WEST LAFAYETTE — Under the hot summer sun of training camp, Jeff Brohm jogged off the practice field to find his 6-year-old daughter, Brooke, waiting for him with open arms.
Purdue’s new football coach hoisted his daughter onto his shoulder. Brooke playfully grabbed her father’s whistle and started blowing it. When Brohm asked if she’s been eating her vegetables, Brooke grabbed her dad’s hat and flipped it around backwards.
“I’m going to do this when the cameras are on,” Brooke said, smiling to reveal a couple missing baby teeth. Jeff just smiled back.
It was the kind of display that would win a cute kid competition in a landslide. NBA star Steph Curry’s press-conference stealing daughter, Riley, would have been put to shame.
Not far away, Brohm's 12-year-old son, Brady, played with a tackling dummy. Brady is an ever-present part of practice. He calls himself the “get back coach,” as in, the guy who tells players to get back on the sideline when they flood the field after a big play.
He struts around practice with a play sheet folded in half and tucked perfectly into the front of his pants, the way only a coach knows how to. While most kids are picking up a second language, like Spanish or French, Brady is already fluent in “coach speak.” He often compliments athletes from his Twitter handle @CoachBradyBrohm by saying they are “a great player but even better person.”
Almost everywhere you look on the practice, field, you’ll find a Brohm. They call themselves the "Brohm Squad." Brian Brohm, 31, serves as the quarterbacks coach. Jeff Brohm, 46, is the head coach. And Greg Brohm, 47, is the director of football operations.
And then there are the unofficial members of the staff. Jeff’s father, Oscar, has driven from his home in Louisville to West Lafayette at least 10 times to attend practice. Greg said his dad calls him with suggestions “about five times a day.”
Jeff’s uncles and nephews are around. Even Jeff’s wife, Jennifer, was the one who first encouraged Jeff to run a flea-flicker. It’s since become a one-word play in the Boilers’ playbook.
“For me being a former player and coach, it’s hard to not make suggestions every once in a while,” Oscar said. “Jeff would always joke during the game he’d have to make sure his cell phone was off because all of his uncles would be calling him and texting him with suggestions.”
This was the life Jeff imagined when he agreed to trade in his job at Western Kentucky for the one at Purdue. Late in the interview process, Jeff sat at the negotiating table with Purdue athletic director Mike Bobinski, President Mitch Daniels and chairman of the board of trustees Michael Burghoff. Jeff said that having his family around — the brothers, the kids, his dad — that was something he wanted. It was part of the deal.
“That was late in the game,” Bobinski said. “That was as we were in the home stretch of trying to work out some of the final details and get it to a positive decision. He raised it, and clearly it was important to him.”
Purdue wanted Jeff Brohm. It got the whole Brohm Squad.
The roots of this tight-knit family can be traced back to Louisville and a decision Oscar Brohm made about four decades ago.
The 69-year-old grew up in Louisville as the oldest of nine children — six boys and three girls. He saw both the benefits of having a large family, but also the ugly side of what a sibling rivalry can be at its worst.
Two of Oscar’s younger brothers were born just a year apart. Both wanted to be the quarterback and battled head-to-head for a starting job. A quarterback controversy erupted under one roof.
“One had beat the other out,” Greg said. “It was not a great situation.”
Oscar went on to become an all-state quarterback in Kentucky and the starting quarterback at the University of Louisville. There was no question that his children — Greg, Jeff, Kim and Brian — would be athletes. When he had two boys of his own just a year apart, he made a critical decision that shaped their relationship and began to forge Jeff’s future.
Jeff would play quarterback. Greg would play receiver. Instead of competition, the decision fostered cooperation. To achieve their best, the two brothers would need each other.
“We were a close family,” Greg said. “Jeff and I especially because we went through everything together.”
For 22 years, from the time Jeff and Greg were kids all the way until they graduated from the University of Louisville, the two brothers shared a bedroom. On the basketball court, they were two shooting guards. On the baseball diamond, they formed a double-play combination with one at shortstop and one at second base.
But their greatest successes came on the football field. At Trinity High School, Jeff terrorized defenses as the kind of running, dual-threat quarterback that modern coaches covet. Greg was his all-state wide receiver — fast, good hands, but more than anything else reliable.
Legendary football coach and Louisville native Howard Schnellenberger was in the midst of rebuilding the U of L football program. He saw the Brohm boys come through, recruited Greg and waited for Jeff to follow.
“(Jeff) is kind of like those thoroughbred horses, he came out of good stock,” Schnellenberger said. “His daddy was the best quarterback besides Johnny Unitas. And his mother was a better athlete than his daddy.”
Perhaps the moment that best encapsulates Jeff’s college career came during his senior year. Jeff shattered the index finger on his throwing hand in the last game of the regular season. With pins in hand, he started the Liberty Bowl on a frigid day in Memphis, Tenn., and rallied the Cardinals from a 7-3 deficit in the fourth quarter. He threw the go-ahead touchdown and was named the bowl MVP after an 18-7 victory over Michigan State.
But the moments that Schnellenberger remembers almost always had Greg in them.
“When he called a play and it would break down because the tight end or the back got cut or something,” Schnellenberger said, “he could always find his brother hanging around down on the deep end of the field.”
