Kentucky’s Finest: Jeff Brohm is a Bluegrass football legend

WKU Offensive Coordinator Jeff Brohm holds tight end Devin Scott during a drill at WKU football team’s first spring practice on March 22, 2013. Brandon Carter/Herald

Lucas Aulbach

The best quarterback at Western Kentucky University isn’t taking snaps on Saturdays.

He doesn’t line up under center on the field or suit up in pads and cleats before the whistle blows.

Instead, the most accomplished quarterback with the Topper football program spends game day on the sideline helping to call the shots for the guys on the turf.

Jeff Brohm, offensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the WKU football team, has spent decades earning respect on the playing field and on the sidelines. The Louisville native and University of Louisville product has coached and performed at the highest levels of football since he started to make his name as a legend at Trinity High School.

Louisville legend

Jeff Brohm, born in Louisville in 1971, was the middle son in one of the most famous families in the long history of Kentucky football.

Jeff’s father, Oscar Brohm, played quarterback for the University of Louisville in the late 1960s and started a family tradition that would continue into future generations. Louisville — a school that had produced quarterback and NFL legend Johnny Unitas in the early 1950s — was the hometown school for Oscar and his three sons and the school of choice when it came time for each of them to choose a college to attend. It’s a tradition that continues in the Brohm family to this day — Jeff’s cousin Luke Brohm is spending this season playing fullback for the Cardinals.

Even before he put on the red and black, though, Jeff Brohm was a well-known Louisville commodity thanks to his spectacular career wearing the green and white of Trinity High School.

Brohm did it all during his time in high school. In 1989, his senior year, Brohm was president of his senior class, starting quarterback for Trinity’s state championship-winning team (he also won Kentucky’s Mr. Football award), leading scorer as a point guard for the basketball team, and the Shamrock baseball team’s starting shortstop and leading hitter.

“There were just great people throughout the school that taught you how to go about doing things the right way on the field and off the field, how to go about being a worker, how to go about being a team player and putting the team and the school first,” Brohm said about his years at Trinity. “Really it was as good of experience I could have had in my four years in high school.”

Dennis Lampley was the coach of Trinity’s football team during Brohm’s high school years and currently serves as the school’s director of athletics.

“He’s one person that can do about anything — he can run one direction, come back off of it, throw it or he can out-run you,” Lampley said about Brohm. “He was just an excellent athlete. I don’t know if, in the time I’ve been here, that I’ve seen one better than what he was during that time, and he coaches the same way.”

Lampley’s football program was one of the best in the state before Brohm started a game, having won eight state championships before his senior season, but the program has propelled to the ranks of the best in the nation since he graduated from the school in 1989. Brohm’s senior-season title was the first of three for the Shamrocks from 1988-90, and the school has now won 21 state championships, including recognition from Sports Illustrated as the best high school football team in the country in 2011.

Lampley said Brohm’s winning ways on the field — he was later named the Kentucky High School Player of the Decade for the 1980s — and respectable ways off of it helped vault the football program to become arguably the best in the state in years since.

“He was just so good for this program and he fit right in with us, but the big thing was he was very much of a family young man,” he said. “He was big with the family, and I think that’s a big reason why we always said that Trinity is our family. You might beat us on the field somewhere but you’re not going to mess us up, because we are a family.”

Family means a lot to Brohm. Family is what convinced him to come back to Kentucky as a coach in later years, and family was the key reason he turned down job offers from the University of Alabama during his time as an assistant coach at Louisville.

Family is also what convinced Brohm to attend the University of Louisville.

Jeff’s older brother Greg Brohm, another former Trinity standout, had joined the Cardinals as a wide receiver a couple of years before Jeff graduated.

His presence, along with Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger’s championship history, made staying home an easy decision.

“I was lucky enough to be recruited by a lot of big schools,” Brohm said about his choice. “The fact that coach Schnellenberger was at Louisville and his experience of developing quarterbacks and winning championships at the collegiate and professional level was a big reason.

“The second reason was being able to play with my brother and be around family and sharing the experience with them. It’s great to excel in athletics, but when you have people around you that you know and love that have been there throughout your life makes it even more fun.”

Football wasn’t Brohm’s only hobby during his time at Louisville, as he spent the summers of 1990 and 1991 playing minor league baseball after being drafted by the Cleveland Indians. But Louisville was where Brohm discovered football was his true calling.

As the Cardinals’ starting quarterback and Most Valuable Player during the 1992 and 1993 seasons, he set many marks that still stand in the Louisville record books. His 38 total touchdown passes rank as fifth-best in school history, his 6,430 total offensive yards rank sixth, and his MVP performance with an injured hand in a win in the 1993 Liberty Bowl ranks as one of the most memorable games in Cardinal football history.

Brohm’s retired No. 11 Cardinal jersey now hangs in the rafters of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

NFL Journeyman

Brohm left Louisville in 1993 as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in program history. While the Cardinals have seen greater heights with different quarterbacks in years since, he helped the fledgling program find newfound respect entering the 1990s.

The next step in his journey was the big stage — while he went unclaimed in the NFL Draft, Brohm joined the San Diego Chargers in 1994 and was a part of their run to Super Bowl XXIX, where the Chargers fell to the San Francisco 49ers.

Over the course of his seven years in the League, Brohm played for six teams. He earned his most significant playing time during eight games in two seasons for San Francisco, where he completed 37-of-58 passes for one touchdown and one interception. After one season with the XFL’s Orlando Rage in 2001, his playing career was over.

While competing at the next level was an important step, Brohm said he learned the most in his time in the NFL from the pressure he was under.

