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Ron Brown Shares His Thoughts on Football and Winning
Ron Brown has coached football at Nebraska for 17 years – a stint longer than any other current staff member. He has definitive views on great expectations and is eager to explain why his perspective might be dramatically different than the views held by countless Big Red followers.
Last week, he stepped on the field for Nebraska’s first spring practice of 2008 and his first as a Husker assistant in nearly 4 1/2 years. A former Nebraska State Director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Brown was more than willing to document his personal thoughts in this Q&A with Huskers.com:
Q: You understand this state’s incessant interest in football and winning. Any personal thoughts you want to share after being away from coaching so long and what it’s been like to come back?
A: I feel there’s a spirit of idolatry here at Nebraska. I think people mean well. I think all of us, me included, can get to defining success by the applause of men and women. There are times when I feel that way. For
Sometimes, you have to be careful with all the hype. When a coach comes in to maybe help rescue a program that’s been sliding, it looks exciting and people are kind of waving palms. But if you lose some games and things don’t go quite right, they might want to crucify you. You don’t know if people see the big picture, so I try to take it all in stride. When people come up and want to congratulate or make a deal out of what’s happened, I take it back to the paradigm of ‘How will this whole thing affect the eternal life of the 1.7 million people here in the state of Nebraska?’ ‘How will this decision come back to Nebraska football and the new coaching staff?’ All this that goes on, whether national titles come out of this, or winless seasons even, ‘How will all of that have anything to do with what’s most important, (which is) the eternal life of the people that we’re talking about here in this state.’ That’s where I’m trying to keep my perspective. And that’s why I consider both football and the ministry championship challenges.
Q: Nebraska fans are perhaps the most loyal in college football. They’re responsible for an NCAA record 289 consecutive sellouts dating back to 1962. As a coach, how do you reconcile their obsession with winning?
A: It’s so hard to control winning. I think what you can control is your release – the release of the total ability that God has given you. That’s a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of every individual person. I think as a coaching staff, the real trick for us is going to be ‘How do we motivate our players to release the ability that they have?’ That’s one of the things about Coach (Tom) Osborne that I always appreciated. He never really talked much about winning championships. He talked about playing the very best that you could – the total release of the talent that you have. Really, when you do that, and you make that your emphasis, the outflow of that tends to be better performances. Most teams in college football beat themselves when they lose. It isn’t always the other team that beats you. Usually we beat ourselves. The team that’s best is able to release its talent. It has a certain trust and then releases everything it has. That means your total guts of everything that you have in a wind sprint, a technique in practice sessions, in film study, even in your off-the-field habits. All those things give you the best chance to win. The outflow and the overflow of that attitude tend to increase performance. And that’s the very best that you can do.
Q: Fans talk about winning. You talk about optimizing performance. How does that relate to your former head coach and current athletic director’s ‘More than Winning’ philosophy?
A: Remember when Coach Osborne went for two points in the 1984 Orange Bowl game (a 31-30 loss to Miami)? He could have settled for the tie and that would have probably resulted in a national championship. But what he chose instead was taking that game and playing to the best of your ability to try and win the football game. When you operate out of that paradigm, you may not win every game. And it may cost you a title. It may cost you popularity. It may even cost you your job. But what is most important is that if you live out of that paradigm, that box, in the long haul it will release your potential and give you the best chance to win.
I think that’s where some people falter along the way. You look at the way Tom shaped this program. Strength training and academic achievement are important parts of the maximization of your talent. You look at the walk-on program, which removed the social caste system that so often dictates our culture. At Nebraska, you don’t say ‘We don’t care about those little scrubs’. We didn’t make the All-Americans in the big cities our priority. Tom said, ‘Let’s look at our own back yard first.’ We can create a culture here in this state where kids long to play for this program and give you every ounce of gut they have. They may not be the most talented kids, but they will bring the work ethic that this state has always had high regard for outside of football. They bring that work ethic into the football world and help revolutionize the program.
You look at the two-platoon system Tom set up where he got more than one team ready to play the game. He substituted very freely. A lot of guys, when they came to Nebraska, knew that if they worked hard and studied hard, they would have an opportunity to hit the field. And you look at the way he set up the program in that there was no one part that was going to be greater than the sum when it came to evaluating the total. In other words, there was going to be a team release. He always said there were two types of players in any program. Those who say ‘I’ll do whatever you ask me, but I want to know what’s in it for me’ and those who say ‘Coach, I’ll do whatever you tell me. I just want to know how I can contribute. How can I make the people around me better?’ And he stressed that you take that second approach. And that’s why you had a lot of kids in the program who were walk-ons, who were counted out, who were not highly recruited. Put away the press clippings. You had All-Americans who came here from these different parts who were treated like they were not prima donnas, but they were going to be a part of a team. They were going to put down their accolades from high school. You had a very unique thing. You had an opportunity for kids to maximize their potential as students.
