Feb. 24, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- After 27-year-old Thomas Brown walked out of the staff meeting room, he felt pretty good about the job interview. So did Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen, who was doing the hiring.
“When we got Thomas here on campus, he handled himself very well, very professionally,” said Andersen, who also noted, “He wants to be here in the worst way, which is very important.
“I want somebody who really wants to be the running backs coach at Wisconsin and wants to be involved with the Badger football family. And he really wants it.
“For me, personally, I’ve got to be able to look at the kids in our program and tell them, ‘This guy is going to take care of you and he’s going to be there for you.”’
Andersen felt like he had his man. But Brown wasn’t sure he had the job.
He was pretty new to all of this. He had one year of coaching at Chattanooga and one at Marshall when he heard “out of the blue” from Wisconsin and “things rolled from there,” he said.
Within a few days, he was on a plane to Madison.
“I had a good feeling coming out of the interview, but you never know until you get that call,” Brown said. “It was kind of suspenseful for a couple of days, sitting and waiting…”
|Brown stayed close to home as a standout back at Georgia and during an injury-shortened career with the Atlanta Falcons.
The call finally came and he said, “When I knew I was going to be the guy, I was running around my house screaming and yelling and jumping up and down. My wife was looking at me like I was crazy.”
Brown’s youthful exuberance was one of his selling points and helped convince Andersen that he had the right person to replace Thomas Hammock, who’s now with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I love his youthfulness,” Andersen said. “You always want a mix on your staff of younger and older coaches. It doesn’t make you a good coach or a bad coach because of age. But you want a mix.
“We had to have someone who could go out and truly be that hustler in recruiting -- someone who can sit in those living rooms and completely relate to the kids.
“That’s what Thomas (Brown) showed me. I had him walk through how he goes through the recruiting process and how he builds those relationships. People have to trust you with their kids.
“Once I got his name -- he wasn’t initially on my radar, on my list -- I went through the process and it became very apparent that he was the guy.
“Everyone basically said the same thing about him -- he’s a great person and a great recruiter. He pushes the kids hard but he takes care of the kids. That kept coming out about him.”
Before Brown completed his job interview in Madison, he got a chance to meet some of those kids. Andersen introduced him to running backs Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and Derek Watt.
“I felt it was important to communicate with them,” Andersen said. “We do that on recruiting trips with the kids (high school prospects) who come in here and we owe that to the kids in our program.
“We don’t get into deep conversations. But a quick handshake and a little eye contact on an interview is good for the kids and I think it’s good for the candidate.
“I know it’s good for me as the head coach to let them know that I’m really thinking about them because I want them to be at least a part of the process. I want to work to get the best fit.”
Brown, a four-year fixture as a running back at the University of Georgia, fit that job description. “That stood out on his interview,” Andersen said. “By that, I mean, he cares about kids.”
• • • •
In the 2005 Outback Bowl, Georgia beat Wisconsin, 24-21, in Tampa, Fla., and Brown was the game’s leading rusher with 111 yards on 16 carries, including a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Brown also had four catches in outdueling UW tailback Anthony Davis, who was held to 79 yards.
That capped Brown’s freshman season, his most productive with the Bulldogs. Overall, he rushed for 875 yards while sharing carries with Danny Ware in what would be a reoccurring theme. Later in his college career, he was in a tailback rotation with Kregg Lumpkin and Knowshon Moreno.
His experience as an SEC player in the Georgia system would seem to bode well in his new job assignment with the Badgers, who have gotten considerable mileage out of using multiple running backs. Last season, Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and James White for 1,444 -- their combined 3,053 yards the most by a pair of teammates in FBS history -- and Clement ran for 547.
“The reality is, from a player’s standpoint, you have to bring your ‘A’ game every single day,” said Brown, who dealt with some injury setbacks at Georgia, including a torn ACL and fractured collarbone, and still finished with 2,646 career rushing yards. “I thrive off competition.
“I think any great back or any great player, period, wants to be in that situation where he’s competing against the best. I kind of know from personal experience, no matter how motivated you are as an individual, it takes other good players around you to push you to be the best you can be.”
Brown, who was raised just outside of Atlanta in Tucker, Ga., was a sixth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft. During a preseason game, he tore his groin after he was brought down by a horse-collar tackle and put on injured reserve. He was waived prior to the start of the 2009 season.
“My body broke down on me pretty quickly,” said Brown, who caught on with the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad before being released and retiring. “It was probably the most difficult moment in my life. Being a kid wanting the opportunity to play in the NFL and having it taken away from me.”
Since injuries were something that he couldn’t control, he said, “It taught me perseverance.” At age 24 -- and more determined than ever to “maximize every opportunity I had,” wherever it may lead him -- Brown returned to Georgia as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
Brown was more than just the sixth-leading rusher in Bulldogs history. He was a legend in the weight room where he was generally viewed as one of the strongest -- if not the strongest player -- pound for pound, in school history; which is quite a testament to the 5-foot-8, 200-pound Brown.
