MIAMI — Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm has a seven-season NFL playing pedigree, a stash of trick plays that would make David Copperfield blush and as an assistant coach twice turned down the chance to work for Nick Saban. In his second year as a college head coach at WKU, the 44-year-old Brohm has already won a Conference USA title and can now boast of wildly entertaining back-to-back bowl victories.
Western Kentucky raced past South Florida 45–35 in the Miami Beach Bowl on Monday afternoon. The odd setting of a football field wedged into a baseball stadium lent itself perfectly to an endearingly entertaining game. Brohm called at least five trick plays, an engaging repertory that spanned flea flickers (two), a double pass and a reverse throwback to the quarterback. The whole afternoon felt like a downhill bike ride with no brakes. (And if you missed Western’s 49–48 Bahamas Bowl victory last year, please catch up here.)
With a career record of 20–7, Brohm will enter 2016 as one of the hot young coaches poised to move into a plum Power 5 coaching job. “For us to be (12–2) and ranked No. 25 in the nation and to still have our coach is really unprecedented,” WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said.
One reason Brohm will still be in Bowling Green for the 2016 season revolves around a bold decision he made late this year. When search firms began calling Brohm this November, he told them he wouldn’t interview for any jobs. So when Western’s regular season ended on Nov. 27 and athletic directors were madly scrambling to fill jobs, Brohm told the three or four search firms that reached out to him about job openings that he wouldn’t speak to anyone until after the Conference USA title game the following week. By then, of course, every job was essentially filled. “Really when it all started to come down, all these search firms tell you, ‘This is how you have to do it,’” he told SI.com Monday evening. “The more I thought about it, I said, ‘This isn’t the right thing to do.’”
With the firing and hiring process irreversibly sped thanks to this year’s early spree of openings, young coaches like Brohm will seemingly face an annual conundrum. Do they concentrate on their own league title games or on interviewing for a job that could alter their career trajectory? Toledo coach Matt Campbell planned to make the same decision as Brohm and not interview with any schools if the Rockets reached the MAC title game. It’s reasonable to guess that if the Rockets hadn’t been upset by Western Michigan in the season finale that Campbell wouldn’t be the coach at Iowa State. Brohm said he wouldn’t go as far as to say the search firms tried to bully him into interviewing, but they made their stance clear: “This is how it’s done.” Brohm made it clear back to them: he wasn’t doing it that way. “To me, I wanted to finish the season and look our players in the eye,” he said. “I wanted to do everything I could to help us win. If I do that, then I’m going to ask you to give us everything you can to help us win. I just thought that was the right thing to do, and I think our players appreciated that.”
Brohm is the rare coach that doesn’t have an agent. Most college coordinators have them these days, never mind head coaches. He’s been a star in college at Louisville and played in the NFL from 1994 to 2000, so Brohm has seen enough high-level football to know chasing the shiny toy doesn’t always work out. “I know coaches have to do what they have to do,” he said. “They always talk about feeding their family. Well, I’ve got money. That’s just a saying that’s overrated.”
Instead, Brohm prefers to stay understated and let his team’s performance show out. Western Kentucky plays a rollicking spread offense prolific enough that quarterback Brandon Doughty finished his career in the top 20 in FBS history in yards (12,855) and touchdown passes (111). He vaulted over the 5,000-yard passing mark this season and set an FBS record for two-year touchdown total with 97. Brohm calls all the plays for WKU and struggled to get Doughty in rhythm early on Monday afternoon. But he adjusted enough with the trick plays and double moves to where Doughty finished the game completing 23 of his final 27 passes. “I give credit to coach,” Doughty said. “He’s a heck of a play-caller, I mean the guy’s a mastermind out there.”
Brohm didn’t shy away from coining the bowl victory the biggest day in Western Kentucky football history. And what makes the undefeated Conference USA season and 12-win mark so impressive is that Western ranks 11th out of the 14 Conference USA schools in budget. Despite the financial challenges, Stewart said he plans to re-do Brohm’s contract in the off-season. He hopes to privately raise some funds to help. (With bonuses this year, Brohm made around $800,000, and it’s reasonable to expect that he could cross the $1 million mark if he reaches bonuses next year).
Reeling Power 5 schools looking to hire experienced head coaches will have a strong crop to choose from next season. Houston’s Tom Herman, Temple’s Matt Rhule, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson, Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and Northern Illinois’ Rod Carey are other head coaches from outside the Power 5 who will be atop athletic directors’ lists. Brohm will be mentioned with that group, and Stewart knows it will be a challenge to keep Brohm in the long term. “That’s the American way,” he said with a smile.
Brohm concedes that if a potential job “hits you right in the face,” then he’d certainly consider it. But he maintains he’ll continue his philosophy of putting his own team before job opportunities in future years. Even if the timing hurts his own career trajectory. “It’s important,” he says, “to love the one you are with.”
And after a joyous day to top off a historic season at Western Kentucky, Jeff Brohm exited Marlins Park with a broad smile on his face. He loved the team he was with this season, and it returned it in resplendent fashion on Monday.