Nov. 20, 2009
Clemson University has long been known for its rich military tradition, as well as a football pedigree that has included some of the game’s most influential names. When Head Coach Dabo Swinney made the decision to bring Dan Brooks on board in March, he hired a man that spans both worlds with a timeless grit, keen sensitivity, and respect for the parallels that link the university’s heritage with its football prowess.
Brooks speaks with a strong voice that commands nothing less than full attention at all times. At the same time, it is difficult not to get lost in how carefully he chooses his words when speaking of his respect for those who have served in the United States military. That is because it comes from a man who himself served in the Army for three years, and whose father was a career military man.
Although he has been a part of the Tiger family for a short time, Brooks has quickly learned to appreciate the parallels between football and military heritage at the former Clemson College. And while it would be unwise to suggest that the stakes are similar in the military and football, there are strong correlations in operations, interactions, and goal-setting.
While no longer a military university, Clemson is careful to honor its 473 alumni who have paid the ultimate price, from World War I to the present conflicts, on the Scroll of Honor. In 2007, the Campus Corps, in conjunction with the athletic department and the campus planning office, developed a concept to build a Scroll of Honor Memorial adjacent to the East gate of Memorial Stadium across the street from Howard’s Rock. This site was chosen in that Memorial Stadium was dedicated in 1942 to honor Clemson’s alumni who “have made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country.”
The construction for the memorial began in April, and it will feature each of the names on the scroll etched in stone, so as never to forget those in the Clemson family who died for the cause of freedom.
Brooks came to Clemson in March, only days before construction began on the Memorial. He began his playing career at Appalachian State, but was injured as a freshman, opening the inevitable door that took him to the Army.
“It’s been a long time for me now,” Brooks quipped when asked about his military history. “I went in December of 1969 as an 18-year-old. That was in the days of the Vietnam War, so I was going to get drafted. My father was a career guy in the service, so I ended up volunteering for the draft after getting injured playing freshman football. I served three years and got out in December of 1972.”
While many of his teammates prepared for their upcoming season, Brooks joined the Army and received his orders. Rather than representing the Gold & Black, he was backing the Red, White, & Blue.
“I actually got my orders to go to Vietnam and I went to Okinawa to go through jungle survival school, and they pulled all special forces out of Vietnam,” recounted Brooks. “That was the fifth special forces group and they sent everyone back, so I spent 19 months in Okinawa and got out from there, and my ETS (expiration, term of service) was from Okinawa in December of 1972.”
From there, Brooks transferred to Western Carolina, where he played football in 1973. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1976 from Western Carolina, where he was also a student assistant coach. From there, he coached high school football in Kings Mountain, NC until 1982.
In 1983, he joined Florida’s staff as a graduate assistant, where he earned his master’s degree and a full-time gig as the defensive line coach until North Carolina called for the same position in 1987. He remained in Chapel Hill until Phillip Fulmer brought him on at Tennessee, where he served as defensive line coach for 15 seasons until Fulmer’s resignation following the 2008 season.
Brooks’ career took an accelerated path from his time at Florida. In fact, in his previous 25 years of coaching at the FBS level, he has put together 20 winning seasons and 16 bowl game appearances, including the 1998 National Championship.
Brooks credits much of his success to his time in the Army. “Today, no one could give me a million dollars for my three years of experience in the military, from learning esprit de corps to learning chain of command…I don’t think you could buy that. I don’t think it would be bad for every young man to experience that discipline and camaraderie.”
Brooks is able to carefully draw very specific comparisons between football and the military, and he seems to be one of the few qualified to offer such educated insight into those similarities. One of the important lessons has helped him most recently in joining Clemson’s staff.
“Coach Swinney is a young guy, but he has earned the position he’s in,” said Brooks. “When you go in the service, you see guys like my father who might have been in 25 years, but he might have a second lieutenant that’s 25-years-old. You go about learning to respect the position. There are so many correlations between football and the military.”
The concept of chain of command is one of the many military ideals that Brooks tries to impress upon the student-athletes. However, he is mindful to lead by example and understands that this ideal is one of the most important ones, because it translates from the battlefield to the football field.
“I tell my players that I’m not any better than they are because I’m a coach, and they’re no better than I am because they’re an All-American. But when we are on the field, we won’t have time to discuss this. If they want to talk about something, we can come inside.
“The same thing for me to Coach Swinney. I want to do my job exactly like Coach (Kevin) Steele and Coach Swinney want it, but let me go to the field and work. If you’re not happy with it, let’s get it like we want it. You find out the day you go into the service that this guy is in charge, and you do what he tells you to do. There is an exchange in coaching, but it comes back to how your superiors want it done.”
Student-athletes can garner a unique perspective of not only Xs and Os from Brooks. But in four years with Brooks, that student-athlete will also learn how to carry himself as a young adult and how to be disciplined enough to make favorable decisions on and off the field.
The key quality that Brooks carries most from the military to the football field is the idea of dependability. In the Army, each member of the company is responsible for his or her own role, and their lives depend on one another in the field of battle.
This presents a perfect analogy for Brooks. “Whatever football play is called, one guy can mess up any play…that guy jumps offside or that guy drops the snap. Everyone has a part, and in service, one guy’s got the radio, one guy’s got the lookout, and it’s all so relative. That’s one of the biggest things with young people. I want you to learn what you’re supposed to do, but you also need to know what the guy beside you is doing and what the linebacker behind you is doing, because it all works together. You need him and he needs you. You really learn that in the military.”
In the dictionary, esprit de corps is a military expression meaning, “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group.”
Brooks has experienced this military ideal in full force at Clemson, both in the military heritage and within his role as a football coach. He explains that esprit de corps and the leadership’s ability to control this message is a determining factor in athletic success.
“Esprit de corps, as far as leadership and a unity of guys working together toward a theme, defines a team in athletics,” said Brooks. “To me, Coach Swinney is the commanding officer of our unit, and he’s trying to get everyone here moving in the same direction from you, me, our prospects, guys already here, or the equipment room. He’s trying to move everyone in the same direction.”
In only a short time, one of the impressions that Swinney has left certainly resonates with this military concept. And in doing so, whether intentional or not, he employs many of the military principles as a means of discipline, dependence, and other qualities.
Brooks has a fresh view on how the military can affect a person’s life. Often, people only associate military with war. But as Brooks describes, war is a small part of the military’s big picture.
“It’s not all about war, but it is encouraging ideals to young people,” explained Brooks. “There is more to the military than war. There’s discipline, camaraderie, and a lot of things to take away.”
Brooks admittedly did not know much about Clemson’s heritage when he moved to Tigertown earlier this year. However, it would be difficult to envision a man more suited for the type of place that Clemson strives to be. Brooks’ experiences in the military have not only been enlightening for his career, but also for the young men with whom he works with on a daily basis.
Football and the military are both tremendous symbols of the type of character, ideals, and principles upon which this country and school were founded. The parallels of the two could be analyzed for pages on end.
It is these similarities that lead to so much of the passion and intensity for the football team by its fanbase. Clemson is unique in that it can be proud of not only the heritage it shares in the development of the game of football. It can be more proud that it has played a more integral part in the freedoms that Americans now enjoy.
The next time Dan Brooks steps onto the field, it is important to recognize him as a brilliant football coach, outstanding role model, and military man. It is equally as crucial to express that even though he has only lived in Clemson for a few months, he is exactly the type of man upon which Clemson University and its football program were built.
Jeff Kallin is an Assistant Sports Information Director in his first year at that position at Clemson. He previously worked as a graduate assistant at Clemson for two years.
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