In 27 years as a football coach, Mitch Browning has done a little bit of everything.
He's coached every position except defensive line.
He's helped struggling programs at Kent State, Kansas and Minnesota reach new heights.
He's presided over offenses that set conference and school records.
He's coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Mid-American Conference, Big 12, Big Ten and Big East.
He's personally recruited 20 future NFL players, including two first-round draft choices at schools - Minnesota and Kansas - where first-rounders aren't exactly common.
This season, though, the 52-year-old Browning just might be one of the most over-qualified graduate assistants in the history of college football.
"It's unbelievable," says UT offensive lineman Jacques McClendon. "The privilege we have to have him come out and want to coach us as a graduate assistant, that's something we just have to take advantage of."
Browning, who spent 2008 as the offensive coordinator at Syracuse, turned down other opportunities during the offseason and instead chose a job as a graduate assistant at Tennessee.
Browning, a 2003 finalist for the Broyles Award as one of the nation's top assistant coaches, called UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who he coached for at North Carolina State 1980-81, about a possible spot on the staff. Due a one-year buyout from Syracuse, Browning decided to spend a year learning from UT's new coaching staff and picking up some new wrinkles from Lane Kiffin's pro-style offense.
"At the end of the day, I didn't want to take a job just to take a job," Browning said. "I wanted to take something I could get excited about. The Southeastern Conference always intrigued me. Tennessee's obviously a great program and the Southeastern Conference is a great conference. Probably the best conference in the country. At the end of the day, that was something that excited me."
Browning, in turn, spent his spring exciting UT's players, particularly on the offensive line.
A favorite pupil was converted tight end Aaron Douglas, who made the move to offensive tackle this spring. During practice, Douglas often made a beeline for Browning after reaching the sideline or finishing a drill for plenty of one-on-one instruction.
"In his case, he's a young player that made a position change. He needed a little more. But he's going to be an awful good football player," Browning said. "He's high-energy, he's got talent. He's tough, wants to be a good football player. Willing to do whatever it takes."
That pretty well describes Browning's coaching philosophy.
Knowing that different players need different approaches, Browning wants to find the approach for each of UT's offensive linemen, which is where he spent the bulk of his time during spring practice.
"It's an emotional game, an intense game. Obviously your approach has to be," Browning said. "It's hard to play this game and be good at it without enthusiasm. You have to have enthusiasm. Guys have to play and practice with it. I don't know. Every guy's different. Some guys need repetition. Some guys don't. Some guys need more one-on-one work on the chalkboard, the other guys need repetition on the field. Whatever it takes."
Browning's resume indicates he knows which buttons to push and the right plays to call - particularly if it's a running play.
In his lone season at Syracuse, Browning helped Curtis Brinkley become the Orange's first 1,000-yard rusher in five seasons. At Minnesota, the Gophers produced a 1,000-yard rusher eight consecutive seasons during Browning's tenure.
Browning's Minnesota offense set a Big Ten record by becoming the first team to rush for 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. For perspective, Tennessee has rushed for more than 3,000 yards in a season only once, in 1951, the year UT won its first of two consensus national championships.
From 2003-2005 – near the end of his seven seasons as offensive coordinator and co-offensive coordinator at Minnesota - the Gophers had not one but two different backs rush for at least 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
Future pros Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney each topped 1,000 yards in 2003 and 2004. Then in 2005, Maroney and Gary Russell, another future NFL back, each topped 1,000 yards and combined for nearly 2,800 yards between them that season.
The success didn't end on the ground, though.
The Gophers made NCAA history by rushing for at least 2,000 yards and throwing for at least 2,000 yards in each season of Browning's tenure.
Under Browning's watch, quarterback Bryan Cupito became the school's all-time leading passer, and during one five-season span, the Gophers allowed 60 sacks - 35 fewer than the next-best team in the Big Ten (Northwestern) during that same span.
"Mitch was very valuable for us because he has so much history in coaching up front and he's been around a lot of great offenses and a lot of great run games. And he's been a coordinator as well," Lane Kiffin said. "To bring that expertise to your staff is very valuable to us, especially when we have a few young coaches on offense. He's been very important to us."
Browning's history at Minnesota, and his reputation for a strong, physical running game, isn't lost on McClendon.
"He's brought that physical emphasis to us," McClendon said. "He's trying to lead us in the right direction. We kind of got off track, but this coaching staff plus Coach Browning - all the athletes he had, especially at Minnesota, that Maroney-Barber offense they had - they're bringing that to us. I think we're going to be much more physical next year."
And well-coached, both in terms of quality and quantity.
In past seasons, UT's offensive line was used to hearing more than one voice on the practice field. Most recently, it was offensive line coach Greg Adkins, now at Syracuse, and former coach Phillip Fulmer, himself a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach.
This year, though, the Vols have Browning in addition to offensive coordinator and line coach Jim Chaney and tackles and tight ends coach James Cregg, both of whom came to Tennessee from the NFL.
"We got the Three Horsemen, man," McClendon said. "You've got to listen to them every which way. You got to listen here and listen there. That's one thing we've found out is that there's such a focus on the offensive line."
As another experienced voice on UT's coaching staff, Browning is helping sharpen that focus. He's also expanding his horizons for the future.
"There's a thousand ways to skin a cat, as Monte used to say. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is getting it skinned," Browning said. "We had a lot of success offensively at Minnesota and at Kansas. But we were in a different system. Now I'm learning a different way of doing things. At the end of the day, it will be good."
Browning's offenses ran a predominantly zone scheme, as does Lane Kiffin's. But for the most part, the similarities end there. The fundamentals and philosophy were different in his previous stops, Browning said.
"The bottom line is whether or not you get it done and making it work," he says.
Like the rest of UT's new coaching staff, the work has barely stopped since Browning arrived in Knoxville. As a graduate assistant, he can't go on the road to recruit but he nonetheless helps evaluate prospects and prepare recruiting materials. He also has strong connections to Ohio and the Midwest as well, something Tennessee's staff will surely benefit from this year.
After the upcoming season ends, Browning hopes to take what he learns from UT's staff and - combined with that lengthy coaching resume - land a job as a coordinator or perhaps his first head-coaching job.
But for now, Browning said he's trying to help Lane Kiffin any way he can and enjoying the chance to coach at a program with a winning history like Tennessee while he's here.
"I'm excited to be here," he said. "(Kansas and Minnesota) are two programs I would consider 'have-not' programs. We won at both of them. Now all of a sudden, I'm at a have program. Tennessee's what I would consider a 'have' program.
"You've got all the tools and resources here to be successful and to play for championships and be in position where you ought to be coaching and playing for not only Southeastern Conference championships, but national championships. I'm anxious to experience it. At the end of the year, see where it takes me. See what happens."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.