“I was in environments where I had to come in and make the team,” he said. “Nothing was given to me. I wasn’t a high-round draft pick where they threw a lot of money at me and I knew I was going to make the team — I had to fight my way every year to make the team.

“I was able to squeeze seven years out of the NFL just fighting my way on the roster and performing when I got the chance. It taught me how to work hard and achieve goals around great players, doing things the right way, and just finding a way to win.”

Brohm made the cut for the Chargers by beating Trent Green, a future Pro Bowl quarterback and San Diego’s draft pick from the year before. He earned his spot on the 49ers by beating out Gino Torretta, a former Heisman Trophy winner.

While he spent a lot of his time in the NFL on the sideline, Brohm said he considered earning the respect of fellow professional athletes was one of his greatest accomplishments.

“I remember coming out of a preseason game and I brought us back to tie the game and really win it at the end of regulation — we missed the extra point and it went to overtime, and I brought us back to a win on the last play of the game,” Brohm recalled from his days at San Francisco. “Kind of from there, the players respected me and gave me nicknames. They liked the way I worked. They called me ‘Cadillac,’ or ‘The Brohminator’ — there were a lot of good things that came about there just because they knew that I was a worker.

“I kind of came from the back of the pack and fought my way in and won and fought my way up to the backup job for a couple of years there and really kind of earned the respect on the field. That meant a lot to me.”

Coach Brohm

Even when he was excelling on the field at Trinity, Lampley could see coaching potential in Jeff Brohm’s future.

“He’s so intelligent that he could get himself in and out of trouble,” Lampley said. “You didn’t have to tell him two times what we were trying to achieve or how we were going to do it — how we’re going to set up our offense or how we were going to attack. He’s just that type of person.”

After his final playing season ended with a shoulder injury, Brohm, who had held the top quarterback rating in the XFL at the time, put down the pads and picked up a clipboard. His journey as a professional player was over, but his time as a football coach was just beginning.

His first coaching job came at his alma mater. Louisville, looking to replace former quarterback and three-time Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year Dave Ragone, hired Brohm as its quarterbacks coach to tutor new starter Stefan LeFors.

Brohm wasn’t the only Cardinal coach looking to make a name for himself. Bobby Petrino had been hired as Louisville’s head coach in 2003, his first head coaching position. He and Petrino would go on to set many school offensive records in their first coaching stints together.

Under Brohm’s direction, LeFors flourished. Relatively unknown nationally coming into the year, LeFors finished the season leading the NCAA in passing efficiency and completion percentage.

Brohm saved his best work for Louisville’s next quarterback, though — Jeff’s younger brother Brian took over as Louisville’s full-time starter in 2005.

Brian Brohm had followed his older brothers’ footsteps. A three-time state champion quarterback at Trinity, Brian was considered one of the top high school recruits in the country when he chose to go to Louisville, his hometown school, just like Jeff. He was so coveted coming out of high school that he even appeared on the cover of a 2002 Sports Illustrated issue.

“I wanted to try and help him along the way as much as I could to achieve his goals,” Jeff Brohm said of his brother. “In college when I coached him with coach Petrino, we achieved a lot of goals. We won a lot of games, bowl games, he put up great numbers, we won the Orange Bowl, and I like to think I helped him along the way to achieve those goals and I was a difference in his life. That meant a lot to me. It’s one thing to achieve things and it’s another to be able to give back to people that you love or know or you’re related to.”

As the wins piled up — Louisville went 11-1 in 2004 and 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win in 2006 when Brohm served as quarterbacks coach — other schools came calling. Petrino left the Cardinals to take over as coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, and Steve Kragthorpe was hired from Tulsa to lead the program.

Brohm stayed with his brother, though, turning down job offers from other schools such as Alabama to coach Brian through his senior season.

“I didn’t want to just leave him, I wanted to help him as much as I could,” he said. “I knew how important playing was for me — even coaching, I ain’t gonna lie, I loved playing more, and I wanted to make sure he accomplished everything he could.”

Jeff Brohm helped Brian break the Big East Conference’s all-time passing yardage record on his way to a 24-9 record as a starter. Brian was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

He bounced around the NCAA ranks for a few years after leaving Louisville in 2008. Jeff Brohm spent time as an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic, Illinois and Alabama-Birmingham, before being hired at WKU as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in January 2013.

Brohm has served as right-hand man to WKU’s current coach, Bobby Petrino, over the course of the first half of the season, helping to call the plays and manage a group of quarterbacks that have seen their fair share of highs and lows through the first six games.

Also in his first year with the Toppers, Petrino said hiring Brohm, someone he worked so well with in the past, was an easy call.

“That’s the great thing about Jeff and I being together again is that we know each other well,” Petrino said. “He’s coached some great quarterbacks, he played the position — I’ve got the ultimate respect for his input and what he has to say.”

Respect was the fist thing Brohm brought up when he began to talk about Petrino.

“We have a great deal of mutual respect for each other,” Brohm said. “He’s, in my opinion, a winner. He knows how to win, he knows how to motivate, he’s a worker, and he’s going to do everything he can to not only get the most out of his players but to try to create winners on the field and off the field.”

Halfway through their first season with the Toppers, Petrino and Brohm have WKU sitting at 4-2. The Toppers currently lead the Sun Belt Conference in total offense and feature the top rushing threat in the NCAA in senior running back Antonio Andrews.

Now that he’s coaching in his home state and back around his family and the people that raised him, Brohm said he’s holding himself and his coaching capabilities to a higher standard.

“Any time you can coach here in your home state, it’s a little more important to you than when you’re just coaching somewhere else,” he said. “It’s important to me. I want to come here and help develop this team into a championship team and take steps every year to achieve that.”