Greg was Jeff’s safety valve, something he continues to be to this day.
A QUARTERBACK'S MENTALITY
Oscar’s decision to make his second son a quarterback shaped Jeff’s life on the sports field as much as it molded his personality and his mind.
Now, Jeff is known as this fiery, aggressive football coach. When he was at Western Kentucky, Jeff threw chairs in the locker room and demanded a “street fight between the whistles.”
Perhaps that YouTube-worthy clip is one-upped only by a famous (or maybe infamous) exchange in the XFL. Jeff took a gruesome hit that sent him to the hospital. He returned to the field with a neck brace on. When an on-field reporter asked how he was playing just days later, Jeff stared into the camera and said, “Let me answer that question by asking you two questions: One, is this or is this not the XFL? Yes, it is. Two: Do I or do I not currently have a pulse? Yes, I do. Let’s play football.”
That fire and intensity was always there. The family remembers hyper-competitive ping-pong games in the basement or one-on-one basketball games in the backyard.
But Jeff wasn’t always the kind of guy who verbalized things. Really, it was the opposite. While he was the class president and a star athlete in high school, Jeff wouldn’t go out of his way to start a conversation. He preferred to sit back and listen.
Being a quarterback changed that.
"He was commander-in-chief on the football field," Schnellenberger said. "He was the leader of the offense."
But in the next stage of his career, being an NFL journeyman molded his sharp offensive mind. Jeff went from being the star of every team he played on to being the quarterback right on the verge of getting cut. Brohm bounced from six teams over a seven-year NFL career.
Any team Jeff was on, he had to fight to make. He beat out Trent Green in San Diego to earn his first NFL job. Green went on to play 15 years in the NFL. Later in his career, Brohm earned a roster spot ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Toretta.
The starter could get by on skill. Jeff had to prove it in the film room. He played under some of the NFL’s most well-respected coaches, like Mike Shanahan, Tony Dungy, Gary Kubiak and Steve Mariucci and absorbed every bit of knowledge that would help him get on the field.
When Brohm got to San Francisco, Bill Walsh, mastermind of the “West Coast Offense,” was serving as an adviser. Out on the practice field, Walsh, Steve Young and Jeff would talk through the intricacies of offensive football.
“I bounced around," Brohm said. "I had to find a way to make a team. You fight and battle and scrap to make the team, much less get in there. I think the ability to handle failure along the way but stick to your guns and continue to work, being a quarterback has been very beneficial. It ain’t all going to be perfect. How can you adjust and adapt?”
Those influences molded Jeff into the aggressive, attacking offensive play caller that set countless records at Western Kentucky.
“During our very first conversation, one of the things we had in the room was the classic old white board,” Bobinski said. “All of the sudden, he was drawing up these route trees and all this stuff. It was like a new language that only he knew. It was pretty damn impressive.”
THE QUARTERBACK FORGES A NEW PATH
Jeff got so used to battling for his spot in the league that even once his career ended, he was reluctant to give up the dream. When his NFL chances ran out, he took a flier in the upstart XFL with the hopes of bouncing back into the NFL. But after just one season, the XFL folded. The league’s MVP, Tommy Maddox, got a second chance with the NFL and eventually became the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback.
Jeff sometimes thought that should have been him. He was the one who was leading the XFL in passing and had the Orlando Rage off to an undefeated start before a pair of injuries.
Jeff did get some calls from the NFL. In fact, three teams contacted him. But they wanted him to be a coach. He turned them all down.
“I was raised a player and probably thought I still could play,” Brohm said.
Oscar made Jeff a quarterback. That’s all he wanted to be.
He was back home in Louisville rehabbing an old shoulder injury. A close friend was the general manager of the Louisville Fire of the Arena Football League, and he was in a pickle. The coach of the Fire had just quit. Jeff was his first call.
“I didn’t really want the job,” Jeff said. “I kind of got stuck with it.”
Jeff planned for that initial jaunt into coaching to be his only one. That’s when Bobby Petrino came calling. While Brohm was rehabbing his shoulder, he had met Petrino in the weight room. Petrino called Brohm out of the blue and asked him to be the quarterback coach.
“I can’t remember to be honest if I hung up on him because I didn’t think it was him,” Brohm said. “Or I said, ‘Who is this? Come on, this isn’t Coach Petrino.’”
Quarterback coach? Well, that was almost like quarterback. Brohm gave coaching a shot.
Now, a decade-and-a-half later, he’s climbed the rungs of the coaching ladder to become the hot coaching candidate Purdue coveted. Just ask Schnellenbger, a coach who once said Louisville was on a collision course with the national championship.
“Jeff Brohm, he’s the next Paul Bryant,” Schnellenberger said. “He played and coached for me. I played and coached for Paul Bryant. So he’s the next in the chain. He got it right through the grapevine.”
Whether Brohm achieves the heights Schnellenberger envisions remains to be seen. For now, Brohm stood on the practice field a few weeks back, entertaining one too many questions from a pesky reporter. Greg zipped by on a golf cart. The sports information director hopped out and said that was enough questions for one day. Jeff had places to be, film to watch.
Just as he was at Trinity High School and Louisville, Greg was there as Jeff’s safety valve. Jeff hopped in the seat next to Greg and the two brothers sped away, beginning their next chapter — together.