Much has changed since Cornell Brown came to Virginia Tech to play football in 1993, but perhaps the most glaring difference is the locker room. Last summer, the Hokies unveiled an $18-million upgrade to their facilities, and current players now enjoy amenities such as a 15,000-square-foot dressing room, six 64-inch flat screen televisions and a players lounge with pool tables and an outdoor patio overlooking the practice field.
So on his first day of practice since being hired to coach Virginia Tech’s whip linebackers and defensive linemen last Wednesday, Brown was asked whether he was in awe of all the perks these current Hokies enjoy.
“More upset. I didn’t get to enjoy the hot tub or the steam room,” he said with a smile on his face. “Is that the payback? Since I didn’t get all the great facilities when I was here playing, they brought me back and let me coach.”
All jokes aside, Brown confirmed what many thought when Coach Frank Beamer announced his hiring in February. After seven years in the NFL, including a prominent role on the Baltimore Ravens 2000 Super Bowl team, returning to Blacksburg is exactly what Brown imagined when he decided to join the coaching ranks once his playing career was over.
He began coaching in 2005 as part of NFL Europe, and the spring schedule overseas allowed him to simultaneously work as a graduate assistant during the fall at Virginia Tech in 2006 and 2007. He then moved onto a stint coaching in the Canadian Football League, before the 36-year-old got the call from Beamer that he always wanted.
“To get the opportunity to be here, it knocks you back,” said Brown, a Lynchburg native who will also take over recruiting in that area of the state. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s a big shot for me. … Overall, I never thought that the opportunity would occur, that I would get the opportunity here. Just knowing how the coaching ranks go and you really don’t expect anything. You just hope, and it worked out in my favor.”
Brown is still getting re-acclimated to his coaching surroundings, but Beamer believes the transition should be easy just four seasons removed from being a graduate assistant. Brown, though, thinks his main asset will revolve around the way he can relate to players more so than anything tactical.
Last Wednesday, for instance, defensive end James Gayle said Brown has already proven to be a huge help in terms of how he watches for nuances in game film.
“I guess my overall experience, just being an example for the guys,” said Brown of what he considers his strengths as a coach. “Being a guy who has done it, similar to Coach [Torrian] Gray. I guess that’s the biggest draw right now. … The biggest thing I think I can bring is life in general; what it was like in college at this time, what those guys are going through.
“It all comes down basically to the players, how they perform and how they go about handling their business. We were a young defense here last year, and hopefully the experience these guys had here last year will help them improve and hopefully they become better as a unit, and hopefully I can be a part in contributing to help them be better players.”
As for his experience in the Canadian league coaching the defensive line for the Calgary Stampeders, Brown said the strategy is totally different than any of the football we see here in America. He equated it to “open field, arena football” because of the odd field dimensions and constant motion before the snap of the ball. He said big defensive tackles aren’t a factor because of the 63-yard width of the field, and elusive runners are much more dangerous on a field that’s 120 yards long.
If anything, though, Brown’s breadth of experiences should come in handy this season with Bud Foster’s stated defensive goal of improving on the perimeter as a way of avoiding big plays in the running game. And Brown admits his time in Canada was worthwhile since, “the game is so wide open. That aspect does change your viewpoint, you’re more open to different things because it’s a different game.”
Taking an original approach is exactly the sort of thing that brought Brown to Virginia Tech in the first place more than 15 years ago. He became the first big-time recruit to commit to Beamer’s program, and from the moment he arrived on campus, he told anyone who would listen that he hoped to elevate the Hokies to heights never seen before in Blacksburg.
By the time he graduated, Brown had led Virginia Tech to a Sugar Bowl victory over Texas and became the first consensus all-American in school history. So when he looks at the sort of facilities his new charges enjoy, there’s no jealousy. It’s simply a sense of satisfaction.
“I wanted to be a person who started that and get this going in the right direction,” Brown said. “I think it gives me greater pride and joy that these guys can come here and be in this environment, be in the top facility in America. It’s second to none to nobody, and that’s the biggest excitement to me.”