How Purdue's Jeff Brohm became the hottest name in college football coaching

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Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm reacts to call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm reacts to call during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – As an NFL quarterback, Jeff Brohm played for six franchises over seven seasons from 1994-2000. He threw only one NFL touchdown, but ended up with a transient career that accidentally doubled as an ideal coaching incubator. Brohm can namedrop everyone from Bill Walsh to Mike Shanahan and Steve Young to Steve Mariucci, the meetings and game planning equating to a quarterbacking doctorate.

Brohm’s deepest imprint on professional football, unfortunately, likely came from a short video clip he did during his stint as an XFL quarterback. After a vicious hit left him hospitalized, Brohm was asked why he came back. “Is this, or is this not, the XFL?” he asks. “Do I, or do I not, currently have a pulse?”

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The contrasting football careers – sophisticated knowledge combined with everyman enthusiasm – summarize the essence of what’s made Brohm the sport’s next great Quarterback Whisperer. The Boilermakers have won four straight games, and their 49-20 blowout of No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday night established Brohm as the most captivating coach in all of college football.

The enduring symbol of this Purdue revival has been Brohm’s dinged-up 2004 Honda Accord, which has helped him drive into the Purdue fan base’s Carhartt hearts. Brohm loves Chipotle, drinks Coke with pebbled ice and uses a backyard-circle charcoal grill that Purdue director of player personnel Eron Hodges jokes is “taken from grandma’s house.”

“There’s a fiery competitor that’s the head coach side, but there’s an extremely normal, next-door neighbor side,” said Todd Stewart, the Western Kentucky athletic director who hired Brohm there. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Jeff Brohm. He’s the kind of guy that everyone likes.”

The story of Jeff Brohm, 47, is most often told through his family, which old friend Brad Lampley refers to as the “first family of Louisville football.” (All the brothers starred for Lampley’s father, Dennis, at Trinity High School in Louisville.) Jeff and Brian Brohm starred at quarterback at the University of Louisville, just like their dad, Oscar. Brother Greg Brohm played receiver for the Cardinals, and all the brothers are on the Purdue staff. Oscar is around quite a bit, too.

But to fully appreciate how Jeff has turned into the buzz of the sport, the story is best told through the quarterbacks who’ve defined his meteoric rise as a head coach. The distinct career U-Turns, combined with the endearing reverence from the players, give a window into why Jeff Brohm’s vagabond professional football career has yielded the early signs of a precocious coaching run.

Brandon Doughty

The most important intersection on Brandon Doughty’s career arc from the quitting the team at Western Kentucky to getting drafted by the Miami Dolphins came at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The third game of the 2013 season, Western Kentucky head coach Bobby Petrino benched Doughty. He didn’t take it well, skipping practice and then ending up hanging out with some friends. When he left, he noticed a car – there’s that famous Accord again – parked parallel behind him to block him from leaving the lot. Brohm popped out, and an hour heart-to-heart ensued under the dim parking lot lights.

“To be honest with you, if it wasn’t for that conversation, no one would know who the heck I am,” Doughty said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t have been drafted or done any of that. He was the reason I continued to play football and kept it honest with me.”

Doughty didn’t just keep playing, he threw for 5,000 yards as a senior and combined for an NCAA-record 97 touchdowns his final two seasons. Those were Brohm’s first two years as head coach. Doughty capped off his career with a win over Willie Taggart’s USF team in the Miami Beach Bowl in 2015, which included five trick plays.

Looking back, Doughty marvels at Brohm’s knack for play-calling and in-game adjustments. He recalled Brohm having such a mastery of defenses that he could distill things to detail like, “The Z-receiver is going to be wide open on this play. I want you to throw it to him. If he’s not there, just throw it to the back.”

The Z was usually open, as Doughty can only laugh. He often said to himself about Brohm, “There’s no way this guy can be right seven times in a row. But it was incredible. He was right 95 percent of the time. He just has a feel. He’s seen so much and watches so much, he’s obsessive over it.”

The Dolphins drafted Doughty in the seventh round in 2016 and he spent some time with the Cardinals this spring before getting cut. He’s planning on getting into coaching, where he hopes to emulate Brohm.

“His balance is unbelievable,” Doughty said. “He’s an obsessive guy about football, but he still has time for his family. A lot of these coaches, if they can’t talk to you about football, they have no other social skills. He can talk about other things in the world.”

Brandon Doughty was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. (AP)
Brandon Doughty was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. (AP)

Mike White

There was little about the first two seasons of Mike White’s collegiate career that portended a career in the NFL. He transferred out of USF having thrown 11 touchdowns and 16 interceptions his first two years.

There was a simple allure to transferring to Western Kentucky.

Brohm “was the sole reason I went there,” White said. “He played in the NFL, so he knows what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. And that offense is a quarterback’s dream. It’s not just spinning it around, it’s how you’re taught. Almost all the concepts are pro. We run the exact concepts here in Dallas, but we get into it a different way.”

White played two seasons at Western Kentucky under Brohm, one as a redshirt in 2015 and then the 2016 season. He threw 37 touchdowns, seven interceptions and his completion percentage increased nearly 17 percent from USF to 67.3 percent at WKU. He played for Taggart at USF and said it’s “very clear” that Brohm is the better offensive coach.

White summed up Brohm’s play-calling feel – he terms it “unparalleled” – by recalling his first career start at WKU. Mid-game, Brohm called a route – an inside slot out-and-up – that hit for a long touchdown. Brohm adjusted in-game to run that route from the inside slot based on what he’d seen from the defense. “Some guys would be intimidated or scared because we didn’t rep it,” White said. “But he trusted his players and his gut.”

