Northwestern interim coach fends for himself as Wildcats players skip annual Big Ten kickoff

Northwestern interim head coach David Braun speaks during an NCAA college football news conference at the Big Ten Conference media days at Lucas Oil Stadium, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS — David Braun answered the questions like a poised veteran.

No, it wasn’t easy discussing the hazing scandal that cost his friend and former boss, Pat Fitzgerald, a seemingly safe head coaching job. And at times, Braun had to be wary with his words because of pending litigation against Northwestern. He never even checked his phone despite his wife’s impending due date.

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Instead, the Wildcats’ new interim coach spent 45 minutes Wednesday sending a message: He intends to lead Northwestern out of a scandal that could drag on for months and already includes disturbing and sordid allegations of abusive behavior as well as racism.

“There were some jokes about if Kirstin could go into labor roughly about 8 a.m. this morning, but absolutely not,” Braun said when asked if he considered skipping the Big Ten’s annual preseason event. “You know, if I’m going to ask our players to stare this thing down and take on this adversity and come together, it was absolutely critical that I showed up and stared this down.”

Braun certainly played his part in the stadium where Northwestern competed for the conference’s football championship in 2020. He was surrounded by some of the biggest names in college football and yet Braun didn’t flinch when roughly the same number of reporters gathered around him and Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who spoke during the same time slot on the opposite side of the field.

Instead, Braun embraced his first opportunity to speak publicly since Fitzgerald, whose attorney has denied the coach was aware of the hazing, was fired July 10.

“I’ve been out of my comfort zone many times and that’s where a lot of the growth has come,” he said. “But I’ve never been this far out of my comfort zone.”

He may never have felt so alone, either.

Though Northwestern athletic director Derrick Gragg made the trip to Indy, he remained out of sight and out of the line of questioning from most reporters, though he did grant the Big Ten Network an interview. The three Northwestern players who were to attend — linebacker Bryce Gallagher, defensive back Rod Heard II and receiver Bryce Kirtz — announced Tuesday they were opting out. Braun released a statement supporting their decision.

Gragg had little to say about the allegations, citing “the complexities of the legal situation that may be occurring.”

He gave a similar response when asked if he felt at the time that Fitzgerald’s initial two-week suspension following an investigation that did not find “sufficient” evidence that the coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing was sufficient. The report did conclude there were “significant opportunities” to find out about it.

“Again, we’re not discussing the report and the process,” Gragg said. “I want to be careful about what I say on the record, whether it’s the report or the process.”

Braun, the winner of two national championships as North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator before joining Fitzgerald’s staff in January, now finds himself in a vastly different position than he anticipated. He called his wife Tuesday night and got some simple advice: Be yourself.

“I thought I was running to my ultimate dream job that I hoped to be in until Fitz retired,” he said. “I honestly didn’t think I was thrown into the fire, I thought I was blessed with the incredible opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of coaching in the Big Ten.:”

Instead, he’s cleaning up a mess that already has cost the university its winningest football coach, tarnished its once pristine reputation and could lead to more staff changes though Braun wouldn’t commit to getting rid of any staff members who were implicated in the allegations.

Each of the seven coaches who spoke Wednesday as well as new Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti were peppered with questions about hazing and whether it can be better policed. Rather than conduct an investigation out of the conference office, Petitti said the 14 conference members were responsible for establishing their own policies to meet the Big Ten’s standard.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten’s longest-tenured football coach, said he will be reminding his players not to engage in hazing.

“I just got done reading a Bill Walsh book about how the sport takes care of itself,” Ferentz said. “When hazing and all that stupid stuff was big in the ’70s, ’80s, he was never a proponent of that. He painstakingly wanted to make sure everybody in the organization, the groundskeeper or whoever it was, they were all 49ers, all 49ers employees, all part of the family, all part of the operation. I don’t know how you can build a team when you’re working against people as opposed to trying to bring them in and make them part of your deal.”

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