our young backs.
Q: You stay in remarkable physical shape yourself. Do all two-time first-time Ivy League players take care of themselves like you do?
A: Sometimes, you get a wake-up call. I think mine was about 13 or 14 years ago, I was diagnosed with a very high cholesterol rate, to the point where I had to go in and get the heart scanned. They thought I was two years away from a heart attack. I was in pretty good shape then, and I had always worked out. But I really began to examine my eating habits and sleeping habits and everything else and realized that I had a lot of room to grow. I think it's helped me to think about what I eat and don't eat, and then have the determination to work out. I have tight joints and football injuries and surgeries from the past, so I've really tried hard to stay in shape, even if it means going outside of the box. I do things that other people don't do and know what my body responds to and doesn't. I've had four knee surgeries on my right knee. I have arthritis in that knee, and it's stiff a lot and sore. I can't go out and jog. I can't play basketball anymore. I have to figure out another way. So I've found that I can go get on the stair-climber, jack it to the highest level, and do two stairs at a time for two to three minutes. I get rigormortis every time I do it and wear myself out. It's not a long cardio workout, but it burns a lot of calories, builds my leg muscles, my rear-end muscles, and all of that helps to stabilize this bad knee. When I lift weights I don't lift with a lot of rest in between. I lift one repetition after another. I change up the routine each day so all those kinds of things have helped me stay in shape.
Q: You have your bachelor's degree from Brown and your master's from Columbia. How did Tom Osborne find you and why have you never left a state you fell in love with?
A: God has a way to set the timing just the way He wants it. Here I was the youngest coach at Brown University, barely 29 years old and the least experienced guy on that staff when the receiver job came open here in 1987. Gene Huey had left, and long story short, Tom Osborne ended up calling me to come in here. I think that my being in the Ivy League and being young were things Coach Osborne wanted at the time. I think he was very concerned about some of his athletes. That was back in the day when you had prop 48 kinds of athletes. We had a number of those guys here, and he was wondering if these guys would study. He wanted to get a coach that modeled a good academic background. Even though I was young, I think he felt like he could mold me and help shape me. I wasn't beyond stubborn in my ways even though I had coached on the defensive side of the ball at Brown, I think God set up the whole scenario and put it in Coach Osborne's heart to bring me here to Nebraska. It's nothing for me to brag about, It was simply the Lord using Tom Osborne to bring me here.
Q: Let's talk about three highly recruited running backs that are already showing great speed - Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Aaron Green. You've seen 'em all on film. Tell us why each is so special.
A: Each has game-breaking abilities. They all demonstrated the ability to go coast-to-coast with great speed and breakout ability and a level of toughness. They were all highly recruited. I've seen them on film and I do think they are special. But you know what? They're all operating off of college potential right now. Vince Lombardi once said potential means you ain't done it yet. These guys haven't lined up and done it yet. They have attributes about them that could make them great. But whether they have it inside that internal mechanism that will allow them to live up to their God-given talent, we will find out. It isn't going to be just their ability, They are still going to have to pull triggers and push buttons in their life to release that potential. I have to do my job as a coach. I don't make a big deal out of those guys yet because we are operating off of potential right now. My job is to help release that potential and so through time-tested practice, drills, techniques, and learning and all the extra effort it takes, time will tell the tale. I try not to make it about each individual. This is my first year coaching these guys, and I'm still learning about them. I've formulated a depth chart in my brain, but it isn't set in stone. The only real returning veteran that we have is Rex Burkhead, even though A.J. (Austin Jones) has played some and has demonstrated a lot of toughness and is a great kid.
Q: We know the fullback job is wide open, but can you describe how tough and dependable Tyler Legate is?
Tyler has identified himself to a degree at fullback, but we're still kind of figuring it all out. It is a little bit premature. We tried to recruit Mike Marrow a few years ago out of high school, but he decided to go to Alabama. Now he's here. He certainly big enough to be a fullback and has a lot of talent. He needs some seasoning so we'll see how it all happens when we get in the mix.
Q: As a staff, what kind of offensive identity are you seeking?
A: We always talk about being a very efficient offense. We have a number of ways we can attack people, both in the running game and the throwing game. Interestingly, we have had our ups and downs on offense but some of the ups have been in the three years that we have been together. Until this past year, we had been in the top 10 in the nation in both throwing the football and rushing the football. So we have players here who are capable of doing both. Sometimes we forget that. We can put the ball on the ground too many times, and we have had our share of penalties that have been costly. We've been inconsistent and have had our share of injuries. I do believe that Coach Beck has the capacity to incorporate a game that a is multifaceted, but I also think we have players in our system that can do both phases of the game. I'm excited about that. We just have to go for it.