Tom really stressed the total person, including your spirituality. The overflow of that over time is going to be loyalty, a high level of excellence, a unity that goes beyond description, unselfishness and longevity. Coaches are not going to want to leave. In the long haul, I’m convinced that Nebraska gives you the best chance to win.
Q: People talk about ‘The Nebraska Way’? In simplest terms, what is the Nebraska Way?
A: If you had to put one word on it, I’d put ‘humility.’ Humility is not a putting down of one’s self. Humility is a realistic perspective of one’s self, program or life. We have a tendency to want to exalt men and women for what they do, or who they are. One of the things that I’ve appreciated about Tom is that when you take a perspective that puts God in his right place and man in his proper place, you don’t have a caste system. The University of Nebraska football team is a prima donna-less culture. That’s what it was built on. It was not built on, ‘You’re the star, and everybody else falls down and worships you.’ Stars can emerge from that, but everybody understands that it takes the team to get it done.
One of the things that I really appreciated about the walk-on situation was that you were only a walk-on in financial status. The distinction ended there. It ended there because once you hit the football field, you were a football player. That’s all that mattered. A number of those guys went on to play in the National Football League. That’s why you have 8-man football players who have great success here. The kids didn’t come in here believing that they were just nobody. They didn’t come in here believing that they could do it by themselves. They came in here with a more realistic perception of who they were and what they could become. Consequently, you get results that reflect that. You also get a realistic perspective, so you don’t lose games that you’re supposed to win. You look at Tom Osborne’s record, and we were seldom upset at Nebraska. Seldom did a team that had less talent beat us. It happened every now and then, but it didn’t happen very much. Tom had the ability, because of his humility and realistic perspective, to take one play at a time and to strip off the ego. People got up for games better at Nebraska than I think they did anywhere else.
Q: How did 8-man players develop such important roles in the high-powered Nebraska system?
A: They realized where their weapons were – from within, not from the outside. It was a circumstance-free experience at Nebraska. In other words, no matter what the circumstances, if you really looked at the way Tom coached, whether it was people cheering him or people booing him, he was able to focus on the next play. That’s what led to circumstance-free performance. It is all based on who you are inside. It’s really inspirational – I don’t care if you’re a football player or a kid or an adult – to know that if you have a particular skill, you can have a role. You may not have the whole package, but you may have a certain skill that can be brought to the table and used in the playing arena. Over the years, a lot of kids surprised people with what they could do. Even the kids who didn’t get to play knew they had a role in practice – a role to be that opposing team. The scout team was exalted, and we had a scout team player of the week every week. So there was a reward for practice. Again, that’s unusual. It came out of a system that was birthed with no prima donnas, a system where everybody’s important and no one person is bigger than the sum.
Q: In addition to you, five other members of the current football staff were here when Nebraska finished 10-3 in 2003 (Bo Pelini, Barney Cotton, Jeff Jamrog, Carl Pelini and Marvin Sanders). Bo also hired Tim Beck from Kansas, Mike Ekeler and John Papuchis from LSU, and he retained Shawn Watson and Ted Gilmore from the previous staff. What will be the philosophy of this staff?
A: Relentless. There will be a relentless pursuit to the football on defense. There will be a relentless physicality on offense, where players will not only block, but every player will block. When Tom was coaching, even quarterbacks blocked on the backside of a toss sweep. Nobody runs out of bounds. You don’t just run out of bounds unless you’re in a two-minute drill. You take on ball carriers, and you fight for extra yardage. And you don’t take punishment – you give punishment. Everybody blocks downfield. Wide receivers block like crazy on the perimeter. Linemen get up off their block at the line of scrimmage, and they go downfield and block.
