Michigan football defensive coordinator Don Brown, wearing No. 35 in the upper right corner, coached Yale's 1992 baseball team to the NCAA tournament.
YALE ATHLETICS Enlarge
ANN ARBOR — The month of April brings familiar sights, sounds, and smells to sports fans.
Green grass, beautiful ballparks, the crack of a bat, hot dogs. It all signals springtime and baseball season.
The same senses are piqued among the football set this time of year, though the collision of shoulder pads and helmets produces a different sound than bats, gloves, and baseballs.
Twenty-six years ago, all those sensations intersected for Don Brown when the Yale defensive coordinator became the Yale baseball coach.
“You could probably write a book on it,” said Keith Pelatowski, a sophomore pitcher for the 1992 Yale Bulldogs.
When head coach Joe Benanto was fired before the season, Yale tabbed Brown — now Michigan’s defensive coordinator — as the interim coach. The university said it wanted to do its due diligence in finding a replacement, which is why Brown would hold the position for one season.
No reason would have satisfied a segment of the locker room.
“We lost the head coach that recruited us, and then the interim replacement was the defensive coordinator,” Pelatowski said. “It came out of the blue. We were all shocked, we all pushed back, there were definitely letters written to the athletic director. We went to Yale to play baseball, and now we had a football coach coaching us. It did not seem logical.”
The season ended with an NCAA tournament appearance — Yale’s first in 44 years — and left an indelible mark on everyone involved, including the intense, ebullient coach.
“It was a wild one,” Brown said. “Just good guys. It was a fun experience.”
Brown’s experience with baseball consisted of playing in high school, an assistant job at Hartford High School in Vermont, throwing batting practice sporadically at Yale, and his die-hard fandom of the Boston Red Sox.
The lack of experience didn’t deter Brown, nor did he find the assignment daunting. Angst was on another spectrum.
“Oh yeah. You kidding me? I didn’t want to make any mistakes,” Brown said. “I had a good staff. But when it comes down to it and you look around, you’re the boss. Everyone feeds off you.”
The ability to manage personalities and pull the best attributes out of people is a rare skill. And it’s something Brown can do with ease.
Watch him interact with players on the sidelines and you see an instant connection. Listen to him speak in interviews and you hear an engaging charisma. Talk to former players and they recite story after story of Brown’s magnetism.
“The biggest thing I remember was Don was just a great coach — managing people, managing players, challenging us,” said Scott Eidle, a junior outfielder. “He would say, ‘Hey, you have talent to do this, so go do it, and tell us what you need.’ It was a great lesson in leadership.
“He was my first foray into treating it like a professional mindset. You’re going to go out and do your best, you’re going to prepare to do your best, and if you were dogging it, he would call you on it. It was fair. He was challenging you. I remember off the field, he had a really good presence about him. It was just a good time. He blended in very well.”
Enough so that the dissenters ended their complaints before the season began.
“Right about the time when we were going on spring break, I started to realize it didn’t take a coach who knew the game of baseball in and out,” Pelatowski said. “It took a coach who knew how to manage expectations and provide leadership. And Don Brown proved that in our preseason. We knew we had a leader and someone who knew how to lead a team. That was evident.”
Setting expectations high, playing like you practice, and trusting young players were three tenets of Brown’s coaching. All three remain hallmarks of his teachings at Michigan.
“He empowered me to be better,” Pelatowski said. “He was the guy you wanted in the trenches with you. You would play hurt because you didn’t want to let him down or let the team down. He developed that type of chemistry.”
During negotiations that led to Brown’s one-year appointment, Yale athletic director Ed Woodsum told him that he would inherit a talented group that needed direction and positive motivation. The baseball part felt low stress because of his staff, the team’s aptitude, and the sport’s universal nature.
“It’s bunt rotations, it’s first and third situations, it’s cutoffs. It’s all pretty fundamental,” Brown said. “It’s not like the higher up you go, the tactics change. The tactics are pretty consistent. Obviously, they get succinct as you move up and you try to be more precise, but the tactics remain the same.”
In a team meeting, Brown told his players they needn’t worry about his lack of baseball expertise because he was a good coach and they would enjoy playing for him.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Eidle said. “It was a lot of fun after a couple years trying to struggle to become winners when we knew we had talent on the team.”
Said Pelatowski: “He drew the line, and you didn't go over the line, but people responded to that. He’s fiery, he’s engaging, he’s a guy’s guy, but he didn't let the relationship get in the way of the goal.”
Even 26 years later, Brown can recite, in order, Yale’s schedule. He offers up minutiae about the Bulldogs’ trip to Seattle to play in the Kingdome. They went 2-2 out west, but Brown saw something in the team that made him exude confidence going forward.
Yale won 20 of 26 games the rest of the regular season, winning the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League championship and clinching a berth in the NCAA tournament. A few months earlier, all of it felt so improbable.
Yale was eliminated from the NCAA regionals at Mississippi State with a 1-2 record. The season lives on in a group text message thread.
“We’re all still tight, we all still remember that season,” Pelatowski said. “That was our breakout year. We all believed we had a talented team and that we could finally bring a championship back to Yale. All we talked about was going to regionals. The fact we did it was validation that we had something special. That year was a big turning point in putting Yale back on the map.
”We’ll always look back and know it started with that year with Don Brown as our leader.”
Before 1992, Yale had five draft picks in its baseball history and none since Ron Darling in 1981. In the ensuing 25 drafts, only five have lacked a Yalie. Seven members of the 1992 team were drafted, including Pelatowski (28th round, Chicago Cubs) and Eidle (53rd round, Houston Astros).
The 1992 season was the first of three consecutive conference championships. Yale appeared in the 1993 NCAA tournament before a 23-year hiatus. Brown had the option to return full-time as the baseball coach but opted against it.
The man hired to replace him, former Major League pitcher John Stuper, is still at Yale.
“Hell of a run, hell of a year,” Brown said. “It was nice to step outside your comfort zone, build relationships, and get the guys motivated.”
Brown made such an impact on Eidle that he walked on to the football team.
“Just an awesome guy to have as part of my college experience,” he said. “I see him on TV and he’s still the same guy. His mustache is a little grayer, and he’s still got that funky finger that sticks way out.”
During a 20-minute conversation, Pelatowski spoke in reverential tones about Brown, reliving a memorable season that started so turbulently. When he found out Michigan hired Brown, Pelatowski said the only surprise was that a big-time program didn’t hire the coach sooner.
In a New England hamlet, he witnessed firsthand the influence of Don Brown.
“It was an awesome year because we won and because he ended up being everything we needed,” Pelatowski said. “I remember after we lost our last game, he got on the bus and he was really emotional. It was like, ‘Wow, this is it.’ Here’s a guy we didn’t want any part of, and now we’re all sitting there crying because we knew this was it, and we were going to lose him. That memory will always be etched in my mind, sitting on the bus in Starkville, Mississippi.”
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