Youngstown, Ohio. Fargo, North Dakota. Brookings, South Dakota.
If you were to ask football enthusiasts their knowledge of such cities, the results would be minimal. At best, one could guess that Fargo is home to North Dakota State, but none of the three aforementioned locations is hailed as a mecca of college football akin to a Tuscaloosa or Columbus.
And yet, those are the three cities from which Northwestern’s newest three coaches will venture.
As Armon Binns (receivers), David Braun (defensive coordinator) and Christian Smith (defensive line) arrive in Evanston in the upcoming days and weeks, they’ll be greeted by not only gloomy weather, but also hundred-million-dollar facilities, a chyron of NFL Draft picks and Big Ten football.
Most importantly, they’ll meet the man who brought all of them on the Wildcats’ staff for 2023 and beyond: Pat Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, one of the highest-paid coaches in the sport, has leveraged loyalty throughout much of his tenure at NU. In many aspects, that devotion has paid major dividends, including turning down countless NFL opportunities and becoming the very heartbeat of the program.
Conversely, Fitzgerald has been criticized for being too honorable to those he knows best, especially in terms of hires. It’s no secret that the two-year stint of much-maligned defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was a total flop; O’Neil and Fitzgerald had ties from coaching in Evanston in 2003-04.
Demonstrating trust in his staffers and players is part of the creed of Fitzgerald. Even when the Wildcats were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak this year, the coach expressed confidence in his program and the people at the helm, on the sidelines and in the field of play. Since Fitzgerald took over in 2006, it has felt like a game of “Guess Who?” to determine who might be the next addition based on overlooked connections and overlap, any slight seeds planted along the decades.
Yet, in this most recent offseason — quite possibly, the most dire Fitzgerald has ever faced, having won just four contests in the last two campaigns — the 48-year-old eschewed his long-held principles. Binns, Braun and Smith aren’t simply acquaintances: they’re legitimately excellent, out-of-the-box coaches from unconventional programs.
It cannot be overstated that all three additions have established sustained success at their FBS and FCS posts.
For Braun, that included leading the Bison to two national championships via a stifling defense; cumulatively, the new defensive coordinator went 49-7 in Fargo. After being on the opposite sideline of Braun in the FCS National Championship on Jan. 8, Smith brings with him experience coaching a defensive line that powered its way to 135 sacks in four years. For context, the Wildcats accumulated just 74 in that span. In Binns’ case, he spearheaded the development of offensive talent at YSU, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, forging multiple high-end draft picks.
Effectively, all three coaches have accomplished as much as one can aspire to in their positions in the FCS. On top of actual development, the triad has experienced winning, championship circumstances and coaching against top-flight talent, from Sauce Gardner to Trey Lance to Tucker Kraft.
Another major commonality? All three are youthful, yet have absorbed insights from legendary names. Being able to infuse a locker room and coaching staff with tidbits of insight from visionaries like Brian Kelly, Luke Fickell, Matt Campbell, Matt Entz and more — plus relate to players — is a major boon.
Speaking of such youth, that very well may be a catalyst to greater ingenuity. After all, major gridiron concepts such as the Air Raid offense started in the lower tiers of college football. Exposure to more contemporary and potentially unconsidered schools of thought can only allow Fitzgerald and Northwestern to modernize, and even experiment.
Of course, the elephant in the room cannot be ignored: the jump from FCS play to FBS, let alone the Big Ten, is significant. Only time will tell whether Binns, Braun and Smith are able to navigate uncharted waters as full-time position/major coaches at Northwestern, a school whose conference features some of the most dynamic players and programs in the country.
On the heels of one of the worst seasons in team history, though, the fresh faces of Braun, Binns and Smith are exactly what the Wildcats need. While not necessarily “flashy” hires, all three underscore a marked desire to add sleeker models to the Ryan Fieldhouse garage.
Whether or not Northwestern finishes first in the race more than it did a year ago, Fitzgerald has proven he is not complacent with the status quo, including with his own practices — a welcome shift to a cutting-edge perspective in a growingly modern age of college football.