We counted knockdowns – how many times we’d knock down a defensive team. If we could knock them down 110 times per game, we knew that we were going to have several of those plays be long runs and give us the best chance to win. If you’re a defensive coordinator and knew your boys were going to get knocked down 110 times during the course of the game, you wouldn’t feel good about that. That was an objective that we had with our offense. We also had objectives on defense that included gang tackling and turnovers. Bo is a turnover freak. His defenses are designed to create turnovers. We led the nation in turnovers during the one year that he was here as a coordinator in 2003. It’s not only your relentless pursuit, but it is a wise and intelligent scheme of mixing things up, disguising things, baiting people into stuff and an opportunistic attitude on defense that will get the ball back for your offense to move. I think we’re going to get that back because our mindset focuses on a lot of physicality and a lot of relentless pursuit.
Q: Bo Pelini and Tom Osborne have both talked about how Nebraska had lost its identity as a physical football team. You’ve mentioned some things that are the result of physical football, but what’s it going to take to get that identity back?
A: As a coaching staff, we believe you are who you focus on being. I really think that one thing Tom always emphasized was that we were going to be the most physical team in the country. That meant both sides of the ball and on special teams. It became imperative that we would not just put that up on a wall as a philosophy plaque, but we had to measure and coach that and stress the importance of being physical all the time. You had to reward it when it happened and rebuke it when it didn’t happen.
One thing Tom said at the press conference when he introduced Bo was that if you played Nebraska, you felt like you played us for another couple of weeks. There are effects of that. It shows up on film. I used to tell my wide receivers and tight ends that every time these teams look at us on film, they better say: ‘Oh my goodness, we are in for a war.’ We want them to have to scramble all week long to try and simulate in practice what we’re going to bring in a game. And you know what? Most teams can’t simulate that in practice. Most teams in practice cannot give the same type of ferocious physicality that’s going to take place in that game. And that’s what our football team was able to do. Get on film and not only be on film in pre-game effects, but then in the post-game effects of what it was like to go in a game against Nebraska and feel the physical effects all day, as well as later on.
Our entire coaching staff understands why Nebraska had a reputation as a physical football team, and we’re going to work together and do everything we can to help our players become the physical team we all want to be.
Q: Speaking of being physical, Bo has been hinting that there might be spring scrimmages pitting our No. 1 offense against our No. 1 defense – something that hasn’t happened over the last four years. He’s even admitted there might be some 1 versus 1 action in the Spring Game. Can you see that happening?
A: I know when Bo and Barney were the coordinators in 2003 we did a fair amount of 1 against 1 and 1’s against 2’s. Tom believed in that, particularly early in the week. We had sessions where our top units went against each other. We didn’t practice the whole practice like that, but we did that a fair amount to simulate the speed and the tenacity that you would need when you play against a good opponent. We’ll see what we do with the practice structure. Bo’s defenses have no problem with being aggressive. Tom’s defenses had no problems with being aggressive. I think you’re going to see more of an aggressive offense as well. We have really good running backs. We have the ability to throw the football, which is good. With our offensive line and the mentality that we’ll have in terms of being more physical, I think we have a chance to be outstanding on offense this year.
Q: Considering the record defensive numbers Nebraska yielded last season, why is this staff so confident that change can happen quickly?
A: Bo is a pretty confident guy and has always said what he had in his mind. His confidence exudes enthusiasm, and it’s creating a relentless intensity in spring ball. I think we realize that when you hit bottom, you can let your ears back and go get it. You’re not trying to protect anything. You’re not trying to keep from losing. You’re playing to win. There’s a big difference to keep from losing and playing to win. I think the staff recognizes that there’s nothing to hang onto. We’re all pushing full speed ahead.
Q: In your time out of coaching, you hosted a nationally syndicated radio program (Sharing the Victory, a show sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) that you continue to do. You also dabbled in sports broadcasting. Realizing this coaching staff does not believe in making predictions, can you put on your sportscaster hat and give us some idea of how fast this program can bounce back?
A: It’s hard to tell. We’ll see how the players respond. We’ll see how much real talent we have in this program. I think we just take the mentality that we’re going to do the very best that we can. We always expect to compete extremely well in the Big 12 North, and this year is no exception. Like others, we have a shot to win the Big 12 North and then play in the Big 12 Championship game. I’m not predicting it, but there’s great potential for it.
Respond to Randy
"Thank you very much for your in-depth interview with Ron Brown. If you really read what he is saying, this is a fantastic understanding to the success of Nebraska football. I appreciate that you didn't try to cut down his remarks to make it more politically correct. It also explains why Nebraska has had so many academic All-Americans. A real demand of excellence, and at the same time you begin to see why so many players have gotten a second chance." - Charles Hughes, Stockholm, Sweden