When Samuel Baker stepped onto campus at Winona State University, a Division II school in Winona, Minnesota, he was taken under the wing of a senior defensive end and captain. During summer workouts, Baker described the senior as the guy every coach hopes for: hardworking, a leader and dominant on the football field.
“The fact that he would take the time to help a little, lowly guy like me shows a lot about us about his character,” Baker said. “He gave me one of the hardest hits I’ve ever had. I couldn’t walk for about a week.”
The senior captain was David Braun, now the defensive coordinator for Northwestern. Braun, who spent the last three years as the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State University, was officially announced as the Wildcats’ defensive play-caller on Tuesday.
“We are thrilled to officially welcome David, Kristin, Lucas and Andrew, to our football family,” Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a press release. “His record on the field speaks for itself during a decorated leadership tenure with one of the most successful programs in college football. The innovative ways he thinks about defense, and his passion for creating relationships with players immediately stood out during a comprehensive search process. His enthusiasm for the game is obvious and infectious, and we already are beginning to see the impact he’s having on our student-athletes and staff.”
Braun’s character has remained the same in his decade of coaching. He is the definition of a player’s coach, always leaving his door open and setting aside time each week to meet with players to discuss non-football-related issues: their families, aspirations and faith. He preaches a motto that he seems to live by: play for the guy next to you. While Braun may not be literally playing alongside his guys, he spends his time coaching them both on and off the field.
“He’s actually my daughter’s godfather,” former NDSU safety Michael Tutsie said. “He’s a family guy. He cares about his players and loves his players. He would invite people for dinner weekly. A coach like that comes few and far between.”
Braun, born on Chicago’s North Shore, played at Winona State from 2004 to 2007. Braun racked up 15 career sacks during his tenure, including eight sacks in his sophomore year. He was named all-conference twice and was voted team captain by his teammates.
As Braun helped lead the Warriors to three conference titles, his ability to connect with his teammates and embrace his leadership role stood out to the coaches and players around him.
“Dave has a charisma tool that draws himself to people,” Winona State defensive coordinator Brian Curtin said. “He’s really good with relationships and he was like that young in his career.”
Braun continued to display that charisma after graduating from Winona State in 2007. He stayed on as a graduate assistant, coaching the same defensive linemen that he played with the year before. It was Braun’s introduction to coaching, but even though he was now blowing a whistle, it did not change how he acted around his former teammates.
“Dave was the same as he was as a starting defensive end captain as he was a graduate assistant,” Baker said. “He really listens to you. When you’re talking to him, he’s fully engaged: making eye contact, not checking his phone or his Apple Watch or whatever he’s got going on. He’s fully invested in the conversation. He’s somebody I would want my kids to be coached by.”
After two years as a GA, Braun got his first chance to command a defense, becoming the defensive coordinator at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. After a single year, he returned to Winona State, but this time as the co-defensive coordinator. Although he held a higher title, he fostered relationships with his players the same way he had when he was in their shoes.
“He has a great willingness to learn and reach out to people and take in everything he gets,” Curtin said. “He develops relationships with his players, invests in his players so that when he needs to push and get the most out of guys, he could do that because they trust him.”
In his four years as co-DC at Winona, Braun helped guide the team to a 27-18 record before heading west to become the defensive line coach at UC Davis. After two years in California, Braun returned to the Midwest to become the D-line coach at Northern Iowa. In his interview, Braun’s passion radiated through the meeting rooms in Cedar Falls.
“You can feel how much he loves coaching football,” said Jeremiah Johnson, who was the defensive coordinator at UNI during Braun’s tenure and is currently Kent State’s special teams coordinator. “He’s got juice, he’s got energy. He’s very, very smart and very detail-oriented, and those are two pretty good traits to have as a football coach.”
Following his second season at UNI, Braun’s old defensive coordinator from Winona State, Matt Entz, had just been promoted as the head coach of North Dakota State University and hired Braun to replace Entz as defensive coordinator. Filled with championship expectations, Braun’s defenses were always up to the task.
“The stats from the time he’s taken over have spoken for themselves,” NDSU cornerbacks coach Lewis Walker said. “The defense is highly ranked in almost every single category.”
As soon as Braun stepped foot in Fargo, North Dakota, the Bisons' defense stifled their opponents. In his first season in 2019, NDSU held opponents to 12.3 points per game and 138.6 passing yards a game, ranking first in their respective categories in the FCS. The defense, alongside an offense led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance, guided NDSU to a 16-0 season and a national championship. It was not the scheme that created a stalwart defense, but instead Braun’s ability to fit his scheme around his personnel.
“He would run a defense to fit our strengths,” Tutsie said. “He wouldn’t put us in situations where we weren’t comfortable. It may be part of the defense, but he would adjust it in a way to make it comfortable for us, so we can play as fast as possible.”
Braun’s defenses continued to dominate the FCS for coming years, guided by the principles Braun set when he arrived in 2019. Braun never wavers on the sideline, no matter whether his defense just created a takeaway or gave up a big play. Tutsie said it was always the same answer: play the next play.
“One play at a time, one down at a time,” Tutsie said. “Play for the guy next to you. We can be in any type of defense, cover four, cover two, but it comes down to the demeanor and attitude that you play with, flying to the football, and playing for the guy next to you.”
Braun was named to the American Football Coaches Association’s 35 under 35 class in 2020, an award given to an up-and-coming coach to train them to lead their own football programs. After another dominant season in 2021, Braun was named Footballscoop’s FCS Coordinator of the Year.
Heading to Evanston, Braun inherits a defense that has lost its identity over the past two seasons and a 1-11 team in need of a culture change. While Braun has no FBS experience, those who know him best have little doubt that he won’t be fazed by the bright lights of the Big Ten.
“It’s about caring about the person you are and that will just bring a tighter-knit defense,” Tutsie said. “That’s who Coach Braun is, and that’s what he’ll bring in.”