“I was a weight room warrior not only because of my size,” he said, “but just being in the position of a running back. You’re taking so many hits. Every single play, you’re either being asked to hit somebody or you’re getting hit by various guys on defense. I wanted to build up my body like a tank.”
Brown also wanted to be more than a strength coach. He was grateful to his old head coach, Mark Richt, for bringing him back into the Georgia program. But he wanted to coach football. That led him to Chattanooga, Georgia State (for only two months), Marshall and now Wisconsin.
|“I kind of know from personal experience, no matter how motivated you are as an individual,” Brown said, “it takes other good players around you to push you to be the best you can be.”
“He has been a great recruiter in whatever area he has recruited in and we want to get into Georgia and into the Southeast,” said Andersen, who believes Brown’s resume as an accomplished running back in the SEC has enhanced his recruiting pitch and will pay dividends for the Badgers.
“It does matter,” Andersen said. “I’ve never seen him on film, but from what Coach Richt and other people have told me, people who played against him, he was very tough-minded. You knew what you were going to get every single week out of him.
“He might not have been the tallest or biggest guy in the world. But he sure ran big and he ran tough and that’s how he carries himself as a coach. He seems to be a person with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder to show you that he can do it. I think that’s important.”
Asked if he coaches that way, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Brown said, “It might have something to do with it. It was also the way I was raised. I didn’t grow up in a football family. My parents were two very hard-working people and went about their business with an attitude.”
He explained that attitude was “to the best at whatever they did,” which is how Brown approached playing football. “I probably fed off people telling me what I couldn’t do,” he admitted. “That kind of added fuel to the fire. But I’ve always been a very self-motivated person.”
As an assistant coach, he expects no less out of his players.
“It starts with recruiting a guy who can do the things you need him to do,” he said. “Wisconsin has a great tradition of bringing in those types of guys. And they still have them here now. I really don’t have a prototypical size of what a running back looks like.
“I’d be a hypocrite to tell certain guys that they can’t be successful and play the position when I was a 5-8, 180-pound guy coming out of high school. Toughness is one thing I look for in guys when it comes to recruiting. You can’t coach a guy to be tough. He either has got it, or he doesn’t.
“Obviously the physical tools to be able to stop on a dime and stick his foot in the ground and change direction and have the elite speed to take it the distance are attributes I look for in a running back. But toughness is up high on the list.”
Wisconsin’s tradition and high educational profile, not to mention the Big Ten brand and game day environment at Camp Randall Stadium, can have a bearing on luring players out of the South. The Badgers have two Georgians in their 2014 recruiting class: Jeremy Patterson and Krenwick Sanders.
“Recruiting is the life-blood of any college program,” Brown agreed. “You can be the greatest coach in the world but if you don’t have the guys on the field who can help you be successful, it doesn’t matter. I talked to him (Andersen) about different scenarios and how I would handle situations.
“He’s an unbelievable guy,” Brown went on to say about Andersen. “He’s the type of guy you would want to come and work for and stay working for a long time. I really enjoyed our time when we were talking, not just about football, but talking about life and how he kind of operates.”
Brown got a scouting report on Andersen from Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater, who coached with Andersen on Urban Meyer’s staff at Utah. Heater, a former Badgers assistant under the late Dave McClain, also coached with UW athletic director Barry Alvarez at Notre Dame.
Andersen is confident Brown will make a smooth transition to the X’s and O’s. He played in a two-back offense at Georgia and was exposed to the pro-style in the NFL. “He will bring some vision,” Andersen said. “We will learn from him and he will learn from us. He’ll jump right in head-first.”
The Badgers will open spring practice March 5 and Andersen plans on relying heavily on his trio of running backs -- Gordon, Clement and Watt -- for leadership. Watt, a two-year starter at fullback, will get a look at H-Back, which would open up more reps for fullbacks Derek Straus and Austin Ramesh.
“You’ll see something a little different with Derek,” Andersen said. “We know he can play fullback. So we’ll move him to the H-tight end and move him around a little, especially early in the spring. It will be great for him. He has proven that he can catch the ball and he can run.
“With Melvin and Corey, the key is to get them involved more in the throw game. When I say that, I mean in catching the ball and in pass protections; there will be a heavy emphasis there. I think they both can improve in their vision, at times, like every running back can.”
Andersen had his own vision for what needed to happen when Hammock left for the NFL.
“When you’re Wisconsin, you’re going to field a bunch of phone calls the second the news hits,” he said. “From my standpoint, it’s the same thing I always do in coaching -- I want work to get the best fit for the kids and see exactly what the best scenario is.
“You have a list, you have an idea. As a head coach, you’re always trying to anticipate situations and possible candidates for positions. So there was an initial list that we started to go through and we communicated with people and we had other people reach out to us.
“We narrowed it down to the guys we thought would take care of the kids, that was number one. And, number two, we wanted someone to come in here and recruit at a high level and fit in with the staff. We had many, many candidates and we just narrowed it down.”
One thing led to another, and, eventually, it led the Badgers to Thomas Brown.
“He’ll fit right in,” Andersen predicted.
“I’m ready to get rolling,” Brown said.