Compared to what he’s faced away from the football field, the challenge Gary Brown faces at the University of Wisconsin is easy.
Brown was hired late last month as the new running backs coach. His addition was announced by UW four days before the team opened spring practices, meaning he had little time to learn about his players or get to know his new colleagues on the coaching staff before they were taking the field for an important spring session for the offense.
The timing of his hire forces him to play catch-up for now, but Brown is conquering a more important battle in the midst of his latest career move. Brown is fighting cancer for the second time in his life, this bout against a tumor near the bile duct and head of his pancreas, according to a report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“When you’re sitting alone by yourself and you’re thinking about what’s next, you really think about the things that could be taken away,” Brown said on a Zoom call Monday, his first meeting with reporters since being hired.
“Not only football, but your family and your friends and all these things. It’s going to do one of two things to you — it’s either going to eat you up and you’re just going to fold up and you’re just going to go in a corner and die, or you’re going to fight. And my parents raised me to fight, so that was my only answer to quote unquote ‘bad news’ is to fight and to go out and make sure that you do whatever you need to do to try to be the best you can be. Being the best I could be was trying to fight this disease.”
Brown defeated colon and liver cancer about a decade ago, so he knew the rigors of treatment as he learned of his most recent diagnosis. He said he feels great and is sticking to the diet and medicine regimen his doctors prescribe.
“Totally feeling like I’m going to be here for another, hopefully 40-50 years, live to be 100, and we’ll be good to go,” he said.
Brown didn’t coach in 2020 as he received treatment, but he comes to the Badgers with 19 seasons of NFL experience — eight as a player and 11 as a coach. The last seven years of his coaching career were with the Dallas Cowboys, where he coached the leading rusher in the NFL three times, DeMarco Murray (2014) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016, ’18).
UW running backs are getting a taste of how Brown coached those pro stars.
“His perspective is he’s coaching at the professional level, that’s kind of the only way he knows how to coach,” said junior Isaac Guerendo. “That’s kind of how he informed us on that. So being able to think professionally as a running back has been a great impact.”
Senior fullback John Chenal said Brown focuses on explaining why the backs perform specific assignments on a play and how they impact the offense as a whole, a similar tact used by UW coach Paul Chryst with the quarterbacks.
“He’s explaining kind of the fundamentals and the reasoning behind everything,” Chenal said. “It just helps us get a better understanding of the whole scheme we’re trying to work at here. With the young running backs, once we get the whole scheme down and understand the why or the reasoning for each thing that we do, it’ll just give us a great advantage.”
Chryst told reporters last month that former UW center Travis Frederick recommended Brown as a replacement for John Settle, who took the running backs coach job at Kentucky. Brown was on the sideline for Frederick’s career with the Cowboys. Once Chryst and Brown talked, the fit for the role was evident.
Brown put it simply when asked about why the spot on UW’s staff was attractive: “What other place would a running back coach want to be than where they’re going to run the rock?”
Brown played at Penn State and coached six seasons in college before his NFL stint. Returning to the college ranks, learning a new scheme and new players were all tasks that encouraged Brown.
“I was in Dallas for seven straight seasons so the offseason was kind of ... I don’t want to say easy, but I knew the offense, I knew the players,” he said. “We were drafting guys, going to combine, it was kind of like I was on autopilot in Dallas for seven years.
“So in this situation — where I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know the offense, I didn’t know anything — was exciting to me. Because now I’m back into the student mode. And now I’m learning and I’m trying to get the terminology down and trying to learn the players and all their different little ins and outs on how they do things and the coaches and all that. It’s been very exciting. Listen, I’m not even close to where I need to be, but I’m going in the right direction.”
Brown said twice during his Zoom call he’s appreciative of the opportunity the Badgers gave him. In turn, Chryst has said he’s excited for what Brown can do for UW’s backs and the new ideas he’ll bring the staff.
After his life and coaching career were detoured by cancer, Brown said he’s learned to cherish each day he’s doing what he loves.
“It really changed me in a way of realizing that every day is a gift, that what we do is special,” he said. “What I do is special, whether it’s in the NFL or college or wherever, every day is a gift and every day is special. So I think in that regard, it’s helped me understand that when I step into the building, I have to give it my best 100%, because none of this is promised. Nothing’s guaranteed. (You’ve) just got to go out and take the blessings that you have and make the most of them.”