White admired Brohm’s relentlessness, as he recalled being ahead against Marshall, 35-0, and throwing a screen pass when the look in the box dictated he should have handed the ball off. He came to the sideline to an earful, as Brohm was oblivious to the score. “You always want to be coached,” White said. “You don’t want anyone to be complacent, especially if you’re a 20-year-old kid. It helps you in the long run.”

White ended up making the Dallas Cowboys after being picked in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft. He calls Brohm the “the sole reason or one of the sole reasons” he ended up in the league, and appreciated his old coach opening up Purdue’s facility for him to train prior to the draft. “He’s just a down-to-earth and regular guy,” White said. “He just happens to be an offensive genius.”

David Blough

To showcase his coach’s relentless search for new wrinkles, Purdue senior quarterback David Blough pulls out his phone. He shows a clip of a touchdown pass that the Boilermakers threw against Illinois to star receiver Rondale Moore and then chuckles. The NFL opening week came after the second week of college football, and Brohm found himself watching the Chiefs. He saw a misdirection play that resulted in a big hit for Tyreek Hill and stole it.

Brohm, fittingly, loves misdirection. And Purdue’s version of the play has Blough essentially flipping the ball to Moore while he’s in motion, then freezing the defense by faking a handoff in the other direction. They’ve scored at least two touchdowns this year on the play, Blough said, a testament to Brohm’s ability to successfully crib from others.

Blough’s career has also changed directions distinctly. He led the nation in interceptions as a sophomore, throwing 21. As a senior, he’s got 13 touchdown, two interceptions and blasted Ohio State’s defense for 378 yards and three touchdowns in the season’s most axis-shifting upset.

“I’ve improved in almost every statistic,” he said. “And that’s a testament to Coach Brohm and my time spent with him and his creativity and innovation and how he gets the most out of his players. It’s what a good leader does.”

Brohm does it with hands-on teaching. Blough realized this when Brohm grabbed his foot during their first spring together. Blough was watching film at 9 p.m. after struggling during his second spring practice under Brohm. His coach, who was sleeping in his office at the time, popped in to join him. Blough had jumpy feet early in his career, and to illustrate better technique he told Blough to stand up and risked questionable hygiene.

“He gets down on his knees and I’ve got my socks on,” Blough said. “He physically puts his hand on my feet. He’s like, ‘You need to feel the weight of where you’re throwing on the ball of your feet, on the inside.'”

Blough’s favorite play call from the Ohio State upset came on a third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter. He called an inside-trap play to tailback D.J. Knox that gashed the Buckeyes for a 42-yard touchdown and put the game out of reach at 28-6. Blough took the snap from the shotgun, watched Knox run for the touchdown and went to the sideline with a halogen grin on his face.

“I was thinking, that was a heck of a call,” he said. “I mean, old-school trap, like probably the first play in football ever invented.”

Calls like that have energized Purdue’s whole offense and program, as center Kirk Barron says he’s told former Purdue star and Seahawks guard Jordan Roos: “Man, you really missed out. You didn’t have the college football experience.”

Where does Brohm go from here?

For Brohm, his offensive and play-calling success is a mix of intuition and deep dives into football. At Western Kentucky, he did a self-study of new plays they inserted into games specifically for that week that the defense had never seen. He said he found 90 percent of them worked, which is why if Texas Tech scores 70 one weekend, there’s a good chance Brohm is poring over the film that Sunday.

“I was like, ‘My gosh,'” he said. “Maybe it’s about doing a few things that the defense hasn’t seen. Sometimes they prepare, and if you’re not the better team and they know what you’re going to run, who’s to say it’s going to work.”

Brohm’s offseason study this year started with the national title game. (He twice earlier in his career turned down a chance to work for Nick Saban.) He went through the playoff games, major bowl games and then into smaller conference schools that had statistical success. For years, he studied the Patriots in the NFL almost exclusively as he felt they were far ahead. That’s expanded now to the Rams, Chiefs, Eagles and Saints, while still monitoring Tom Brady. “I don’t really play any golf anymore,” Brohm said. “So, I study the top offenses in the NFL.”

As Brohm discussed his quarterback makeovers, he separately used the word “pride” in detailing how each had developed and thrived. Two of his quarterbacks were reclamation projects who went to the NFL. Blough came back even though he had a chance to leave as a graduate transfer in part because he could see how much better he’d become. “I’m proud of where we were able to take Brandon Doughty,” Brohm said. “That meant a lot that we were able to take him to the highest level.”

Just two years into Brohm’s tenure, it feels like they could end up on a collision course with the highest level. They won a bowl game in Year One, to which Brohm notes after going 7-6 that season: “I’m not going to lie, it felt as good as I’ve ever felt.”

Purdue has one of the nicest facilities in college football, momentum with an elite player in Moore and should become a draw for quarterbacks.

Athletic director Mike Bobinski acknowledges he has an enviable problem, as Brohm will be in demand this offseason. Bobinski said he’d rather have a coach who is wanted than on a hot-seat list. Brohm has always been unconventional when it’s come to jobs. He stayed at Western Kentucky, where he went 30-10, longer than many imagined because he wouldn’t speak to schools until after WKU’s season ended. This irked search firms. Brohm still uses a high school teammate back in Louisville as his agent, and no one would describe him as a climber.

“When I took this job, there were 90 percent of the people that said, ‘Hey, stay and wait for a better one,'” Brohm said. “Sometimes when someone tells me something to do, I’ll do the opposite. I’m not looking to do anything, and I like what I’m doing and I feel good about where we’re at and we still have a long way to go.”

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