Q: As simply as possible, how would you describe the offense Tim Beck has installed and why do you think it's the right solution at the right time?
A: Tim has a very creative mind, and he's a very knowledgeable football coach -- one of the more knowledgeable guys that I've ever been around. He has a lot of experience and ironically, I think I think some of his best experiences were as a head high school football coach. It still goes beyond X's and O's. It's how you deal with people, and I think Tim does a really good job of taking his talent and bringing it to the surface. Even In our meetings as an offensive staff, he's done a nice job of incorporating people's skills and talents and backgrounds and experiences. I feel like chemistry is very important. Bo did not go out necessarily to put together an all-star team of coaches, but rather a team of coaches with chemistry. That is ultimately what wins. Look at the NBA. Putting together an all-star team doesn't guarantee a championship. You have to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Once you finally get it figured and these pieces fit with each other, that's when you have something special, and that's the direction we're going offensively.
Q: Twenty-seven of your former pupils have gone on to pro football careers. How important is something like that in terms of recruiting?
A: I don't know what it means totally. It doesn't validate someone's career because they went to the NFL. I hope that the young men that I have had the opportunity to coach maximized their God-given talent. In some ways I've done a good job with that, yet there are some ways I can still improve. I don't think where they end up is the final barometer. It's more about maximizing the most of what they have. That is the call of my life as a Christian, and that is how I am going to honor God. So if it takes them to get to the next level of pro football, great. But pro football is not the answer to life. How is it important in terms of recruiting? There are a lot of young men that would like the opportunity to play at the NFL level. As they looking around at colleges, that is something in the back of their minds. I'm not saying it shouldn't be. I just hope that I'm a coach that is good enough and tenacious enough to take a young man's skills and help him play at that level so he can get that shot. Honestly, when one of my players goes to the NFL and he seems to be excited about it, I am thrilled. To get to that level there has to be development and skill that has been demonstrated and motivated. I am hoping that continues, but hopefully I have it in its proper balance.
Q: What's the most poignant recruiting experience you've ever had?
A: Probably recruiting Mike Brown. Tim Beck happened to coach him in high school. Mike, of course, was highly recruited and was such a disciplined young man. What struck me in that process was Mike telling me he wanted to be a first-team Academic All-American and a first-team All-American. We've led the nation in Academic All-Americans for years. Plus, we've had our share of highly athletic football All-Americans. So it was neat to see that Mike could glean that experience from a place like Nebraska. We love it when a West Coast kid decides to come to Nebraska and do his thing. It was a joy to recruit both Grant Wistrom and Brook Berringer. I also remember recruiting Johnny Mitchell. He was a last-minute recruit because Jimmy Johnson dropped him just before the signing date, and he had nowhere to go. He had committed to Miami for a long time. There are so many great stories like that over the years. I like the opportunity to be at a school that has a lot of offer a young man that goes way beyond football.
Q: What does it mean to be on a staff when Nebraska prepares to make history in the nation's oldest conference?
A: It's very exciting! I grew up on the East Coast loving football. I remember sitting underneath my mother's ironing board watching the games on TV. You had an afternoon 1 o'clock game, and then you had a 4 o'clock game. There weren't multiple games on all day like there is now. I grew up watching afternoon games in the Big Ten Conference. They didn't have much in football on the East Coast back then. We got to see Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Michigan State was my favorite team for awhile. Now that we're going into that same conference I grew up with, it's very nostalgic for me. I am so excited to be a part of something like that.
Q: More than anything else, what will determine whether the Huskers are successful this season?
A: It depends on how you define success. If the definition is the maximization of our ability through the integrity of our great work ethic and a total release of our effort, I think we are in control of that. I'm talking about moment-by-moment decisions both on and off the football field. For example, if we have a bunch of guys saying they think 8 o'clock in the morning is a time to turn off the alarm off and not go to class, it may not look like that will show up on the football field, but I promise you, at some point, it will because that same guy who's taking a loaf in bed that morning will take a loaf in the fourth quarter of a big ball game. If we get a culture of guys who are willing to do the right thing from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed and make their decisions with integrity, they will benefit not only themselves but everyone around them. And that's what will determine success. When we can count on them to maximize their talent, we will have a very successful season. I think we've recruited well. I think we have talented kids in our program, and I think if talent and kids make great decisions, we have a chance to do something special in college football. Our potential excites me. We just have to make sure we manage the moment-by-moment decisions along the way.
Voices from Husker Nation
What a great interview with Coach Brown. He was well spoken and knowledgeable about the tasks before him. I got the sense that great things are going to happen under his watch. I was born and reared in Wauneta in Southwestern Nebraska and now live in Georgia where they wish their football was as good as Nebraska's. Wil Zarecor, Winston, Georgia