When David Braun was elevated to become Northwestern’s interim head football coach on July 13, most fans figured that 2023 would be a trial run ending with a foregone result: that the Wildcats would hire an outside voice to rebuild for 2024 and beyond. As it turns out, the guy they promoted wasn’t too shabby himself, especially for someone who had literally never been a head coach at any level.
A little over four months later, NU sits at 5-5 and 3-4 in the Big Ten, with better records in both departments than the last two years combined. The ‘Cats have beaten solid teams in Minnesota, Maryland and Wisconsin and have virtually guaranteed a spot in a bowl game, factoring in their No. 1 APR. And, Northwestern has accomplished all of this sans Peter Skoronski, Adetomiwa Adebawore, Evan Hull and ushering in four new position coaches.
Effectively, the decision to promote Braun following the Wildcats’ bodacious 24-10 win in Madison last Saturday felt like the easy one. Players were actively campaigning for AD Derrick Gragg to “#removethetag” postgame, and chants of “We Want Braun!” meshed with choruses of cheers in the visiting Camp Randall locker room. That finally came to fruition Wednesday, when Braun was named the 30th head coach in program history.
With just two games left in the 2023 regular season, the college football rumor mill is already beginning to churn. The good news for fans of the purple and white is that Northwestern has already answered its most major looming question — but, there are still a litany of things to sort out.
What happens to the rest of the coaching staff?
Undoubtedly, this is the biggest remaining element to be sorted out in the next two weeks, for several reasons.
For one, several Northwestern coaches were previously hired by Pat Fitzgerald and had been on staff prior to the uncovering of the graphic sexual hazing that occurred as recently as last season. That includes safeties coach Matt MacPherson, who was actively named in a lawsuit and is still under investigation by the university.
Other NU coaches that were not new to the program in January are OC Mike Bajakian, OL coach Kurt Anderson, TEs/special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk and LBs coach Tim McGarigle.
Let’s start with Bajakian, who is maybe the most discussed among Northwestern fans. In terms of production, his offenses have been very lackluster over the last three years: the ‘Cats’ 20.5 points per game mark this year is the highest it’s been since 2020. Likewise, in that span, NU’s offense has generally been unable to string together four good quarters of cohesively offensive football, and quarterback development has been an issue. Off the field, controversy swirled from Bajakian when he donned a “Cats Against the World” shirt in support of Fitzgerald on Aug. 9.
Anderson, who’s been in Evanston since 2019, has the pedigree of having crafted two first-round NFL offensive linemen in Rashawn Slater and Skoronski, plus remains a top recruiter. But, his collective OL units have not met standards in the last three seasons.
Despite its veteran presence, Genyk’s tight end contingent has committed backbreaking penalties in a myriad of games this season, and still is largely not a factor in the passing game (although that may be more of Bajakian’s fault). On the other end of the spectrum, kicker Jack Olsen is having a sensational year, but punter Hunter Renner has struggled: his 39.2 yards per punt ranks last in the Big Ten.
Finally, McGarigle’s linebacking corps has taken a bit of a positive step this year with the development of Xander Mueller, but the unit was very subpar from 2021-22. There’s also questions about the trajectory of younger players and depth: sophomore Kenny Soares II has shown flashes in a more limited role, but former four-star Mac Uihlein has played only 123 snaps.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be a surprise to most, if not all, of such coaches depart Northwestern in the coming weeks; MacPherson, Bajakian and Genyk feel especially likely given their connections to the prior regime. Filling such vacancies will be crucial.
On top of that, Northwestern has acted without a true defensive coordinator this year — rendering the balancing act Braun has performed that much more laudable. With Braun now taking responsibilities as the team’s head coach, it would seem likely that the Wildcats will hire someone to be an bonafide DC, whether making an internal promotion (Christian Smith? D.J. Vokolek?) or bringing in a new voice.
Where does Northwestern play from 2024-25?
Northwestern football and the Evanston community expected to put months of contentious debate behind them Monday, as the Evanston City Council was set to vote on the school’s proposal for the new Ryan Field (which would also host concerts). But, in classically wacky fashion, the vote was tabled a week.
The overarching assumption is that the stadium reconstruction will still be approved, whether Nov. 20 or in the immediate future. But, assuming Ryan Field is torn down after the Wildcats host Purdue this weekend, where will Braun & Co. call home?
With no other local colleges, that will presumably be in downtown Chicago, specifically Wrigley Field and Soldier Field. The Cubs’ last home game next year is Sept. 29, 2024, which would give the Wildcats ample time to utilize the Friendly Confines — possibly for 2/3 of its next two seasons.
The first step in this process is, obviously, the city council’s ruling. Once stadium construction plans are put in motion, though, nothing will fully feel stabilized until a new home turf is determined and announced.
How does Braun prove as a recruiter/transfer portal/NIL exponent?
Since he was named interim head coach in July, Braun has been candid about the challenges of recruiting in light of both scandals and a radically different coaching staff. On Monday, he commended new assistant Skip Holtz for overseeing the bulk of recruiting efforts in the interim.
The ‘Cats lost several prospects in the wake of Fitzgerald’s firing, but have still assembled 10 recruits for 2024 — a bunch that ranks 97th nationally, per 247 Sports. Maybe not unexpectedly, though, NU has not signed a player beyond next year.
Northwestern not only needs to ramp up its ’25 recruiting, but also crystallize its identity for new players. Early indications are that Braun will maintain much of the same messaging of the past, with an emphasis on character, program fit and underscoring the importance of academics. Yet, only time will tell if Braun can attract four- or even five-star players.
Similarly, NU under Braun will have to determine its presence in the transfer portal, which has only grown increasingly prominent across the country. The Wildcats added two of their most impactful players — QB Ben Bryant and WR Cam Johnson — from other schools, but what will be done to mitigate losses at/bolster positions like QB, RB, WR, OL, DL and LB this offseason? Will Braun make the portal a focal point for roster building, or will he opt for the “scholastic high school” model of old?
The elephant in the room, too, is NIL. TrueNU has given Northwestern players an avenue to profit while simultaneously volunteering in local communities. At the same time, how much will Braun invest in ensuring that NU can compete with top Big Ten (and national) schools from an NIL standpoint? That question could have massive ramifications for the Wildcats’ recruiting and on-field success in the next few seasons.
Can 2023 be sustainable long-term?
To reiterate, the work that Braun has done in the last four months has exceeded virtually any expectation. The fact that Northwestern is one win away from solidifying its bowl game spot after all that transpired since November 2022 makes him a prime candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
But, Braun will have to prove that he can carry over, if not proliferate, NU’s bettered performance from this season. It seems that most areas of growth are due to a revitalized coaching staff, but how will a younger/more inexperienced roster perform in 2024? How will the Wildcats continue to adjust?
Also, Braun must take a more proactive role in game-planning in all areas; he’s relinquished basically all offensive duties to Bajakian, largely because of his efforts coordinating NU’s defense. How will Braun work with Northwestern’s 2024 OC to create more splash plays and consistency in a sport often predicated by lighting up scoreboards?
Per The Inside Zone’s Matt Fortuna, Braun inked a five-year deal to helm Northwestern football. That span of time will enable him to develop a full recruiting class and, most importantly, to prove that his inspiring 2023 campaign isn’t a flash in the pan — that the Wildcats will remain competitive in a hyper-competitive Big Ten, and avoid the doldrums of the last two years.